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Superstition in the Pigeon by B.F. Skinner

Superstition in the Pigeon by B.F. Skinner



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Published by David
Considered a learning theory classic, Superstition in The Pigeon By B.F. Skinner was first published in Journal of Experimental Psychology in 1948
Considered a learning theory classic, Superstition in The Pigeon By B.F. Skinner was first published in Journal of Experimental Psychology in 1948

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Published by: David on Apr 13, 2009
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Superstition in the Pigeon
B. F. Skinner (1948)First Published in Journal of ExperimentalPsychology, 38, 168-172
To say that a reinforcement is contingent upon a response may meannothing more than that it follows the response. It may follow becauseof some mechanical connection or because of the mediation of anotherorganism; but conditioning takes place presumably because of thetemporal relation only, expressed in terms of the order and proximityof response and reinforcement. Whenever we present a state of affairswhich is known to be reinforcing at a given drive, we must supposethat conditioning takes place, even though we have paid no attentionto the behavior of the organism in making the presentation. A simpleexperiment demonstrates this to be the case.A pigeon is brought to a stable state of hunger by reducing it to 75percent of its weight when well fed. It is put into an experimental cagefor a few minutes each day. A food hopper attached to the cage maybe swung into place so that the pigeon can eat from it. A solenoid anda timing relay hold the hopper in place for five sec. at eachreinforcement.If a clock is now arranged to present the food hopper at regularintervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird's behavior, operantconditioning usually takes place. In six out of eight cases the resultingresponses were so clearly defined that two observers could agreeperfectly in counting instances. One bird was conditioned to turncounter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns betweenreinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of theupper corners of the cage. A third developed a 'tossing' response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Twobirds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which thehead was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp
movement followed by a somewhat slower return. The body generallyfollowed the movement and a few steps might be taken when it wasextensive. Another bird was conditioned to make incomplete peckingor brushing movements directed toward but not touching the floor.None of these responses appeared in any noticeable strength duringadaptation to the cage or until the food hopper was periodicallypresented. In the remaining two cases, conditioned responses werenot clearly marked.The conditioning process is usually obvious. The bird happens to beexecuting some response as the hopper appears; as a result it tends torepeat this response. If the interval before the next presentation is notso great that extinction takes place, a second 'contingency' isprobable. This strengthens the response still further and subsequentreinforcement becomes more probable. It is true that some responsesgo unreinforced and some reinforcements appear when the responsehas not just been made, but the net result is the development of aconsiderable state of strength.With the exception of the counter-clockwise turn, each response wasalmost always repeated in the same part of the cage, and it generallyinvolved an orientation toward some feature of the cage. The effect of the reinforcement was to condition the bird to respond to some aspectof the environment rather than merely to execute a series of movements. All responses came to be repeated rapidly betweenreinforcements -- typically five or six times in 15 sec.The effect appears to depend upon the rate of reinforcement. Ingeneral, we should expect that the shorter the intervening interval, the

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