Food, Pigeons, and Us: Learned Superstitions

Posted on 20 Jun 2014 22:29

Humans beings have brains that are tailor-made for superstitious beliefs. That is the kind of statement you will often hear in regards to human superstitions involving food, or anything else. Well, it's not really an accurate statement, as it seems to imply that a certain high-level intelligence is needed to form superstitions. What if I told you that pigeons can form superstitions too? In fact, they can be induced to form superstitions concerning food, just as we can. It is called learned superstition. If you live in any large city, you are quite familiar with pigeons. I think it is safe to say that, while they are not highly intelligent, they are, as we are, highly adaptable survivors. And, they can believe weird things, just as we can.

In 1948, the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner published the results of an experiment that has become a classic in the field: 'Superstition' in the Pigeon. I don't know about you, but I appreciate the straight-forward title, because it exactly describes what the experiment was about. Skinner placed eight pigeons inside specially designed boxes, now called Skinner boxes. On one wall of the box was a pad that the pigeons could peck. There was also in the box a food dispenser which the experimenter could control, releasing a food pellet as desired.

You can easily guess that the pigeons could be trained to peck the pad in order to obtain a food pellet. Pigeons can learn, easily, when a certain action results in a certain desirable outcome. One peck and they are rewarded with a food pellet. It's not rocket surgery. But, in this experiment, Skinner rigged the food dispenser in a diabolical way. He adjusted it so that it administered a food pellet every 15 seconds. A food pellet would come out, on schedule, regardless what the pigeon did or didn't do. This means that a food pellet might come out, by chance, after a pigeon pecked at the pad. But a food pellet might also come out after the pigeon did any other random thing. The results? Six of the eight birds started performing certain repetitive and unusual behaviors, that became seemingly ritualistic.


B.F. Skinner used pigeons for various behavioral psychology


B.F. Skinner used pigeons for various behavioral psychology

The birds bobbed their heads up and down, or hopped up and down, or walked in circles, or flapped their wings. The birds seemed to believe that these actions caused the food pellet to be released, simply because a food pellet had happened to come after or while the bird was performing this action. And, when Skinner slowed down the release of the food pellets, the action sometimes increased in speed, such as a bird speeding up its head bobbing. The release of the food pellet had reinforced the particular behavior the bird associated with the reward.

It should be noted that Skinner did not try to claim that the birds had formed superstitious beliefs. He simply observed their behavior and reported that they seemed to have learned to perform certain behaviors repetitively. Not necessarily because they wanted food, but simply because food had followed a particular behavior. Whatever was at work in the pigeon's mind, is not that different than how humans learn. We are both able to learn superstitious behaviors, but as humans, we are able to codify and pass on these behaviors as belief systems. These learned behaviors, in psychology, are called conditioning, and are divided into two major types: Classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning was discovered by accident by the Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov. You may have heard of Pavlov's dogs. Pavlov's dogs would salivate when they were about to be given their food. This is a conditioned response to a stimulus: Food made the dogs salivate in anticipation. However, Pavlov noticed that the dogs were not only salivating when he presented them with food, but even when he simply entered the room or when they saw their food bowl. They had learned to associate the object, the man or the bowl, with another stimulus, food, that they were already conditioned to respond to by salivating. So, the new stimulus brings about the same response as the old stimulus they were already conditioned to. The American behaviorist J.B. Watson took up the banner of classical conditioning and proposed that it could explain all aspects of human psychology, even going so far as to suggest there was no such thing as a human mind.

B.F. Skinner, on the other hand, who did believe we had a mind, thought that more could be learned by looking at actual observable behavior. He thought that operant conditioning was more important to human learning. This involves learning from the consequences of our actions, rather than simply developing associations between events that drive automatic behaviors.

B.F. Skinner did a lot of other interesting things with pigeons. Incredibly, wanting to help the war effort during World War II, he teach pigeons to guide missiles, and had some success. Project pigeon, as it was called, never came to fruition. He also taught pigeons how to play ping-pong, sort of:

1. Jarvis, Matt. Theoretical Approaches in Psychology. London: Routledge, 2000.
2. Webster, Richard. The Encyclopedia of Superstitions. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2008.
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