Live from the Skinner box

It’s a weird artform, this blogging. I assume we all do it because we’re interested in being noticed. I know I am. And with the helpful WordPress stats, we can see it when other people look at our blog. However, this may very well work like a Skinner box.


Skinner put hungry pigeons in a cage and attached it to an automatic feeding mechanism. When the birds were fed at irregular intervals that had nothing to do with their behaviour, they became superstitious. The pigeons were smart enough to remember what they did just before the food came: maybe they were swinging their heads like a pendulum or even turning around full circle. Whatever it was they had done, they started to repeat that behaviour because they felt they could influence the delivery of food in that way.

Now, I don’t know what goes on in a pigeon’s mind, so excuse me for making that interpretation here.

If that is what’s happening inside the Skinner box, it’s the same as human superstition. You can see Skinner himself at work with a pigeon in this one-minute fragment on youtube. From the comments he makes I gather that he’s doing some operant conditioning in getting the pigeon to make a turn. That is a different principle from the superstitious behaviour altogether, because then the pigeon is rewarded for showing a certain behaviour.

By Lestat (Jan Mehlich) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Lestat (Jan Mehlich) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( Wikimedia Commons

The pigeons are superstitious because their actions have nothing to do with the end result. And because they assume otherwise.

I wonder how the analogy can be developed further for blogging. I’ve always felt that being superstitious has something to do with imagining that it’s all about you:

If I don’t walk under a ladder, I can influence what’s going to happen in the future. I can even fend off something bad that lies in store for me.

Have you noticed that superstition often seems to be about not doing things? So if I have a shower and a decent breakfast before I go on the internet, some people on the other side of the planet might find the time to look at my blog. And then when I do go on the net, I’ll find that they ‘liked’ me. Sounds familiar? It worked this morning!

Now as I sit here, I’m not shaking my head all the time behind the computer screen or walking round in circles before I look at the stats, but I find I’m not immune to superstitious thoughts and acts. Maybe you have to be vigilant to be sceptic.

About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
This entry was posted in sceptic, science and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Live from the Skinner box

  1. Lin says:

    I so identify with this, I actually laughed out loud. 😀

  2. Thank you for your comment, Lin. I really appreciate it!

  3. duncommutin says:

    Sounds so familiar – to a newly publishing blogger. I’m definitely a pigeon at heart.

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