Animal Cognition

, Volume 14, Issue 1, pp 21–34 | Cite as

Labeling and family resemblance in the discrimination of polymorphous categories by pigeons

  • Elizabeth Nicholls
  • Catriona M. E. Ryan
  • Catherine M. L. Bryant
  • Stephen E. G. Lea
Original Paper


Two experiments examined whether pigeons discriminate polymorphous categories on the basis of a single highly predictive feature or overall similarity. In the first experiment, pigeons were trained to discriminate between categories of photographs of complex real objects. Within these pictures, single features had been manipulated to produce a highly salient texture cue. Either the picture or the texture provided a reliable cue for discrimination during training, but in probe tests, the picture and texture cues were put into conflict. Some pigeons showed a significant tendency to discriminate on the basis of the picture cue (overall similarity or family resemblance), whereas others appeared to rely on the manipulated texture cue. The second experiment used artificial polymorphous categories in which one dimension of the stimulus provided a completely reliable cue to category membership, whereas three other dimensions provided cues that were individually unreliable but collectively provided a completely reliable basis for discrimination. Most pigeons came under the control of the reliable cue rather than the unreliable cues. A minority, however, came under the control of single dimensions from the unreliable set. We conclude that cue salience can be more important than cue reliability in determining what features will control behavior when multiple cues are available.


Pigeon Category discrimination Feature learning Family resemblance Labeling Salience 



Experiment 1 was carried out by Beth Nicholls in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the M.Sc. degree in Animal Behaviour of the University of Exeter. The experimental work described here was supported by the New and Emerging Science and Technologies activity of the European Community Framework Programme 6, under grant no. 516542, “From Associations to Rules in the Development of Concepts” (FAR). We are grateful to Lisa Leaver, Louise Millar, Andy Wills and John Endler for discussion, and to Denis Mareschal and Caspar Addyman (Birkbeck, University of London) for supplying the photographs used as stimuli in Experiment 1. The experimental work was carried out within the terms of the United Kingdom Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (1986).


