Superstitious Pigeons

As with classical conditioning, exactly what associations are learned in operant conditioning has been an important research question. For example, in a classic 1948 experiment, Skinner provided pigeons with food at regular intervals regardless of what they were doing at the time. Six of his eight pigeons developed stereotyped (consistent) patterns of behavior as a result of the experiment despite the fact that the pigeons' behavior was not really necessary. According to the Law of Effect, some behavior would be occurring just prior to food delivery and this behavior would be strengthened simply by chance pairing with reinforcement. This would increase the strength of the response, making it more likely to occur when the next reward was delivered—strengthening the response still further. Ultimately, one behavior would dominate the pigeons' behavior in that experimental context. Skinner referred to this phenomenon as superstition. One need only observe the behavior of baseball players approaching the plate or basketball players lining up for a free-throw shot to see examples of superstition in human behavior.

Superstition again raises the issue of contiguity—simply presenting reinforcement soon after the response is made appears to strengthen it. However, later studies, especially a 1971 experiment conducted by J. E. R. Staddon and V. Simmelhag, suggested that it might not be quite that simple. Providing food rewards in superstition experiments changes a variety of responses, including natural behaviors related to the anticipation of food. In operant conditioning, animals are learning more than the simple contiguity of food and behavior; they are learning that their behavior (R) causes the delivery of food (Sr). Contiguity is important but is not the whole story.

In addition, psychologists have explored the question "What makes a re-inforcer reinforcing?" That is to say, is there some set of stimuli that will "work" to increase the behaviors followed in every single circumstance? The answer is that there is not some set of rewards that will always increase behavior in all circumstances. David Premack was important in outlining the fact that reinforcement is relative, rather than absolute. Specifically, Premack suggested that behaviors in which an organism is more likely to engage serve to reinforce behaviors in which they are less likely to engage. In a specific example, he examined children given the option of playing pinball or eating candy. Some children preferred pinball and spent more of their time playing the game than eating the candy. The opposite was true of other children. Those who preferred pinball would increase their candy-eating behavior (R) in order to gain access to the pinball machine (Sr). Those who preferred eating candy would increase their pinball-playing behavior (R) in order to gain access to candy (Sr). Behaviors that a child initially preferred were effective in reinforcing behaviors that the child was less likely to choose—but not the other way around.

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