We are all dancing pigeons

  In 1926, after B.F. Skinner graduated from Hamilton College with a degree in English, he moved to Greenwich Village in New York to attempt to become a writer, but soon became disillusioned with his abilities. After he got his hands on John B. Watson’s book Behaviorism, a book widely credited for starting the Behaviorist revolution in psychology, he decided to enroll in graduate studies at Harvard, where he devoured psychology and physiology. The publication of Skinner’s The Behavior of Organisms in 1938 cemented his status as a prominent up-and-coming experimental behaviorist.
            Two decades later, in 1957, Skinner began a new learning experiment with pigeons. First, he made sure that the pigeons were hungry by getting them down to 75% of their normal body weight. Then, he placed the svelte feathered beasts in a Plexiglass cage, where they were fed every fifteen seconds. The pigeons didn’t seem to realize that the food arrived consistently: if they had, they probably would have stayed where the food came out and waited. What they appeared to have learned, instead, was that their actions had somehow caused the food to appear. If they had been pecking right before the food came out, they assumed that the pecking led to food being served. If it was the bob of a head, they learned to associate the bobbing with the food. Armed with what they thought was useful information about how to get food, the hungry pigeons became increasingly emphatic, “bowing, scraping, turning, and dancing” in an attempt to get fed.
            “Conditioning takes place presumably because of the temporal relation only, expressed in terms of the order and proximity of response and reinforcement,” Skinner wrote. In other words, the pigeons learned that dancing would produce food because, initially, one followed the other. And as the amount of time between dancing and food decreased, the more strongly they learned that there was a causal relationship—even though the two events had absolutely nothing to do with each other. Since there was never a time when the pigeons danced but didn’t get food, they never had a chance, or desire, to unlearn this behavior. Whenever they danced, food appeared; each time that happened, their belief that the two were related was strengthened.

Skinner, being a dick to this bird, because there were no ethical guidelines back in the day.

          The outcome was so reliable and consistent that the experiment became one of Skinner’s famed lecture tricks. At the beginning of a lecture on, he set up the cage with the feeder hooked up to a timer, and then placed a pigeon inside. In a flight of showmanship, he’d cover it, so that the audience could hear the timer going off and the pigeon being fed, but couldn’t see what was happening underneath. At the end of the lecture, Skinner removed the cover, revealing animated dancing, swooping, or pecking behavior.
            “The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition,” Skinner wrote in 1948. “The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behavior.” From this, we can draw a few conclusions. First—and this is important—researchers working in the field of behavioral science are professional dicks; in the name of getting cushy academic jobs, they toy with our hearts, our sense of well-being, and, most heinously, our food.


We repeat actions when we’re rewarded with our desired outcome—and pigeons will keep on swooping and dancing until they’re given very clear feedback that they don’t have to dance to get fed.

What do you do because you need to? How do you know?