Skinner and his superstitions

Do you cross you fingers and knock on wood? Or may be turn the other way when a black cat crosses your path? Being superstitious has little to do with being religious, and for some superstitions have become a fun quirk of their personality.

Unfortunately, I will have to disappoint some of you who thought this post will be about the all-time cultural-hit The X-Files. It will not, but may be I will write one in the near future! It is about another person named Skinner – this one – non-fictional.


But first back to superstitions. They are much more deeply rooted in our nature than many of us might think. Being able to suppress them or not is not always a question of intelligence. As it turns out, superstitions might be just as wide-spread among animals as they are in humans, but we rarely get to hear about them first hand.

A study was conducted in the late 40s’ to show that pigeons might be as susceptible to superstitions as people. They were starved in order to precondition them to feeding patterns related to a sound/visual stimulation. Think of Pavlov’s dogs experiment from the late 1800s’. Once the bird knew that food will come only when the sound and light signal comes, Dr┬áSkinner started the truly interesting part of his experiment.



He showed that by arbitrarily giving the sound/light signal when the bird makes a specific movement, he could influence the bird doing that same thing more and more frequently, and more pronounced. In fact, as the video shows, such reinforcement of behavior happens very easily – in the scope of just few tries. And not only that – some of the birds in the study group developed very complex routines of twisting and turning, “thinking” they are causative for the arrival of food.

Even more interesting is the fact humans and pigeons are not alone in being superstition-prone. As it turns out, the belief that an action can influence an outcome of a completely unrelated event is evolutionary allowed for, if not conserved. While it is energetically costly to rely on superstitions, there might be a little less than obvious evolutionary benefit from allowing for them to develop – social bonding and innate reward mechanisms. Sticking to rituals might help individual adhere to practices that benefit the survival of the social group. It might also make us feel good thinking we are doing anything we can to take control over uncontrollable variables of our lives. In these cases, it has an evolutionary gain for the group and there’s not reason to be selected against.

Bottom line is, if you have your favorite lucky charm and it does not carry risk for your health nor it is actively disturbing the others, feel free to carry it proudly without fear of being unscientific. After all psychological and social well-being are objectives of practical sociology/psychology. I have a pendant from my family, I always carry on me on important days. While I know it has nothing to do with the outcome of a situation, it makes me feel better and more connected with the people that always wish the best for me. Such feelings stimulate the self-confidence more than you might think, and often – just a little boost in confidence is all we need to succeed!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *