Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Superstitious Location Changes by Human Beings

Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Superstitious Location Changes by Human Beings

Article excerpt

Variation and selection are said to be key processes in the development and maintenance of operant behavior (e.g., Donahoe, Burgos, & Palmer, 1993; Morgan, Morgan, & Toth, 1992; Skinner, 1981; Staddon & Simmelhag, 1971). Variation comprises the successive sets of behavioral variants that precede and follow selection by reinforcers. It includes variability along response dimensions such as force (e.g., Notterman, 1959; Rilling, Kramer, & Askew, 1970) and spatial location (e.g., Antonitis, 1951) and includes variants that arise through combinational transfer (Epstein, 1985). Selection consists of the changes that reinforcers induce in a set of variants (Staddon & Simmelhag, 1971).

Selection can occur when reinforcers enter into noncontingent (or response-independent) relations with behavior. Noncontingent reinforcers follow behavior but are not caused by (i.e., contingent on) it. In contrast, contingent reinforcers are caused by behavior and can, though need not necessarily, immediately follow it. Selection by noncontingent reinforcers is often investigated with response-independent schedules (e.g., fixed-time schedule) in which time alone controls the reinforcer. Skinner (1948) demonstrated the maintenance of behavior by such a schedule. When food was made available to pigeons every 15 seconds (i.e., FT 15-sec) independent of behavior, six pigeons repeatedly engaged in a dominant action (e.g., counterclockwise turns, head thrusting) during the interreinforcement interval. For one pigeon, intermittent availability of food was terminated and subsequently reinstated, with a corresponding reversal of the dominant action. The term "superstition" refers to such a response-independent schedule of reinforcement and the behavior it maintains.

The occurrence and significance of the superstitions initially demonstrated by Skinner (1948) have been debated (e.g., Eldridge, Pear, Torgrud, & Evers, 1988; Fenner, 1980; Justice & Looney, 1990; Staddon & Simmelhag, 1971; Timberlake & Lucas, 1985). Two early studies in this series (Staddon & Simmelhag, 1971; Timberlake & Lucas, 1985) could not reproduce Skinner's (1948) results and suggested that the pecking and wall-directed behavior observed under fixed-time and variable-time schedules were species-typical behaviors elicited by food. In contrast, Justice and Looney (1990) reproduced Skinner's results, and Eldridge et al. (1988) provided data which suggested that the wall-directed behavior reported by Timberlake and Lucas (1985) could have been maintained superstitiously by reinforcers not directly controlled by the experimenters.

Less disputed results have been found in studies of human superstitions. Wagner and Morris (1987) obtained evidence of superstitions with young children, as did Zeiler (1972). Cerutti (1991) found human participants instructed to press panels to prevent tones continued to press the panels although the tones were not preventable. This result suggested that human compliance with instructions can be maintained superstitiously. Higgins, Morris, and Johnson (1989) found young children persistently pressed a clown's nose when marbles were delivered by the clown on a variable-time (VT) schedule. This result was obtained only when the children either had been instructed to press the clown's nose or had watched a video of other children pressing the clown's nose under the VT schedule. In contrast, Ono (1987) demonstrated superstition with only 3 of 20 human adults when sensory consequences were presented on a response-independent schedule.

Response-independent reinforcement, as used in research on superstition, has been combined with response-dependent reinforcement in various ways; specifically, following it (e.g., Gleeson, Lattal, & Williams, 1989; Neuringer, 1970) or alternating with it (e.g., Eldridge et al., 1988; Lattal, 1974). For example, Lattal (1974) held constant the number and temporal distribution of interreinforcement intervals and varied the percentage of intervals in which access to grain was contingent on key pecking by pigeons. …

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