Animal Cognition

, 13:75 | Cite as

Pigeons can discriminate “good” and “bad” paintings by children

  • Shigeru WatanabeEmail author
Original Paper


Humans have the unique ability to create art, but non-human animals may be able to discriminate “good” art from “bad” art. In this study, I investigated whether pigeons could be trained to discriminate between paintings that had been judged by humans as either “bad” or “good”. To do this, adult human observers first classified several children’s paintings as either “good” (beautiful) or “bad” (ugly). Using operant conditioning procedures, pigeons were then reinforced for pecking at “good” paintings. After the pigeons learned the discrimination task, they were presented with novel pictures of both “good” and “bad” children’s paintings to test whether they had successfully learned to discriminate between these two stimulus categories. The results showed that pigeons could discriminate novel “good” and “bad” paintings. Then, to determine which cues the subjects used for the discrimination, I conducted tests of the stimuli when the paintings were of reduced size or grayscale. In addition, I tested their ability to discriminate when the painting stimuli were mosaic and partial occluded. The pigeons maintained discrimination performance when the paintings were reduced in size. However, discrimination performance decreased when stimuli were presented as grayscale images or when a mosaic effect was applied to the original stimuli in order to disrupt spatial frequency. Thus, the pigeons used both color and pattern cues for their discrimination. The partial occlusion did not disrupt the discriminative behavior suggesting that the pigeons did not attend to particular parts, namely upper, lower, left or right half, of the paintings. These results suggest that the pigeons are capable of learning the concept of a stimulus class that humans name “good” pictures. The second experiment showed that pigeons learned to discriminate watercolor paintings from pastel paintings. The subjects showed generalization to novel paintings. Then, as the first experiment, size reduction test, grayscale test, mosaic processing test and partial occlusion test were carried out. The results suggest that the pigeons used both color and pattern cues for the discrimination and show that non-human animals, such as pigeons, can be trained to discriminate abstract visual stimuli, such as pictures and may also have the ability to learn the concept of “beauty” as defined by humans.


Concept Category Visual discrimination Aesthetics Visual art 



The author wants to express his thanks to the elementary school of Keio for providing me with samples of children’s paintings and Dr. Tadd Patton for stylistic correction. This research was supported by the Program of Global COE (Center of excellence) #D029 in Japan.

Supplementary material

10071_2009_246_MOESM1_ESM.ppt (5.7 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (PPT 5860 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyKeio UniversityTokyoJapan

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