2013 Book Report 22: Superstition in Pigeons – B.H. Skinner.

I work in a Department of Psychology, but I’m no psychologist. However, I had read something that put me on to the idea of reading about a bit more around the subject.

There is a Wikipedia article on B.F. Skinner. It outlines both his life and his theories.

Like many giants of their field, the things that Skinner did and said now seem pretty much obvious, but were clearly radical in their day. Skinner’s research was largely targeted towards the nature of free will and responses to punishments and reward.

This short book (available for the Kindle here) is a summary of the investigations of responses given by pigeons to various stimuli. The behaviour seems to indicate that the pigeons become, in some way superstitious about their behaviour, and start to carry out series of rituals which they somehow associate with being provided with rewards.

Anyone who has tried to train any animal will know that it is vital to give a clear, consistent command and then reward the correct behaviour. If the command is inconsistent then the animal would associate the wrong thing with the behaviour. It seems pretty self explanatory.  But then, as one of the presenters of Myth Busters once said ‘The only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down” –@donttrythis #MythBusters‘. This stuff didn’t become science until Skinner tested the various hypotheses and wrote them down.

Given the combination of quite a technical subject and a stilted, academic and older English idiom, this book is surprisingly readable, and a starting point to learning much more about psychology.



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