Are We Superstitious About "Superstitious" Behavior?

In the spirit of the Halloween season, it seems appropriate to comment on superstitious behavior, the subject of one of B. F. Skinner's best-known scientific papers. He delivered brief presentations of food to a hungry pigeon every 15 seconds, independently of any required response by the pigeon. Despite the fact that no response was required, each of several pigeons developed idiosyncratic, stereotyped responding during the period between food deliveries. Skinner labeled such behavior as "superstitious," and suggested that it maintained because of the accidental temporal closeness between whatever the pigeon was doing at the time and delivery of the food, what has come to be called adventitious reinforcement. He not only elaborated the theoretical importance of the close temporal relation between a response and the events that follow, but also extrapolated his observations about the pigeons' behavior to everyday life.  

Skinner's ideas about superstitious behavior are echoed in many experimental procedures and applied techniques. Scientists and practitioners often take great care to separate important environmental changes from particular responses lest the accidental relations between them prove detrimental to the experiment or application they are undertaking. For example, in experimental studies of choice, it is useful to separate reinforcement for one response from responding on the other alternative by using what has been called a change-over-delay, or COD. A related procedure is often used in application.  If, for example, a teacher does not want to accidentally reinforce loud talking by following it with the start of recess, she simply requires a short period of quiet before allowing the children to proceed to the playground.  In the absence of such a protection contingency, the possibility looms of loud talking or other disruptive behavior being reinforced inadvertently by the onset of recess.      

Despite the intuitive logic of the concept of superstitious behavior, numerous seeming examples of its appearance in research settings, and its many practical implications for treatment and behavior management generally, superstitious behavior remains a subject of considerable controversy among basic researchers. Several prominent scientists have failed to replicate the details of Skinner's original experiment and have offered alternative ways of accounting for the behavior Skinner labeled superstitious. In other experiments, however, what is thought to be superstitious behavior has been documented and elaborated. Unfortunately, much of the research on superstitious behavior has been conducted with pigeons as subjects, which have their own peculiarities when hungry and being given food, hereby limiting the generality of the findings. There are, however, a few studies with rats and even a couple involving human subjects. Indeed, different investigators have found different patterns of behavior, depending in part whether they observe the behavior early or late in exposure to the response-independent food or other reinforcers and on the details of the experimental chamber in which the experiments are conducted.

With all of the inconsistencies in what is actually observed under such a procedurally simple preparation, it should come as no surprise that there are widely different interpretations of the observed behavior. Many still find the notion of superstitious behavior useful and contend that adventitious reinforcement is the most parsimonious interpretation of the results. Others argue with equal vigor that the behavior is more closely tied to biological systems.  All of this ado about superstitious behavior leads to the question of whether we are being superstitious about our continued use of the concepts of adventitious reinforcement and the superstitious behavior that follows. Or is it really a brilliant insight about how environments shape behavior in the absence of explicit contingencies of reinforcement? Obviously more research is needed, to use that tried and true sophomoric ending to a lab report! But in the case of superstitious behavior it's true, especially given the continued widespread use of the concept of adventitious reinforcement in the face of the many cautionary warnings, caveats, and refutations of some very clever scientists. 

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.