How pigeons get to be superstitious
B.F. Skinner is a psychologist best known for the Skinner Box, a kind of sensory-deprivation device which limits the creature inside it to only one form of stimulus at a time. Using one such box, he discovered 'superstition' in pigeons.
One of the troubles with scientific experiments is that researchers need to keep all factors controlled. To keep all the pesky extra factors out of circulation, B.F. Skinner decided to literally shut them out. How? By putting the subject in a box. The Skinner Box took the subject out of a chaotic situation and put it in a blank box. The psychologist could then impose a single condition on the subject, like always giving a pigeon food if it pecks a button. Will it peck again? Only scrutiny will tell. Riveting stuff like that.
In one particular case, Skinner decided to go random on his hungry pigeons. He dropped food into the box at completely random times, independent of any behavior on the part of the pigeons. But the behavior of the pigeons, he found, didn't stay random. After a few drops of the food, the pigeons began exhibiting certain consistent behavior. One circled counter-clockwise, another spun around in circles; seventy-five percent of them exhibited some kind of odd behavior.
Skinner concluded that the pigeons had come to display 'superstitious behavior'. It was like the superstition of gamblers who believe they have a lucky hat. If the gambler wears the hat, they can't lose. If the pigeons circle the cage counter-clockwise, they will bring on food pellets.
This might be an over-statement. The gambler has the capacity to understand rationally that a green hat won't bring good cards. The pigeons, on the other hand, have tiny little pea brains. The only creature who could understand that the food drops were random was the psychologist himself. Misunderstanding the situation is not the same as superstition. The experiment does, however, show that pigeons have a compulsion to search for pattern in events around them, the same way we do.
I love the part in the video, where he talks about gambling, and how it relates to operant conditioning. Gambling and lottery tickets and such are a hilarious example of the operant conditioning affecting humans.