Superstitious Pigeon

skinner

One of B.F. Skinner’s experiments examined the formation of superstition in one of his favorite experimental animals, the pigeon. Skinner placed a series of hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to the pigeon ‘at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird’s behavior.’ He discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as it was delivered, and that they subsequently continued to perform these same actions.

‘One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a ‘tossing’ response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return.’

Skinner suggested that the pigeons behaved as if they were influencing the automatic mechanism with their ‘rituals’ and that this experiment shed light on human behavior: ‘The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behavior. Rituals for changing one’s fortune at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances. The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if she were controlling it by twisting and turning her arm and shoulder is another case in point. These behaviors have, of course, no real effect upon one’s luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing—or, more strictly speaking, did something else.’

Modern behavioral psychologists have disputed Skinner’s ‘superstition’ explanation for the behaviors he recorded. Subsequent research, while finding similar behavior, failed to find support for Skinner’s ‘adventitious reinforcement’ explanation for it. By looking at the timing of different behaviors within the interval, researchers were able to distinguish two classes of behavior: the terminal response, which occurred in anticipation of food, and interim responses, that occurred earlier in the interfood interval and were rarely contiguous with food. Terminal responses seem to reflect classical (as opposed to operant) conditioning, rather than adventitious reinforcement, guided by a process like that observed in 1968 in ‘autoshaping’ procedures, experimental procedures used to study classical conditioning. In autoshaping, in contrast to shaping, food comes irrespective of the behavior of the animal.

In its simplest form, autoshaping is very similar to Pavlov’s salivary conditioning procedure using dogs. In Pavlov’s best-known procedure, a short audible tone reliably preceded the presentation of food to dogs. The dogs naturally, unconditionally, salivated (unconditioned response) to the food (unconditioned stimulus) given them, but through learning, conditionally, came to salivate (conditioned response) to the tone (conditioned stimulus) that predicted food. In autoshaping, a light is reliably turned on shortly before animals are given food. The animals naturally, unconditionally, display consummatory reactions to the food given them, but through learning, conditionally, came to perform those same consummatory actions directed at the conditioned stimulus that predicts food.

Autoshaping provides an interesting conundrum for B.F. Skinner’s assertion that one must employ shaping as a method for teaching a pigeon to peck a key. After all, if an animal can shape itself, why use the laborious process of shaping? Autoshaping also contradicts Skinner’s principle of reinforcement. During autoshaping, food comes irrespective of the behavior of the animal. If reinforcement were occurring, random behaviors should increase in frequency because they should have been rewarded by random food. Nonetheless, key-pecking reliably develops in pigeons, even if this behavior had never been rewarded.

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