Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Thomas R. Zentall


Behavioral flexibility, the ability to change behavior in accordance with the changing environment, was studied in pigeons using a series of reversal learning paradigms. All experiments involved a series of 5-trial sequences and I was interested in whether pigeons are sensitive to the reversal by switching to the other alternative after a single error. In Experiments 1 and 2, the overall probability of the two stimuli was equated over sequences, but the probability correct of the two stimuli changed across trials. In both experiments, subjects showed no sensitivity to the differences in sequence type. Instead they used the overall average of the probability of reinforcement on each trial as the basis of choice.

In the final two experiments, the likelihood that a reversal would occur on a given trial was equated such that there was an equal overall probability that the two stimuli would be correct on a given trial, but the overall probability of each stimulus being correct across sequences favored the second correct stimulus (S2). In Experiment 3, the overall probability of S2 correct was 80%, and results showed that subjects consistently chose S2 regardless of sequence type or trial number. In Experiment 4, the overall likelihood of S2 correct was 65%, and results showed that subjects began all sequences at chance, and as the sequence progressed, began choosing S2 more often.

In all experiments, subjects showed remarkably similar behavior regardless of where (or whether) the reversal occurred in a given sequence. Therefore, subjects appeared to be insensitive to the consequences of responses within a sequence (local information) and instead, seemed to be averaging over the sequences based on the overall probability of reinforcement for S1 or S2 being correct on each trial (aggregate information), thus not maximizing overall reinforcement. Together, the results of this series of experiments suggest that pigeons have a basic disposition for using the overall probability instead of using local feedback cues provided by the outcome of individual trials. The fact that pigeons do not use the more optimal information afforded by recent reinforcement contingencies to maximize reinforcement has implications for their use of flexible response strategies under reversal learning conditions.

Included in

Psychology Commons