Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Of Pigeons and People

What do people have in common with pigeons? Well, both carry lots of germs. Both like to crap on famous people – birds literally on statues and people figuratively on celebs. (If you are human and you literally crap on celebs then you may need urgent psychiatric care. Also, eeeeuuuuuwwwww!!!!) Both humans and pigeons seem to congregate in large numbers in major cities. But besides these obvious similarities, there is another striking similarity most people are not aware of: Both pigeons and people seem to believe they can control the universe through superstitious rituals.

Back in the 1940’s an American psychologist, Dr BF Skinner did a fascinating experiment with pigeons. He placed a series of hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to the pigeon "at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird's behavior." He discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as it was delivered, and that they subsequently continued to perform these same actions.

One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a 'tossing' response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return.” (

“Now wait”, you may say while ignoring everything you know about athletes, gamblers and people in general, “just because that happened with stupid birds doesn’t mean it applies to people!” And you may be right for Dr Skinner certainly had his critics. BUT similar tests were in fact done on people*. Wagner and Morris did a similar experiment on children in 1987 and Japanese psychologist Koichi Ono did one with adults. Right, I should probably clarify! The humans were not kept in cages and fed at regular intervals. The children (age 3-6) had to collect marbles from a giant clown to win a toy and the adults had to pull different coloured levers to earn points – only they weren’t told how to earn points. Both the points for the adults and the marbles for the kids were dispensed at random intervals. Yet sure enough in both the children and the adults strange and pointless rituals were assumed. The children would strike a certain facial expression or jump up and down or kiss the clown on the nose for instance. Meanwhile, the adults would tap the machine on the side before pulling the levers or jump up to touch the ceiling. Not once did anyone decide to simply sit and wait to see what would happen if they did nothing. Sound silly? Sure it does! It is silly! Yet we all do it.

Its easy to dismiss these experiments as psychologists just screwing with people (and pigeons). Yet they demonstrate one of the strangest truths about us – the fact that we believe we can control the universe by magical means. Oh we don’t call it magic, we call it lucky charms (or lucky pens, lucky shoes, lucky ). We don’t even always go that far. Sometimes we just do things a certain way without any reason other that when we first did it that way something good happened. Other times we may do something as pointless as stepping on an imaginary brake pedal while in the passenger seat to slow the car down or we press an elevator button repeatedly to make it go faster or rub a coin before putting it in a meter (I may be wrong on that one but I'm not convinced that does anything). Yes, clearly we are NOTHING like those stupid pigeons!

Like I mentioned before, this level of superstition and magical thinking is usually most obvious amongst athletes and gamblers, but make no mistake, it lives in us all to some degree. Well, to be fair I can’t speak for you. But I can most certainly speak for me. For some reason bowling alleys bring out the superstition in people. I remember the time I would wait on a certain coloured ball to the frustration of everyone else because I believed that I bowled better with the blue one. Now there were others of the same size, shape and weight, but since I had bowled a strike with the blue one I decided the blue one was “lucky”. It wasn’t, I only bowled one strike and the rest of my game was pretty mediocre but that didn’t change my mind at all. That’s the strangest thing about these rituals of ours, we never bother to question their veracity. When the great result is not repeated we immediately assume that the fault lies with US – maybe we didn’t do it exactly right the second time, maybe we didn’t believe hard enough, maybe someone else influenced it, etc – but we never for a moment stop to think that maybe our “magic” way of influencing/changing the universe may be completely pointless!

Now why we behave like this I will leave to the psychologists and their wacky experiments. But I can most certainly determine how this affects me. Isn’t that just the strangest part of all? See we actually CAN influence our universe! Sadly, this takes work, energy and dedication to something but unlike magic it actually brings a consistent change. Fair enough, a lot of things are not under our control. But again, we have it in our power to recognize those things and deal with them! If I may go back to my earlier example of the imaginary brake pedal I can illustrate this. Lets say you are in the passenger seat and the car is going to fast for your liking. Well there is no way you can physically slow the car down since you are not the one driving. Attempting magic by stepping on an imaginary pedal will utterly fail to yield any results as you hopefully realize. However you are not utterly helpless - you still have the option of speaking to to the driver and telling him/her to slow down please. (Always say "please". ) This is not a guarantee that the car will slow down of course, but its far more effective at changing the world than stepping on a brake thats not there! When it comes to this world, things may be out of your control but that does not mean they are out of your influence. You can change things. Just not through magic and superstitious ritual - it is a waste of your energy and worse, it gives you the illusion of influence and so keeps you from actually doing something real.

So since I can bring change in my own corner of the universe I plan to. I will not succumb to the belief that I am a passenger in my own life, helpless to change the direction that fate is taking me. However when I do recognize that there are things that are utterly out of my hands I will accept them and learn to work around them. I will do my utmost to recognize superstitions in my life and remove them lest they distract me from the fact that I DO have a say in what happens to me.

The best superstitions of pigeons and people often go awry. At least the pigeons have an excuse - they have a brain the size of a marble. I will NOT be a pigeon! All I really have control over is myself and my actions. I plan to exercise this control fully and not get blinded by superstition again.

*For more information on these facinating experiments check out the book "Believing in magic" by Stuart Vyse.

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