Superstition and pigeons

Posted on June 3, 2007

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Scientific research into superstition began with B.F. Skinner’s classic paper on superstition in the pigeon. In that very short paper, available now on the internet, Skinner concluded:

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 luck 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.

Skinner’s reasoning seems to still have general acceptance but it has come under attack, with Timberlake and Lucas, among others, claiming that Skinner’s model was oversimplified. The work is relevant to what I am doing for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, it is relevant because of the possible implications it may have for the evolutionary basis for superstition in humans. The funny thing is that the kinds of experiments that Skinner did on pigeons with apparent conditioning of behaviour in response-independent situations seem to be actually more effective when done on humans as showed by Vyse and others.

Secondly, it is relevant because it raises significant questions about the nature of superstitious practice and its links to beliefs. For example, if pigeons really could exhibit superstitious behaviour then it would suggest that, in the case of superstition, at least in some situations ‘practice’ occurs without beliefs. This would have implications for how superstition is thought to relate to supernatural beliefs as well as for having more general cognitive implications.

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