What Pigeons Can Teach You About Expectations

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A lot of psychological studies are just plain silly. Do we really need experimental data to tell us that power corrupts, or that pain and sickness are depressing, or that people like to hear things that confirm their biases? However, there is one bit of experimental psychology that, when I tell people about it, causes their faces to light up. It informs them of something that ought to be obvious, but isn’t. It can explain how you get caught up in the madness of doing what you have always done despite mostly getting the crappy outcome you’ve always got. What is this result of experimental psychology that has so much explanatory power? We call it the intermittent reinforcement schedule.

It’s easy to train a pigeon to peck at a lever. All you need to do is give it a piece of birdseed whenever they do. It takes just a few times before they get the hang of it. It’s nearly as easy to train a pigeon, once they have learned to peck at a lever, to stop. All you need to do is stop giving them the birdseed. They’ll keep pecking at the lever for a few times, but eventually they’ll learn that no birdseed is forthcoming and they’ll go on to do other things, whatever it is that pigeons do when they’re not pecking at levers.

But what happens if, when you are teaching the pigeon to peck at the lever, you only give them birdseed once in a while? That’s what experimental psychologist, BF Skinner, discovered when he ran low on birdseed in the middle of training his pigeons. In an effort to conserve the birdseed, he tried just rewarding them intermittently. Skinner found that it took the birds a bit longer to learn that he wanted them to peck the lever; but, once they caught on, they were lever pecking machines, presumably obsessed with pecking levers, pecking them whenever they could, pecking them till the cows came home. Then, when he tried to get them to stop by withholding birdseed entirely whenever they pecked at the lever, they kept right on pecking. Skinner discovered that rewarding behavior intermittently was more powerful than doing it consistently.

You know what was going on in those pigeons’ minds when Skinner was trying to teach them that no birdseed was forthcoming when they pecked the lever; they were thinking, maybe this time I’ll get lucky. It’s the same thing that’s going on in your mind when you feed quarters into a slot machine for the zillionth time. It’s the same thing going through the mind of any addict when he shoots up, walks into a bar, clicks on porn, or cruises the personal ads on Craigslist. They’re all looking for the big payout. The fact that they more frequently come up empty, or worse, have adverse experiences, is insignificant compared to the fact that occasionally they are rewarded.

It’s also the same thing that’s going through the mind of a partner of those addicts, or the battered spouse, or the abused child when he seeks love and affection from a person who mistreats him. Some of the time, they get what they’re looking for, sometimes they get love and affection; but sometimes they don’t. They are on a intermittent reinforcement schedule from hell, unable to escape because of their expectations.

BF Skinner, and other experimental psychologists like him, have often been criticized for confusing pigeons, and rats, with people. This is semi-valid criticism. Of course, you are not a pigeon; you’re a whole lot brighter than that. You are, that is, as long as you think about what you’re doing. If you’re not thinking about what you’re doing, if you’re just reacting automatically, then you’re acting just like the pigeons. So, don’t be a bird brain, recognize when you’re on a intermittent reinforcement schedule and do something different.

To go to the BF Skinner website, click here.