They may have a decided lack of table manners, but pigs are otherwise one of the more intelligent animals around. Winston Churchill was very respectful of swine. “I am fond of pigs,” he once said. “Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.”
Further evidence of their intellect has come from a new study that examined how well pigs might do with a simple video game and joystick. Given sufficient motivation, pigs know how to play.
Co-authors Candace Croney of Purdue University and Sarah T. Boysen of the Comparative Cognition Project published the results in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. Four oinkers—Hamlet, Omelet, Ebony, and Ivory—were kept at the Pennsylvania State University campus and ushered in front of a screen that featured a primitive game where a cursor could be directed into a wall with a joystick. If the pig was able to hit the wall with the cursor, they’d be rewarded with food.
All of the pigs had some success, but there was a clear difference in skill. Two of the pigs, Hamlet and Omelet, found the game’s increasing difficulty with two or more walls hard to navigate. Ivory was demonstrably better than Ebony, hitting the wall 76 percent of the time to Ebony’s 34 percent.
Their success may have been hampered somewhat by their anatomy. Because a pig’s eyes are close to their snout, they may have caught glimpses of the screen only before and after moving the joystick, not during. That could mean the pigs had to rely on some short-term memory to understand the movement of the cursor. There’s also the inherent difficulty of operating a joystick with one’s head. Given the manual dexterity of a human, it’s very possible the pigs could have performed even better.
Curiously, the pigs continued playing even after the food reward was taken out of the equation. (The dispenser broke.) Researchers gave them gentle verbal encouragement to continue. Since the person supervising the task was also a caretaker, the pigs may have been induced into continuing owing to a bond with their handler.
This isn’t Croney’s first study with pigs. Back in 1997, she focused her doctoral work on pig cognizance, including a task in which pigs used a joystick to move one of several shapes across the screen to fit the single shape that matched it. Such experiments demonstrate that pigs appear to understand the connection between moving the joystick and the cursor, and that doing so successfully results in a reward.