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Skinner placed pigeons in separate experimental chambers and set the equipment to deliver a bit of food every 15 seconds irrespective of what the pigeons were doing. The birds were not required to peck a key or perform any other specified response to get the food. After some time, Skinner returned to see what his birds were doing. He described some of what he saw as follows:
In six of eight cases the resulting responses were so clearly defined that two observers could agree perfectly in counting instances. 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. (p. 168)
The pigeons appeared to be responding as if their behavior controlled the delivery of the reinforcer, when, in fact, food was provided independently of behavior. Accordingly, Skinner calld this superstitious behavior.
To summarize it, the pigeons did not control the deliverance of food, but because they are programmed so that they can only find food after working for it; they created behaviour as if their self-imposed actions created the food production.
In this way, their made up behaviour was seen as the source for the food.
Indeed many humans do the same, where they believe certain actions create something in reality for their benefit. For example, the ancient sacrificed food and animals for their gods, believing doing otherwise would anger them. After many years, some groups tested if this was true, and found out it was not so, and thus changed their rituals. But in the end, every time new self-imposed behaviour towards the Divine was created.
Also charms, spells and amulets are self-imposed actions, but do nothing. Instead of testing their beliefs, they rather stay in their self-imposed behaviour, just to 'be safe'.
Thanks for sharing Noman!