All previous participants from the series returned, and were placed in a room with a counter and several objects, saying that they had to score 100 points within half an hour. However, the points were awarded randomly and not by any actions performed in the room, referring to Skinner's pigeon experiments. If they had realised that, they might have noticed there was a further element, and found the sign above them on the ceiling telling them that the doors were unlocked and £150,000 waiting for them if they went to get it, which they did not.
B. F. Skinner is the name that stands out when learning about behaviorism and operant conditioning. Did you know he also attempted to show that pigeons are superstitious?
In 1947, Skinner published a study where he showed that animals can be subject to superstition, just as humans can. He locked several hungry pigeons in a cage that would deliver food to them at random intervals. The pigeons started associating specific actions with delivery of food. One pigeon received food after having flown counter-clockwise around the cage two-three times, therefore kept repeating this motion to get food. Two others thought a pendulum motion would cause a nutritional reward.
The pigeons seemed to believe their “rituals” were the source of food supply. Skinner extended this finding to human behavior, showing that people act the same way; a few occurrences of getting a good grade while wearing green socks can lead someone to believe that the socks are “lucky”. This belief persists even in cases where the outcome is not reinforced (e.g. getting a bad grade after having worn the socks), when really in the end, the behavior has no effect on the outcome, and any other random behavior or lack thereof would have caused the same outcome (e.g. wearing a blue T-shirt).
Skinner’s experiment has been criticized by modern behavioral psychologists, claiming that the “adventitious reinforcements” (the superstitions) were in fact either “terminal responses”, observed in anticipation of food, or “interim responses”, rarely paired with food supply (Staddon and Simmelhag, 1971). The terminal responses were termed “autoshaping” procedures, reflecting classical conditioning, like shown in a 1968 study by Brown and Jenkins.
Skinner’s study was reproduced with humans , on the British TV show “Trick or Treat” hosted by Derren Brown, an illusionist, mentalist, hypnotist, and more. During the show, participants are locked in a room containing various objects and a counter, then are told they have to score 100 points within half an hour. The points are in fact awarded randomly — each time a fish crosses its tank in an adjacent room (that the participants cannot see). The participants tried to figure out a pattern to earning points; most engaged in specific actions they believed would score points. All failed to notice a sign above them reading that the doors of the room were unlocked and they could go get £150,000 anytime. The end results of the experiment were similar to what Skinner showed.
Superstitious habits can be created easily, by co-occurrence of two events. Non-reinforcement events aren’t always enough to extinguish the superstition, as they are usually ignored or forgotten. But remember, “Correlation does not imply causation”!