Skip to main content

Pigeons perform poorly on a midsession reversal task without rigid temporal regularity


Animals make surprising anticipatory and perseverative errors when faced with a midsession reversal of reinforcer contingencies on a choice task with highly predictable stimulus–time relationships. In the current study, we asked whether pigeons would anticipate changes in reinforcement when the reinforcer contingencies for each stimulus were not fixed in time. We compared the responses of pigeons on a simultaneous choice task when the initially correct stimulus was randomized or alternated across sessions. Pigeons showed more errors overall compared with the typical results of a standard midsession reversal procedure, and they did not show the typical anticipatory errors prior to the contingency reversal. Probe tests that manipulated the spacing between trials also suggested that timing of the session exerted little control of pigeons’ behavior. The temporal structure of the experimental session thus appears to be an important determinant for animals’ use of time in midsession reversal procedures.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  • Cook RG, Rosen HA (2010) Temporal control of internal states in pigeons. Psychon Bull Rev 17:915–922

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Daniel TA, Cook RG, Katz JS (2015) Temporal dynamics of task switching and abstract-concept learning in pigeons. Front Psychol 6:1334–1442

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Dow SM, Lea SEG (1987) Sampling of schedule parameters by pigeons: tests of optimizing theory. Anim Behav 35:102–114

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dunlap AS, Stephens DW (2012) Tracking a changing environment: optimal sampling, adaptive memory and overnight effects. Behav Process 89:86–94

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Houston AI, Kacelnik A, McNamara J (1982) Some learning rules for acquiring information. In: McFarland DJ (ed) Functional ontogeny. Pitman, London, pp 140–191

    Google Scholar 

  • Krebs JR, Kacelnik A, Taylor P (1978) Test of optimal sampling by foraging great tits. Nature 275:27–31

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mackintosh NJ, McGonigle B, Holgate V (1968) Factors underlying improvement in serial reversal learning. Can J Psychiatry 22:85–95

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • McMillan N, Roberts WA (2012) Pigeons make errors as a result of interval timing in a visual, but not visual-spatial, midsession reversal task. J Exp Psychol Anim Behav Process 38:440–445

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • McMillan N, Kirk CR, Roberts WA (2014) Pigeon and rat performance in the midsession reversal procedure depends upon cue dimensionality. J Comp Psychol 128:357–366

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • McMillan N, Sturdy CB, Spetch ML (2015) When is a choice not a choice? Pigeons fail to inhibit incorrect responses on a go/no-go midsession reversal task. J Exp Psychol 41:255–265

    Google Scholar 

Download references


This research was supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Discovery Grant and Discovery Accelerator Supplement to CB Sturdy and an NSERC Discovery Grant to ML Spetch. We thank Nuha Madi, Pauline Kwong, Joshua Yong, and Jason Long for assistance in running subjects and Tad Plesowicz for animal care.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Neil McMillan.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical standard

This research was conducted with the approval of the University of Alberta Research Ethics Office, meeting the standards of the Canadian Council on Animal Care.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

McMillan, N., Sturdy, C.B., Pisklak, J.M. et al. Pigeons perform poorly on a midsession reversal task without rigid temporal regularity. Anim Cogn 19, 855–859 (2016).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Revised:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: