Coincidence & Superstition: Ritual Origins

In keeping with the themes from my previous posts on prayer/probabilities and supplication/statistics, it would be remiss not to discuss B.F. Skinner’s classic 1948 study in which he demonstrated that the regular delivery or occurrence of something — or what might be called consistency of experience over time — can result in the (mistaken) perception of causation.

The set-up for Skinner’s experiment was simple.  He deprived pigeons of food for a period of time so they would be highly responsive to anything which resulted in food.  He then placed them in a cage which delivered a food pellet every 15 seconds, regardless of what the pigeon did or did not do.  There was nothing, in other words, that the pigeon could do to obtain the food or ensure the supply would continue.  It was a consistent and non-contingent delivery system.

In short order, the pigeons began recalling what actions they had taken before the food was delivered.  Some pigeons turned in circles, others tilted their heads, others tapped their feet, others swayed their bodies, and others tossed their heads.  The pigeons associated these particular actions with food delivery and began repeating them (in the manner of ritual).  The pigeons developed the perception, in other words, that the actions they were taking resulted in the subsequent delivery of food.  This is a causal perception, even though the each pigeon’s particularized and idiosyncratic action had no influence on food delivery.

Regarding this behavior, Skinner drew the following conclusions:

The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behavior. Rituals for changing one’s luck at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances.

These behaviors have, of course, no real effect upon one’s luck [in cards], just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing — or, more strictly speaking, did something else.

Such a stimulus has reinforcing value and can set up superstitious behavior. A pigeon will often develop some response such as turning, twisting, pecking near the locus of the discriminative stimulus, flapping its wings, etc. Their appearance as the result of accidental correlations with the presentation of the stimulus is unmistakable.

If pigeons behave in this way — mistaking correlation for causation — it stands to reason that humans, with their hypertrophied abilities to perceive actual or mistaken causes-effects, are even more prone to do so.  The philosopher David Hume wrote on this extensively, and pointed out that much of what we take for causation is actually correlation.

When a shaman performs a rain dance it will, sooner or later, rain.  When someone prays for generalized life improvement, it will sooner or later improve.  This brings us close to the origins of ritual.


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