Inferential reasoning by exclusion in pigeons, dogs, and humans


The ability to reason by exclusion (which is defined as the selection of the correct alternative by logically excluding other potential alternatives; Call in Anim Cogn 9:393–403 2006) is well established in humans. Several studies have found it to be present in some nonhuman species as well, whereas it seems to be somewhat limited or even absent in others. As inconsistent methodology might have contributed to the revealed inter-species differences, we examined reasoning by exclusion in pigeons (n = 6), dogs (n = 6), students (n = 6), and children (n = 8) under almost equal experimental conditions. After being trained in a computer-controlled two-choice procedure to discriminate between four positive (S+) and four negative (S−) photographs, the subjects were tested with displays consisting of one S− and one of four novel stimuli (S′). One pigeon, half of the dogs and almost all humans preferred S′ over S−, thereby choosing either by novelty, or by avoiding S− without acquiring any knowledge about S′, or by inferring positive class membership of S′ by excluding S−. To decide among these strategies the subjects that showed a preference for S′ were then tested with displays consisting of one of the S′ and one of four novel stimuli (S′′). Although the pigeon preferentially chose the S′′ and by novelty, dogs and humans maintained their preference for S′, thereby showing evidence of reasoning by exclusion. Taken together, the results of the present study suggest that none of the pigeons, but half of the dogs and almost all humans inferred positive class membership of S′ by logically excluding S−.

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    Of course we could have counteracted such effects by rewarding choices of S′. However, what we wanted to investigate were possible preferences for S′ as a result of reasoning by exclusion, not of reinforcement. Also, we suspected that providing partial reinforcement or rewarding the one or the other stimulus type in half of the trials may have led the subjects into searching for some spurious rule according to which reinforcement may be given, and would thus have distracted their focus from more logic-based solutions.


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The research was supported by the Austrian Science Foundation through Grant V3-B03 to Ulrike Aust and by the European Community’s Sixth Framework Programme under contract number: NEST 012929. Thanks are due to Wilfried Apfalter, Johanna Kramer, Katharina Kramer, and Michael Pollirer for their assistance in the pigeon laboratory, and to Karin Bayer and Stefanie Riemer for their help in carrying out the experiments with the dogs. We would also like to thank Christian Palmers for providing the facility for the dog experiments. Also, we wish to thank Julia Fischer for valuable comments and discussion. We declare that the experiments comply with the current Austrian laws.

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Correspondence to Ulrike Aust.

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Aust, U., Range, F., Steurer, M. et al. Inferential reasoning by exclusion in pigeons, dogs, and humans. Anim Cogn 11, 587–597 (2008).

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  • Reasoning by exclusion
  • Categorization
  • Pigeons
  • Dogs
  • Humans