Study confirms chicken cognition
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2005:
SILSOE, U.K.–Hens pecking buttons to
earn food rewards may have a better awareness of
passing time and be better able to assess the
prospects of future gain than human slot machine
gamblers, a new British study suggests.
Silsoe Research Institute Bio-physics
Group animal welfare scientist Siobhan
Abeyesinghe varied the “payout” for pecking so
that her hens would get only a small amount of
food if they pecked quickly, but would receive a
large amount if they delayed their pecks for 22
seconds, long enough to demonstrate the ability
to mentally clock their own behavior and show
Researching poultry welfare since 1996,
Abeyesinghe emphasized the welfare implications
of her findings in describing them for the
journal Animal Behavior.
“An animal with no awareness of ‘later’
may not be able to predict the end of an
unpleasant experience, such as pain, rendering
the pain all-encompassing,” Abeyesinghe wrote.
“On the other hand, an animal who can
anticipate an event might benefit from cues to
aid prediction, but may also be capable of
expectations rendering her vulnerable to
thwarting, frustration, and pre-emptive
anxiety,” Abeyesinghe added.
“In their natural environment it may pay
to get food while you can, before someone else
does,” Abeyesinghe elaborated to Jennifer Viegas
of Discovery News. “Counter to this, we found
that when a much larger food reward was delivered
for the jackpot, hens chose it over 90 percent
of the time, ruling out that they have no
awareness of the near future.
“They probably show more cognitive
ability than people would generally credit them
with,” Abeyesinghe added.
“The finding suggests that domestic fowl,
Gallus gallus dom-esticus, are intelligent
creatures who might worry,” wrote Viegas.
Hampton Roads Daily Press columnist
Tamara Dietrich on July 19, 2005 considered what
the Abeyesinghe findings might mean to the
“This isn’t terribly persuasive,”
Dietrich wrote, “considering that people
wouldn’t generally credit chickens with enough
cognitive ability to come in out of the rainŠ But
it’s that tiny slice of doubt that has me
downloading vegetarian recipes….At this point,
the only meat or mammal I wouldn’t feel guilty
about skinning and stewing in a pot is active
members of al-Qaida …If it would save the life
of one cow, pig or chicken, pass the meat
tenderizer and count me in.”
While Dietrich has yet to complete the
transition to meatless eating, she has made the
connection that “meat is murder,” as PETA puts
it. Ahead is the question of whether Dietrich
can continue to stomach a diet she now equates at
the gut level with cannibalism.
The Abeyesinghe results have considerable
implications for lawmakers, regulators, and
others whose work requires defining cruelty and
“The question is not, Can they reason?
Nor Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?” the
British jurist Jeremy Bentham wrote in 1780,
succinctly setting forth the philosophical
foundation for animal welfare advocacy that has
prevailed ever since.
In Animal Liberation (1974), utilitarian
philosopher Peter Singer extended the Bentham
principle, arguing that animals should not only
be well-treated, but should be accorded moral
status, since animals as well as humans may
suffer psychologically and emotionally.
Animal Liberation became the foundation of modern animal rights theory.
The late philosopher and libertarian
philanthropist Tobias Grether in Homochronos:
Time-Conscious Man (1977) endorsed Bentham but
rejected Singer by arguing that human morality
proceeds from awareness of longterm consequence.
Having “rights,” Grether argued, requires that
the beings who possess them must understand that
what they do now will influence tomorrow.
The Grether book was read chiefly by
other libertarian theorists, but Grether’s case
against Singer–often omitting Grether’s
endorsement of Bentham–posthumously gained
currency among defenders of animal use industries
who claim that animals suffer only in the
immediate sense, if at all, and do not
experience anxiety or depression based on
awareness of a future no better and often worse
than the present.
As Grether’s ghostwriter, 1975-1977,
ANIMAL PEOPLE editor Merritt Clifton argued that
much animal activity shows awareness of longterm
consequence. This was to little avail because
scientific literature on animal behavior was then
dominated by “operant conditioning” studies, in
which animals learn to perform tasks in order to
receive immediate rewards.
Even the first successful attempts to
teach chimpanzees and gorillas American sign
language were “debunked” as alleged results of
The Abeyesinghe study showed that
chickens can think their way past operant
conditioning, if motivated to do so.