Smashing Superstitions – Even Pigeons Can Do It

Posted by on October 19, 2013 in Featured, Thoughts | 1 comment



Continued from Smashing Superstitions – An Introduction to Personal Mythology.

Our superstitious nature is not a man-made behaviour. In fact, superstitious behaviours may well be a contributing factor in humanity’s success as a species. One may ask how throwing salt over their left shoulder or shunning the number 13 could do such a thing, but instead of looking at individual cases of superstitious behaviour, we must instead, much like with the superstitions themselves, look deeper, at the root cause of the behaviours, how they may benefit us, and how they have progressed from there.

Superstitions arise from situations where someone conflates their own actions, or a random happening, with something unrelated which follows. As in my last blog, this could be as simple as dropping a pencil before entering an exam, and from then on associating the dropping of a pencil with bad luck. In the case of some superstitious activities, for instance the opening of umbrellas indoors, the superstition has at its root a dose of common sense, in this case, “It’s bad to open an umbrella indoors, because you might get water on the floor, causing a slipping hazard, or you might knock something over and break it.” I imagine that the offending behaviour of opening an umbrella indoors once caused someone some distress, or even injury, and then was reinforced by a social stigma surrounding the opening of umbrellas indoors. Likewise with smashing mirrors, causing the smasher to have 7 years bad luck (someone might get injured on the glass shards, and mirrors are expensive to replace), or the belief that a bird flying into your house will cause bad luck (similar to the umbrella superstition.)

Superstitious behaviours are not exclusive to humans, in fact superstitious behaviour can be seen and measured in many animals, the most famous of which being B.F. Skinner’s experiments with pigeons in 1947. Skinner hoped to be able to observe the initial states of superstition in pigeons by randomly dropping food into a chamber with little else in it to distract the birds, then to watch as these birds reinforced the behaviours over time. The birds, who were doing normal “bird things” like walking about, scratching their heads, flapping their wings etc., were found to repeat these gestures if they received food after performing this act. If a bird walked in a clockwise circle, then  received food, in the bird’s mind, the act of walking in a circle was the cause of the food reward. Pigeons were later observed performing these superstitious activities in the hope of receiving a food reward.

So the pattern is to first wish for something, like a food reward, and when the food reward arrives, the pigeon thinks back to what it was doing right before the food arrived, then performed that act again in the hopes of receiving food. Each pigeon that was found to display superstitious behaviour had its own unique action, which shows that it was not a normal pigeon action passed down by genetics or pigeon culture (if such a thing exists).

Now bring this forward a step to the idea of dog-training. We teach dogs to be superstitious by rewarding good behaviour, and shunning the bad. In a way, humans are gods to dogs, for we have power over their lives, we control their actions, and reward them for favourable behaviours. In a similar way that the pigeon, through random trial and error, thinks that its actions are causing it to receive food, a dog, through human-controlled reinforcement, causes a real pattern in the behaviour of the dog. For instance, you tell a dog to sit. If it does sit, you give it a treat. If it ignores you, then it doesn’t receive a treat. This is the fine line between an actual connection between real-life events, and a made-up one based on a mistake in one’s cognition of a situation.

Move forward again early man and his daily struggle to survive in the African savannah. As he is hunting, he hears a rustle in the shrubbery some distance away. He knows what a lion is, because he has seen many antelopes killed by lions in the past, and it is common knowledge that there are lions in this part of the savannah. He has two choices here: he can ignore the rustle in the bushes and thereby potentially threaten his own survival, or he can run away, the outcome being a definite continuation of his life regardless of whether there is a lion in the bushes or not. These two choices, one leading to potential death and the other definite safety, is at the root of our decision-making process, and is an example of decision-making much like that of the pigeon’s in the earlier example.

It is interesting to note, though, that there are more things we could potentially do in life that would not lead to the desired outcome than ones that do lead to the desired outcome. If for example you want to eat food, you could decide to sit still and do nothing, hoping that the food will arrive, or you could get up and fetch the food for yourself. The potential for the first example to arrive at the outcome you desire is low, and the potential for the second example is much higher. So we learn which actions we perform create the favourable outcomes we desire, and which have no consequence other than not getting what we want.

It’s when we perform a random act (such as screaming at the sky asking for rain) and the random act is randomly “successful” (i.e. it rains) that we conflate the two unrelated events. In the case of a rain-dance, sometimes it will rain, sometimes it won’t rain, because we have no affect on the weather. When it does rain, however, we link our rain-dance to the success of carrying out the dance correctly. If it doesn’t rain, then something went wrong, we didn’t yell loud enough, or we need to offer up a live animal sacrifice to the weather for it to bless us with rain. The action is reinforced through success, and the past failures are left behind to languish in obscurity.

Much the same with prayer. People pray for blessings, be they things as meagre as a win for a sport team, of as large as a cure for cancer, and much like the rain dance, if the outcome is favourable, the prayer worked. If unsuccessful, wither we didn’t pray hard enough, or it wasn’t in “God’s plan” to allow the favourable outcome. This kind of invocation comes in many ritualised forms, from the example of ritualised “baby-jumping” in Spain, to the more “reasonable” act of Baptising a baby with holy water.

These kinds of superstitions no doubt lend their origins to arbitrary actions, then conflated with favourable outcomes, such as spinning  3 times counterclockwise, or linked to the warding-off of unfavourable outcomes, such as throwing salt over your shoulder to vanquish demons. These actions become ritualised, and then reinforced through religion and culture to become commonplace. And in some societies, such as the highly superstitious Haitians, life is constantly lived alongside these rituals and ceremonies.

When we understand that it is in our nature to find patterns, then stick to the ones that deliver seemingly favourable outcomes, and we apply this to the religious and cultural practices of the world, we can start to dissect them, dig back through the layers of superstitious add-ons that accumulate over time, and see them for what they are.

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1 Comment

  1. So, religion is (or at least, this is one possible explanation of its origin) just the post hoc fallacy writ large. I like it!

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