Reversal learning in rats
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Reversal Learning in Rats. Susanne C. Stahl-Bell Mark S. Schmidt Columbus State University

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Reversal Learning in Rats

Susanne C. Stahl-Bell

Mark S. Schmidt

Columbus State University

Stahl-Bell, S., & Schmidt, M.S. (2002, April). Reversal learning in rats. Paper presented at the 1st annual Georgia Undergraduate Research in Psychology Conference, Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, GA.

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Successive Discrimination Reversal (SDR) Learning

  • A task in which animals must learn to reverse an operant response across successive problems.

  • With each reversal, fewer errors are made.

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Original Problem

Correct response


Correct response

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Past Research

  • The SDR task has been used as a measure of animal intelligence by some researchers.

  • In one study it was shown that there were significant differences between species on the SDR task (Gossette, Kraus, and Speiss, 1968)

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Species Differences

  • Gossette et al. used a spatial SDR task to compare the learning abilities of kinkajous, squirrel monkeys, coatis, skunks, raccoons, cacomistles, and capuchin monkeys.

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Squirrel monkey

Coati Mundi





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A Previous Study with Rats

  • An earlier study by Dufort, Guttman, and Kimble (1953) studied SDR in rats.

  • All but one rat in their experiment were able to learn an SDR task to near perfect performance (1 error) per reversal.

  • However, the rats could have used visual cues in addition to spatial cues to solve the SDR task.

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Our Study

  • We also wanted to study rats in a SDR task but where the stimuli were identical.

  • Our study was more like Gossette’s study because we used a spatial SDR task with identical visual stimuli.

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Our Study

  • We hypothesized that our rats would not do as well as Dufort’s rats because our rats would not have distinctive visual cues in the stimuli.

  • We wanted to see where our rats would rank in Gossette’s hierarchy of species.

  • How smart is a rat compared with raccoons, monkeys, etc.?

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  • We used 8 male rats acquired from Harlan Sprague Dawley.

  • All were from the Dark Agouti (DA) strain, which is known to have superior vision.

  • The rats were approximately 3 months old and were food deprived for 48 hours prior to testing each day.

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  • The stimuli were two identical white Styrofoam cups, 9.5 x 4.5 x 8 cm.

  • The cups were placed in distinct spatial locations (left-right) 31 cm apart on a table top, 100 cm from the edge of the table.

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  • On each trial the rat was released at the edge of the table and had to walk to the cups and move aside a cup to get a food pellet.

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  • Each reversal consisted blocks of 20 trials.

  • The rat was considered to have learned the reversal if he got 18/20 correct.

  • The rat had to complete each set of 20 trials, even if they got the first 18 responses correct.

  • The rats underwent a total of 15 reversals.

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  • The rats made significantly fewer errors across reversals as expected.

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Mean Errors / Reversal

r = -.85

p < .01

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  • Mean cumulative errors increased at a slower rate than that seen in five of the seven species tested by Gossette et al. (1968)

  • By the 15th reversal our rats had accumulated about 100 errors.

  • Based on this comparison, our rats ranked between cacomistles and raccoons in spatial SDR performance.

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  • Gossette’s study as well as our study uses a quantitative approach to study animal behavior. This follows the older view that animals can be ranked in terms of intelligence for example by comparing how well they perform on a specific test and how many trials it takes to acquire the task. Using this approach, our rats were ranked in terms of intelligence between the raccoon and cacomistle.

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  • Because many problems have been pointed out by using the quantitative approach, most researchers today say that qualitative approaches to study animal behavior should be used.

  • It has been pointed out (Thomas, 19??) that quantitative approaches don’t take sensory differences, motor abilities, or motivational differences into account.