The root of all superstition is that men observe when a thing hits, but not when it misses.
— Francis Bacon (1561-1626), English lawyer and philosopher
On this day, the American psychologist, author, inventor, social philosopher, and poet B(urrhus) F(rederic) Skinner was born. He developed the theory of operant conditioning — the idea that behavior is determined by its consequences, be they reinforcements or punishments, which make it more or less likely that the behavior will occur again. His principles are still incorporated within treatments of phobias, addictive behaviors, and in the enhancement of classroom performance (as well as in computer-based self-instruction).
Skinner believed that the only scientific approach to psychology was one that studied behaviors, not internal (subjective) mental processes. He denied the existence of a mind as a thing separate from the body, but he did not deny the existence of thoughts, which he regarded simply as private behaviors to be analyzed according to the same principle as publicly observed behaviors. To further improve the objective scientific value of observed behaviors, he invented the “Skinner box”, or operant conditioning chamber. It was a small, soundproof enclosure in which an animal could be isolated from all distractions and outside influences, responding only to the controlled conditions within the box, and is still used today.
Skinner’s analysis of human behavior culminated in his work Verbal Behavior (1957). He was a prolific author who published 21 books and 180 articles. In a June, 2002 survey, B.F. Skinner was listed as the most influential psychologist of the 20th century (Review of General Psychology, June, 2002, pp. 139-152). He was named “Humanist of the Year” in 1972 by the American Humanist Association.
One of Skinner’s most interesting and famous experiments, a classic in psychology, 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 (accidental reinforcement), 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.
It is easy to see other human parallels of this type of behavior. A person playing a slot machine may alter the way he puts money in the machine and the way he pulls the handle if he thinks that doing these things a certain way will bring him luck. Independent of these behaviors the machine will occasionally pay off (reinforcement). Such a situation allows the person to develop a superstitious behavior, such as not looking at the machine while he pulls the handle. Observation of a gambling casino will reveal a large number of people displaying their superstitious behaviors at the slot machines. Each person’s superstition may be unique to him, as each of Skinner’s pigeons had a unique superstition.
Human superstitions are quite abundant. A college student in an elevator may keep pushing the button of his floor as if this would cause the elevator to move faster. A card player may pick up his cards one at a time as if to improve the hand he was dealt. A businessman may wear a “special” tie when going to an important meeting.
Many ancient beliefs involve superstition. For example, the rain dance: once when someone was doing the so-called rain dance, it started to rain. This person thought that perhaps their dance affected nature. After this rain dance was reinforced intermittently on a frequent enough schedule it became established as a superstitious behavior.
However, the pigeons’ behaviors were later reinterpreted as behaviors that improve foraging efficacy (analogous to salivation in Pavlov’s dogs), which suggests that the pigeons’ behavior does not correspond to Skinner’s intended meaning of superstition. Nevertheless, Skinner’s early account is notable in two respects. First, it recognized the possibility of superstition occurring outside the human realm. Second, and linked to this, Skinner emphasized the behavioral aspect 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.” That is, he focused on there being an incorrect response to a stimulus (behavioral outcome), rather than the conscious abstract representation of cause and effect (psychological relationship), with which human superstitions are often associated.
There other differences between human superstitions based on psychological relationship and animal superstitions based on behavioral outcome:
- First, humans, as opposed to animals, often spend considerable time justifying why they are not reinforced each time they do their superstitious behavior. (“I have some questions about that so- called virgin we sacrificed to the volcano god.” “I lost the golf match today because my lucky hat doesn’t seem to work two days in a row.”)
- Second, humans spend more time than animals trying to convince others to adopt their superstitious behaviors. Children often carry on many of the superstitions of their parents.
- Finally, as Herrnstein (1966) points out, “Human superstition, unlike that of animals, arises in a social context.” The acquired superstitions in humans are not as arbitrary as those of animals. Rather they are molded by the person’s culture. Thus, although it is possible to develop a superstition about Wednesday the 11th, it is more probable in our culture to be superstitious about Friday the 13th.
It has only been with the advent of the scientific method that people have been able to distinguish between that which is superstitious and that which has a scientific basis.
- B.F. Skinner. “‘Superstition’ in the Pigeon,” Journal of Experimental Psychology 38: 168-172 (1948).
- Kevin R. Foster and Hanna Kokko.
“The evolution of superstitious and superstition-like behaviour,”
Proc R Soc B 276 (1654): 31-37 (January 2009). DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2008.0981
- R.J. Herrnstein. “Superstition: A corollary of the principles of operant conditioning,” in W. K. Honig (ed.), Operant Behavior: Areas of Research and Application. (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1966) pp. 33-51.