If you try hard enough, anything is possible. But it turns out training pigeons to discriminate between a Picasso and a Monet isn’t actually all that hard. Pigeons can tell the difference between the two artists with relatively little effort (at least relative to what we would have imagined).
Pigeons and Picasso and Monet
In 1995, researchers Shigeru Watanabe, Junko Sakamoto, and Masumi Wakita published a paper called “Pigeons’ discrimination of paintings by Monet and Picasso” in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. In it, they showed:
“Pigeons successfully learned to discriminate color slides of paintings by Monet and Picasso. Following this training, they discriminated novel paintings by Monet and Picasso that had never been presented during the discrimination training. Furthermore, they showed generalization from Monet’s to Cezanne’s and Renoir’s paintings or from Picasso’s to Braque’s and Matisse’s paintings. These results suggest that pigeons’ behavior can be controlled by complex visual stimuli in ways that suggest categorization. Upside-down images of Monet’s paintings disrupted the discrimination, whereas inverted images of Picasso’s did not. This result may indicate that the pigeons’ behavior was controlled by objects depicted in impressionists’ paintings but was not controlled by objects in cubists’ paintings.”
Birds and bees
Later on, in 2013, behavioral scientists showed that honeybees could also discriminate between paintings by the two artists.
Perhaps more hilariously, a 2010 article in the journal Animal Cognition showed that “Pigeons can discriminate “good” and “bad” paintings by children.” Imagine a pigeon letting your child know their art is “bad.”
Wonder how it was done? In the words of the researcher:
“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.”
Who knew nature had such art critics?! — WTF fun facts