This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

September 22, 2011 - how to make a pigeon superstitious

Every family has its oddball superstitions. That might be tossing salt over your shoulder, muttering "bread and butter" when you're briefly separated from someone by an obstacle on the sidewalk, not walking under a ladder, saying "Gesundheit" when someone sneezes, and so on. 

Some of these are delightful (some families have to say "rabbit rabbit" to each other first thing on the first day of the month). And sometimes, such behaviors border on the obsessive and disturbing (like constant hand washing, or forever having to check that the oven is off).

Tracking down the origins to particular phrases can be fun, but there's a deeper question. Why do so many of us believe so many weird things?

I'm reading a book called "The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies -- How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths," by Michael Shermer.

I was surprised to read about a study by behaviorist B. F. Skinner back in the 1970s. Skinner made pigeons superstitious.

Here's how. First he put a pigeon in the eponymous Skinner box. If the pigeon pecked a key within the box, he or she got a pellet of food. It didn't take long for pigeons to figure this out. And they behaved rationally: peck the key, get food. Logical.

But then Skinner started messing with their minds. Food started dropping from the shoot randomly. That is, they still had to peck the key, but sometimes it didn't work. What the pigeons were doing wasn't significant.

But pigeons, like people, are just sure their behavior has something to do with the behavior of the universe. So if the pigeons happened to be hopping or twirling around counter-clockwise, and the food did appear, then that's what they did the next time. Twirl counter-clockwise, peck. No? Twirl counter-clockwise three times, then peck. No? Twirl SIX times.... 

It works. Eventually.

This resembles nothing so much as somebody playing a slot machine. It isn't logical to put so much time into some activities. Most of the time, it just isn't worth it. But the randomness of it is precisely what makes it so compelling. 

Superstition is the adoption of a false belief, linking a behavior to an outcome that it has nothing to do with.

Shermer cites another example. Suppose you're walking through the African bush and the grass to your right rustles. You think, "That might be a lion," so change direction. Maybe there wasn't a lion, but you're still alive. 

Or suppose you say, "Nah, it's fine," and there is a lion, and suddenly you're a juicy food pellet dropping randomly into nature's Skinner box. 

Better to believe every breeze is a predator, even if it makes you seem a little jumpy.

Shermer's idea is this: it's not that we're wired to believe odd things. It's that we're wired to believe, period. We try to figure things out. We make meaning. We look for patterns and intelligence around us, and constantly modify our behavior to optimize the odds of our success.

Sometimes, those beliefs really can and do save our lives. Sometimes they're just silly.

On the other hand, when you make too much soup out of too few ingredients, it gets a little thin. Skinner oversimplified a lot of things in his psychological theories, and there's more to our minds than stimulus and response. I think.

But I love it that pigeons can be taught to be superstitious. Here's what I don't know. Can they be cured? 

Can we?

LaRue's Views are his own.

1 comment:

  1. Note: I edited this to change "tiger" into "lion." Apparently, there are no tigers native to Africa, although some have been introduced. For the definitive word, I recommend this Monty Python sketch. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLdk2C25Z14