Animal IQ

Pigeons Can Be Superstitious — And A Psychologist Once Proved It

Animal studies have shown that we're more similar to our wild brethren than we are different. Many animals dream, laugh, and show self-awareness. In the 1940s, legendary psychologist B.F. Skinner demonstrated that animals share some of our quirks, as well: he successfully made pigeons act superstitious.

When You Believe In Things That You Don't Understand

Even if you don't consider yourself superstitious, you probably do a few things that count as such: you may avoid opening umbrellas indoors, or knock on wood when you say something good that you don't want to turn bad. According to the University of Iowa, superstitious behavior happens when an independent action (for example, opening an umbrella indoors) happens close in time with a reinforcement or punishment (a vase falling off a table across the room, perhaps). Because they happen around the same time, your brain associates the two, coming to the conclusion that one caused the other.

B.F. Skinner was a behaviorist who was fascinated with stuff like this — specifically, how people's actions arise from elements in their environment. He was, as Smithsonian puts it, "a controversial figure in a field that tends to attract controversial figures. In a realm of science that has given us Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Jean Piaget, Skinner stands out by sheer quirkiness." (If you don't believe it, we have three words for you: pigeon-guided missiles.)

Most of his strange experiments centered on what's known as a "Skinner box": a sensory-deprivation vessel that limited an animal to one stimulus at a time. In one experiment, he demonstrated positive reinforcement by placing a rat in a Skinner box with a lever that produced a food pellet. The rat would first knock the lever accidentally, but soon learned to make a beeline for the lever the moment it was placed in the box. The same went for negative reinforcement: if the lever turned off an unpleasant electric current, the rat quickly learned to go straight for the lever to relieve its discomfort. But what would an animal do if there was no lever at all?

Think Inside The Box

For a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 1947, Skinner changed the rules. He put hungry pigeons into a box for a few minutes each day, but instead of giving them a lever to push, he just put their food hopper on a timer to release pellets at regular intervals. That is, the pigeons got food on a regular schedule, regardless of their behavior. But of course, the pigeons didn't know that—and their behavior turned quite strange.

One pigeon started turning counterclockwise between feedings. Another, according to the study, "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 ... Another bird was conditioned to make incomplete pecking or brushing movements directed toward but not touching the floor." The birds, Skinner surmised, were demonstrating superstition. Just like opening an umbrella indoors and watching a distant vase crash to the floor, the birds were associating their independent actions with a reinforcement. As a result, it seems that they believed repeating the action would lead to more reinforcement.

If pigeons will act superstitious, what does that say about human behavior? Maybe that there's nothing magical about the idea of luck or fortune—the sense that we can control our destiny through quirks of behavior is just a mistaken association in our brains.

How Superstitions Work

Written by Ashley Hamer March 1, 2017

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.