Rhymes With Fuchsia

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Pigeon Religion

Note: This post has nothing to do with knitting, or family, or cats, or the alphabet; it's just a random riff on some interesting stuff I discovered recently. Since as best I can tell I've never taken a digital photo of a pigeon, even by accident, ducks are the best I can do.

In 1948 B.F. Skinner published a paper called ‘Superstition’ in the Pigeon, which described how hungry pigeons reacted when food was offered for five seconds and then taken away for 15 seconds.

Six of the eight pigeons tested developed ritualistic behaviors like turning or thrusting their heads into the upper part of the cage. Each pigeon would do whatever it had been doing when the food appeared, hoping to make it come back; if the food came back fast enough, when it was again taken away the pigeon would do it again, and so on. Once the feedback loop was set up, the time interval could be increased, up to a point.

Of course Skinner (like me) was less interested in pigeon behavior than in human behavior. He comments:
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.... These behaviors have, of course, no real effect upon one’s luck... just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing–or, more strictly speaking, did something else.

The difference between pigeons and people seems to be that if it performs the ritual repeatedly and nothing happens, a pigeon will give up sooner than a person would. I don't conclude from this that pigeons are smarter than people. Quite the opposite: the pigeon is just repeating learned behavior, but the person tries to figure out why the behavior works, or why it worked before but doesn't work now. This is a good thing: it's called science, and is the reason we have blogs and pigeons don't.

Of course it's also how we trick ourselves into thinking things are related when they're not, and persisting in those thoughts even with little or nothing to go on. As Susan so nicely put it:
I think the primary human drive is towards meaning. People search for it constantly, whether they acknowledge it or not, and if they are not lucky enough to discern it, will manufacture it out of whole cloth.

Thus the same event is heralded as evidence for all kinds of mutually contradictory theology: 9/11 variously proved, depending on what and whom you read, that God was testing us, protecting us, or ignoring or punishing us because we had ignored or displeased God first.

I don't necessarily subscribe to any of those, and it seems to me vain, in several senses, to infer God's will from the unfolding of human events. A candidate who proclaims that God wants him to be president when his poll numbers are soaring is taking his political life in his hands, and not because he'll unnerve us secular types (although he will): what will he say when his numbers plummet?

As for me, I'm not sure what it all means, though, being human, I keep trying to figure it out. Maybe we're the descendants of space travelers, or the product of chloranthrobiogenesis. What I do know is that I have the day off tomorrow, which means I can knit.


  • Ack! You are making me flash back to this book that I read way back in high school!

    By Blogger zana, at 10:11 PM  

  • Oh I love the way you think! What a great post.

    By Blogger Carol, at 7:32 AM  

  • Rats also indulge in superstitious behavior. People often indulge in magical thinking. (If I wear this eyeliner, suddenly I will be poised and graceful and self-confident and irresistable to handsome, charming guys.)

    By Blogger Roxie, at 9:24 AM  

  • Yeah, us humans seem to be hard-wired for pattern recognition, which is great when there is a pattern to discern, but just messes with us when there's no pattern!

    By Blogger Alwen, at 9:53 AM  

  • great post! who knew pigeons were so smart?

    By Blogger maryse, at 10:55 AM  

  • Did you knit a lot today? Hmmm... meaning... It's not all about greed and lust?

    By Blogger knitnzu, at 9:58 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home