In one particular case, Skinner decided to go random on his hungry pigeons. He dropped food into the box at completely random times, independent of any behavior on the part of the pigeons. But the behavior of the pigeons, he found, didn't stay random. After a few drops of the food, the pigeons began exhibiting certain consistent behavior. One circled counter-clockwise, another spun around in circles; seventy-five percent of them exhibited some kind of odd behavior. Skinner concluded that the pigeons had come to display 'superstitious behavior'. It was like the superstition of gamblers who believe they have a lucky hat. If the gambler wears the hat, they can't lose. If the pigeons circle the cage counter-clockwise, they will bring on food pellets.

from How-pigeons-get-to-be-superstitious....

Seems curious that this wouldn’t have been pursued as an avenue of study with other animals.

Can anyone find me a citation of such studies and does anyone know if the study has been repeated elsewhere?

  • $\begingroup$ According to the cognitive perspective, superstitious behavior is mediated by a kind of mechanism, like the Pascal's one. But, what the data have been demonstrated is that superstition is independent of detection or rational formulation (see, for example: sciencemag.org/content/199/4324/88). $\endgroup$
    – user2963
    Apr 29, 2013 at 21:47

1 Answer 1


For instance, the same behavior was also shown in orang-utan and dog. Already two years after the study by Skinner (1947) mentioned in the news article, Kellogg (1949) gave a review of some of the experimental results, but advocates a less anthropomorphic interpretation:

Kellogg, W. N. (1949) 'Superstitious' behavior in animals. Psychological Review, Vol 56(3), 172-175. doi: 10.1037/h0055221


The orang-utan and dog as well as the pigeon have shown "superstitious" behavior. It has appeared in conditioning and multiple-choice experiments. Interpreting such behavior as superstitious is mentalistic and anthropomorphic. "An alternate and less complicated interpretation would be that these activities—whether relevant or irrelevant to the solution of the problem—are ordinary instances of the association of a sequence of movements with a reinforcing stimulus."

Interestingly, superstitious behavior is still a topic of interest for research done with humans. See for example the results of a PubMed search with this search term: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?db=pubmed&cmd=DetailsSearch&term=%22superstitious+behavior%22&save_search=true

Kellogg, W. N. (1949) 'Superstitious' behavior in animals. Psychological Review 56(3), 172-175.
Skinner, B. F. (1947) 'Superstition' in the Pigeon, Journal of Experimental Psychology 38, 168-172.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you. I just found it puzzling that I've seen a few people refer to skinner's pidgeons and couldn't recall or find anything via google. Seems to me that understanding that 'Superstitious' behavior in animals is key to understanding understanding certain aspect of ourselves. Thank you for finding that for me. $\endgroup$
    – user179700
    Apr 27, 2012 at 20:04
  • $\begingroup$ I have personally observed similar behavior in small trout that is fed frequently at a local lake. The trout touches the surface of water (clear, nothing there), creating an air bubble that bursts with ripples, letting the feeder know trout is there. I saw the same behavior repeatedly when a person approaches lakeside. I hypothesize that these fish have an association between touching the surface and food falling there $\endgroup$
    – Alex Stone
    Apr 30, 2013 at 0:28

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