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  • Dr. Piotr Solowiej PT, DPT

Pigeon Superstitions and College Pranks

Recently I was reading a book directed at demonstrating the randomness and non-linearity inherent to various aspects of life. The author cited a particularly interesting study.

We have to go way back to 1948 for this one. The experiment observed the behavior of pigeons, in a box, with a feeding hopper built into one of the walls. It was run by non other than the legendary psychologist B.F. Skinner. At first the box contained a switch, which when pressed was directly linked to a door that would open. When the door opened, food appeared, and the pigeon fed. Skinner also had a brilliant idea to rig the door to a timer, meaning the door would open at certain intervals irrespective of any other factors. What he observed was quite remarkable:

The pigeons demonstrated what he calls superstitious behavior. The birds grew to believe that whatever they happened to be doing just prior to the opening of the door, was responsible for them getting fed. Since, we know the parameters of the experiment, we know this is not the truth. As long as too much time did not pass between the next feeding (extinction), the ritual behavior became further reinforced.


For an example that's a bit easier to generalize, let's look at a story from some college pranksters. I'm currently reading the biography of Steve Jobs, which includes a serendipitously similar story (to the pigeons) about Steve Wozniak in college. Both Jobs and 'Woz' were pranksters from an early age, and their shenanigans only escalated as they got older. While in college, Woz constructed a sort of TV signal jammer and used it to mess with other kids on campus. By activating the device near a TV, he would make the screen go all fuzzy. Naturally other students in the room would go and tinker around with the TV to try and get the signal back. Within minutes he would get others performing all kinds of wacky movements, and holding awkward positions to 'maintain' signal quality. Here are some examples from Woz himself:

Funny and fascinating. We are very easily fooled into thinking we have control and some sort of deterministic effect, when we do not.


This is super interesting and really got me thinking: what kind of superstitions are we, as physical therapists and patients, practicing on a regular basis?

Is all that foam rolling, massaging, icing, or even stretching and exercising loosely correlated to a person's symptoms, but just enough to make it seem like there is a connection?

The implication of this study is this: we are often no better than pigeons at determining causality. The notion that two factors or events can be correlated, yet independent, is not a natural one. Our brains crave causality. This is the classic post hoc fallacy. Event B happens after event A, so therefore event A must cause event B.

Foam roll and sometime later, pain improves: therefore foam rolling is good for me. Exercise and sometime later, pain worsens: therefore exercising is bad for me. These examples are arbitrary and could present in the reverse as well.

Are we letting the natural fluctuation of things determine what we see as good or bad?

Lots of questions, not a lot of answers. Hope this got you thinking.

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