They may seem unlikely candidates
for psychological analysis, but pigeons
have given a revealing insight into how animals, including
humans, can be bound by superstition...
The Superstition Experiment
In the Summer of 1947, renowned psychiatrist
Skinner published his study on a group of pigeons that showed even animals are
susceptible to the human condition that is superstition.
Skinner conducted his research on a group of
hungry pigeons whose body weights had been reduced to 75% of their normal weight
when well-fed. For a few minutes each day, a mechanism fed the birds at regular
intervals. What observers of the pigeons found showed the birds developing superstitious
behaviour, believing that by acting in a particular way, or committing a certain
action, food would arrive.
Walking under ladders In Medieval times, people were hung from ladders before
the invention of gallows. Walking under one represented your
own execution. A religious explanation is based on triangles
representing the Holy Trinity. Walking through the triangle
created by the ladder, ground and wall was considered sacrilegious.
Seeing a partner in a wedding dress ...before the marriage ceremony takes place.
Breaking mirrors As a mirror is a reflection of a person, it has been thought
to represent one's soul, therefore breaking it - and in doing
so, damaging one's soul, is thought to bring 7 years of bad
What Skinner Discovered
By the end of the study, three quarters of the
birds had become superstitious. One pigeon, in pursuit of food, believed that
by turning around in the cage twice or three times between being fed, but not
just in any direction; the bird learnt to turn anti-clockwise and appeared to
believe that this would mean it being fed.
Now, it's easy to dismiss such behaviour
as normal - a bird in a cage might be expected to exercise a little. But the
other birds developed unique supertitious behaviours in an attempt to gain a
Other behaviors the observers discovered include what they described as
a 'pendulum' movement of the head, and a regular nodding movement in another
Experiment revealed that even pigeons can be conditioned to develop superstitious
behaviours in belief that they will be fed. But superstition is more obvious
in everyday human behaviour; for example, avoiding 3 consecutive grates in a
street, or walking under ladders.
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