  1. Ashby FG, Alfonso-Reese LA, Turken AU, Waldron EM (1998) A formal neuropsychological theory of multiple systems in category learning. Psychol Rev 105:442–481CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Balaban MT, Waxman SR (1997) Do words facilitate object categorization in 9-month-old infants? J Exp Child Psychol 64:3–26CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Blough DS (1972) Recognition by the pigeon of stimuli varying in two dimensions. J Exp Anal Behav 18:345–367CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Bovet D, Vauclair J (2000) Picture recognition in animals and humans. Behav Brain Res 109:143–165CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Cardinal RN, Aitken MRF (2001) Whisker (version 2). Cambridge University Technical Services Ltd, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  6. Couchman JJ, Coutinho MVC, Smith JD (2010) Rules and resemblance: their changing balance in the category learning of humans (Homo sapiens) and monkeys (Macaca mulatta). J Exp Psychol: Anim Behav Proc 36:172–183CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Dennis I, Hampton JA, Lea S (1973) New problem in concept formation. Nature 243:101–102CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Herbranson WT, Fremouw T, Shimp CP (1999) The randomization procedure in the study of categorization of multidimensional stimuli by pigeons. J Exp Psychol: Anim Behav Proc 25:113–134CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Herrnstein RJ, Loveland DH (1964) Complex visual concept in the pigeon. Science 146:549–551. doi: 10.1126/science.146.3643.549 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Herrnstein RJ, Loveland DH, Cable C (1976) Natural concepts in pigeons. J Exp Psychol Anim Behav Proc 2:285–302. doi: 10.1037.0097-7403.2.4.285 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Huber L (2001) Visual categorization in pigeons. In: Cook RG (ed) Avian visual cognition. [On-line], Available
  12. Huber L, Apfalter W, Steurer M, Prossinger H (2005) A new learning paradigm elicits fast visual discrimination in pigeons. J Exp Psychol Anim Behav Proc 31:237–246. doi: 10.1037/0097-7403.31.2.237 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Jenkins HM, Sainsbury RS (1970) Discrimination learning with the distinctive feature on positive or negative trials. In: Mostofsky DI (ed) Attention: contemporary theory and analysis. Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York, pp 239–273Google Scholar
  14. Kemler Nelson DG (1984) The effect of intention on what concepts are acquired. J Verb Learn Verb Behav 23:734–759CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Kirkpatrick-Steger K, Wasserman EA (1996) The what and the where of the pigeon’s processing of complex visual stimuli. J Exp Psychol Anim Behav Proc 22:60–67. doi: 10.1037/0097-7403.22.1.60 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Krechevsky I (1932) Hypotheses in rats. Psychol Rev 39:516–532CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Lea SEG, Harrison SN (1978) Discrimination of polymorphous stimulus sets by pigeons. Q J Exp Psychol 30:521–537CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Lea SEG, Wills AJ (2008) Use of multiple dimensions in learned discriminations. Comp Cogn Behav Rev 3:115–133. doi: 10.3819/ccbr.2008.30007 Google Scholar
  19. Lea SEG, Lohmann A, Ryan CME (1993) Discrimination of five-dimensional stimuli by pigeons: limitations of feature analysis. Q J Exp Psychol 46B:19–42. doi: 10.1080/14640749308401093 Google Scholar
  20. Lea SEG, Wills AJ, Ryan CME (2006) Why are artificial polymorphous concepts so hard for birds to learn? Q J Exper Psychol 59:251–267. doi: 10.1080/02724990544000031 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Lea SEG, Wills AJ, Leaver LA, Ryan CME, Bryant CML, Millar L (2009) A Comparative analysis of the categorization of multidimensional stimuli: II. Strategic information search in humans (Homo sapiens) but not in pigeons (Columba livia). J Comp Psychol 123:406–420. doi: 10.1037/a0016851 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Mahut H (1954) The effect of stimulus position on visual discrimination by the rat. Canad J Psychol 8:130–138PubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Makino H, Jitsumori M (2007) Discrimination of artificial categories structured by family resemblances: a comparative study in people (Homo sapiens) and pigeons (Columba livia). J Comp Psychol 121:22–33. doi: 10.1037/0735-7036.121.1.22 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Martin GR, Young SR (1983) The retinal binocular field of the pigeon (Columba livia: English racing homer). Vis Res 23:911–915CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Plunkett K, Hu JF, Cohen LB (2008) Labels can override perceptual categories in early infancy. Cognition 106:665–681. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2007.04.003 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Pothos EM (2005) The rules versus similarity distinction. Behav Brain Sci 28:1–49PubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Sainsbury RS (1971) Effect of proximity of elements on the feature-positive effect. J Exp Anal Behav 16:315–325CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Smith LB (1981) Importance of the overall similarity of objects for adults’ and children’s classifications. J Exp Psychol Human Percep Perf 7:811–824. doi: 10.1037/0096-1523.7.4.811 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Smith LB, Kemler DG (1977) Developmental trends in free classification; evidence for a new conceptualisation of perceptual development. J Exp Child Psychol 24:279–298. doi: 10.1016/022-0965(77)90007-8 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Soto FA, Wasserman EA (2010) Integrality/separability of stimulus dimensions and multidimensional generalization in pigeons. J Exp Psychol Anim Behav Proc 36:194–205. doi: 10.1037/a0016560 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Sutherland NS, Mackintosh NJ (1971) Mechanisms of animal discrimination learning. Academic Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  32. Von Fersen L, Lea SEG (1990) Category discrimination by pigeons using five polymorphous features. J Exp Anal Behav 54:69–84. doi: 10.1901/jeab.1990.54-69 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Wasserman EA, Bhatt RS (1992) Conceptualization of natural and artificial stimuli by pigeons. In: Honig WK, Fetterman JG (eds) Cognitive aspects of stimulus control. Erlbaum, Hillsdale, pp 203–223Google Scholar
  34. Waxman SR, Markow DB (1995) Words as invitations to form categories: evidence from 12- to 13-month-old infants. Cogn Psychol 29:257–302CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Weatherburn CE (1957) A first course in mathematical statistics, 2nd edn corrected. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  36. Wills AJ, Lea SEG, Leaver LA, Osthaus B, Ryan CME, Suret MB, Bryant CML, Chapman SJA, Millar L (2009) A comparative analysis of the categorization of multidimensional stimuli: I. Unidimensional classification does not necessarily imply analytic processing; evidence from pigeons (Columba livia), squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) and humans (Homo sapiens). J Comp Psychol 123:391–405. doi: 10.1037/a0016216 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Elizabeth Nicholls
    • 1
  • Catriona M. E. Ryan
    • 1
  • Catherine M. L. Bryant
    • 1
  • Stephen E. G. Lea
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Psychology, Washington Singer LaboratoriesUniversity of ExeterExeterUK

Personalised recommendations