Monday, February 28, 2011

Superstitious like a pigeon

Suppose you are a runner and tomorrow you will take part in the cross country championship of your province. You have a good chance to win but you are not the only possible winner. You have done everything that is reasonable to be in good shape, so you cannot do more. Or rather there is still one thing you can do: Do not forget to put the necklace on that you always take with you when you have a race. Always? Two weeks ago you forgot it and you had a bad race.
We know all such kinds of behaviour, which are actually a kind of rituals. In order to improve the chance to win a lottery, one has a favourite number. One does not want to have room number 13 in a hotel in order to avoid accidents. One keeps one’s fingers crossed during the exam of a friend. And so on. The essence of all this behaviour is that there is no direct relation between the ritual and its purpose (although you may think there is).
Burrhus F. Skinner, who is known for his research of behaviour, put a hungry pigeon in a so-called Skinner box, a simple box with a food dispenser and a response lever structured that way that, if the pigeon presses the lever, food may come from the dispenser (whether this really happens depends on the research plan). Then food was presented at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird’s behaviour, so whether the pigeon pressed the lever or didn’t made no difference (I follow the description by Chris Frith, Making up the mind, p. 91; but it is easy to find other descriptions of the experiment on the Internet). After a short time the pigeons were seen repeatedly performing arbitrary actions, like making two or three turns clockwise between the appearances of the food, thrusting the head into one of the upper corners of the box, and the like. Each pigeon developed its own typical pattern of behaviour. The pigeons had learned to repeat whatever action they happened to be performing just before the food appeared. Skinner called this behaviour “superstitious” because the pigeons acted as if they believed that their behaviour caused the food to appear when this was not the case. He suggested, so Frith, that human superstitious behaviour can arise in the same way. Men are used to look for causes of the effects they see but in doing so they are often not smarter than pigeons.

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