According to a new study published in ‘Frontiers In Psychology,’ pigs are proving to have a remarkable level of behavioral and mental flexibility after scientists tested the ability of four pigs to play a simple joystick-enabled video game. Each animal in the study showed some level of understanding how the device and game worked.
The study specifically involved two Yorkshire pigs named Hamlet and Omelette, and two Panepinto micro pigs named Ebony and Ivory. All four animals were trained to approach and manipulate a joystick with their snouts in front of a computer monitor for the first phase of the study. They then transitioned into learning about playing the video game itself; the goal of the simple game was to move a cursor, using the joystick, towards up to four targets located on the sides of the screen.
Each pig performed the tasks much more efficiently than expected, leading the researchers to believe that the pigs knew their movements with the joystick impacted the movements on the screen as well. Dr. Candace Croney was the lead author of the study along with co-author Sarah T. Boysen.
“It’s no small feat for an animal to grasp the concept that the behavior they’re performing is having an effect elsewhere. That pigs can do this to any degree should give us pause as to what else they are capable of learning and how such learning may impact them.”
Scientists were already aware that pigs had the capability to learn, as many farmers train their pigs like dogs to respond to commands like “come” and “sit,” but the complex behaviors that they showed with playing the video game is beyond what anyone has seen before.
According to Croney, the team used “food to teach and reinforce behaviors, but also found that social contact could strongly influence their persistence. For instance, when the machine dispensing treats failed to work, the pigs continued to make correct responses using only verbal and tactile cues. And only verbal encouragement seemed to help the animals during the most challenging tasks.”
“This sort of study is important because, as with any sentient beings, how we interact with pigs and what we do to them impacts and matters to them. We therefore have an ethical obligation to understand how pigs acquire information, and what they are capable of learning and remembering, because it ultimately has implications for how they perceive their interactions with us and their environments,” Croney explained.
While the pigs may have not been able to match the same level of skill as say a chimpanzee when it comes to behavioral analysis, their demonstration of being able to learn a task with positive reinforcement is an amazing advancement in the scientific community. On a larger scale, the authors of the study say that now we can shift to seeing if computer programs can be used to better communicate with pigs directly on their wants and needs.
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at email@example.com.