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We Are Superstitious Pigeons

April 13, 2012

Rheanna Sand

 

Friday the 13th means a lot of things to a lot of people. It can be a day to not leave your house. A day to avoid buying stock. The best day to buy lottery tickets. Or, to those in my age group, the worst and most prolific horror movie series of all time.

Whether you believe this day brings good luck or bad, you are still subscribing to the idea of "luck," which a form of superstition. Even people who don't care about Friday the 13th usually carry some irrational superstitions. For instance, when I am playing hockey, and have let no goals in, I can't even let myself THINK the word "shutout." I also avoid cracks in the sidewalk, though in New York I focus more on dodging oncoming pedestrians and not stepping in dog poop that this superstition has taken a back seat.

In modern society, we tend to ridicule superstition, but there is a biological basis for it. It's not even a strictly human phenomenon. In 1948, B.F. Skinner found what he called "superstition in the pigeon." Hungry pigeons were offered food at regular intervals, without any regard to the birds behavior, and in response they developed specific actions to try to elicit the reward. One would thrust its head repeatedly into the upper corner of the cage. One would pretend to lift a bar with its beak. One would turn twice counter-clockwise in a circle (I tried this once before a PCR, but it didn't work).

 

"Today is the day. Megamillions, you are MINE."
 

Skinner called this "superstition" because the birds were assigning a false cause-and-effect relationship between their movements and the food offering. Others claimed this was a simple form of conditioning and had no relation to human superstition. But a more recent study from 2009 suggests that there is an advantage to such false linkages, and that superstitions are inevitable during the evolution of advanced species. Natural selection favors individuals who make successful linkages (e.g. yellow striped snakes = death). So, the practice of avoiding snakes that have yellow stripes, even though not all of them are poisonous, persists. But once we have enough information to throw away the false linkages, we can do so without negative consequence.

Meaning, sorry friggatriskaidekaphobics, but it's probably time for Friday the 13th to be just another Friday.

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