Animal Cognition: Proceedings of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Conference, June 2-4, 1982

By H. S. Terrace; H. L. Roitblat et al. | Go to book overview

II. CONCEPT DISCRIMINATIONS

A. CURRENT RESEARCH ON ANIMALS' CONCEPTS
1. Verbal concepts versus logical concepts. Two kinds of investigation of non-human animals' learning have been said to involve the use of concepts. One kind concerns abstract concepts like number, symmetry, or, the one that has been studied in most detail, sameness (see, for example, Chapter 22, by Zentall. Hogan, & Edwards, this volume; also Delius & Habers 1978; Gillan, Premack, & Woodruff, 1981). The other kind involves complex perceptual discriminations. The archetype of these latter experiments is the demonstration by Herrnstain and Loveland ( 1964) that pigeons could be trained to discriminate pictures containing people or parts of people from pictures that did not. Most such experiments have involved visual discrimination by pigeons, although there is some closely related work on auditory discrimination of phonemes by chinchillas (e.g., Burdick & Miller, 1975). As is now well known, pigeons have been taught to discriminate pictures according to the presence or absence in them of such objects as pigeons, oak leaves, artifacts, fish, the letter "A," and a variety of other visual patterns.
2. Characteristics of visual concepts used in current research. It is with this second type of "concept formation" problem that I am concerned here. The discriminanda in these experiments generally have two properties. First, all the positive stimuli would be labelled by a human subject (and, more specifically, are labelled by the experimenter) with a single name, e.g., "person," "artifact," etc. Secondly, there is no obvious perceptual property that all positive stimuli (and/or all negative stimuli) have in common. For example, it is not the case that all the positive slides in Harrnstein and Lovelands experiment had a lower average brightness than any of the negative slides. So in order to explain pigeons' capacity to solve such discrimination problems, we have to postulate some learning capacity beyond what is needed to solve, say, the simple red/green or horizontal/vertical discriminations that are the stock-in-trade of the operant laboratory. In passing we might note there is no obvious a priori reason why a red/green discrimination should be simpler then a person/non- person discrimination. We are accustomed to think it so, but that says more about our habits of thought than about animal -- or human -- powers of discrimination. Around 8% of the male population suffers from aberrancies of discrimination between red and green lights, after all, yet this is credibly claimed to have gone unnoticed until the time of Dalton. If a comparable proportion had suffered from comparable aberrancies of discriminating people from non-people, I feel the fact might have become widely known with somewhat less delay. Nonetheless, for the time being I am going to stay within the prejudice that discriminating persons from non-persons, for example, is a more difficult task than discriminating red from green, and that it therefore requires a more advanced discrimination process.

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