Pigeons can be superstitious too


Awesome post on Quora Digest this morning.

Psychologist B. F. Skinner thought free will in humans was a farce, and it had much more to do with reinforced behavior. His peers at the time offered superstition as a counter example–other animals don’t show it, and it develops without true reinforced behavior.

Skinner was able to show that pigeons developed superstition when a learned reinforcement was randomly applied, just like humans. We don’t control when it rains, for example, but we have plenty of practices that try to bring storms. Pigeons didn’t control when the food pellet came, but they’d turn in circles like the first time, or put their head in the corner.

The research was done in the ’30s, so I’m not sure what the contemporary idea of this is. But I still love it for pointing out that superstitions are based on logical reactions–it doesn’t matter if it only works some of the time (because the two activities are unrelated) we’re still able to draw a connection between them.