Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Contingencies of Superstition: Self-Generated Rules and Responding during Second-Order Response-Independent Schedules

Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Contingencies of Superstition: Self-Generated Rules and Responding during Second-Order Response-Independent Schedules

Article excerpt

Solving problems and performing behaviors based on solutions occurs continually throughout our daily activities. Sometimes, our actions can be characterized as logical, sometimes as fallacious. In either case, our success is often gauged by the moment-by-moment consequences of our actions. Human behavior appears to be particularly susceptible to fallacious rules and unnecessary behaviors in contexts that provide response-independent reinforcement. That is, circumstances that engender spurious correlations between behaviors and consequences may lead us to describe particular environmental events as dependent on our actions when, in fact, those consequences may be forthcoming independent of what we do. For example, simple games of chance that generate random winnings, such as slot machines, may lead gamblers to form and believe complex rules regarding the "special things" they must do in order to increase their chances of "hitting the jackpot" (Dixon & Hayes, 1998; Radin, 1997). By the same token, baseball players are notorious for developing superstitious "logic" and rituals while inside the batter's box (Malott, Whaley, & Malott, 1997). Although it is true that hitting jackpots and home runs both entail some very relevant responding, the potential for outcomes to become coincidentally correlated with superfluous and irrelevant behaviors dramatically increases the probability of players generating fallacious rules to guide their behavior in future endeavors.

Malott et al. (1997) describe irrelevant responding, initiated and maintained under the influence of adventitious contingencies and irrational rules, as "superstitious." Once a person has learned to respond under the control of a superstitious rule, compliance with that rule may preclude contact with the natural or programmed contingencies (Catania, Matthews, & Shimoff, 1982; Ono, 1994).

Current research in the experimental analysis of human behavior suggests that this phenomenon may be quite pervasive (cf. Lee, 1996), and the expression superstitious rule has been introduced to characterize verbal descriptions of response-consequence relations that are not in effect during scheduled contingencies (Heltzer & Vyse, 1994). Superstitious rules may operate as discriminative stimuli or contingency-specifying stimuli (Schlinger & Blakely, 1987) and may continue to function as such as long as the irrelevant behavior is reinforced via adventitious contingencies (Baron, Perone, & Galizio, 1991; Dermer & Rodgers, 1997; Heltzer & Vyse, 1994; Leighland, 1996; Newman, Buffington, & Hemmes, 1995; Rosenfarb, Newland, Brannon, & Howey, 1992; Vyse, 1991).

As a classic illustration, Wagner and Morris (1987) had preschool children perform in a free-operant environment during time-based, response-independent reinforcement conditions. Subjects received marbles (later exchangeable for toys) according to either a fixed-time (FT) 15-s or a FT 30-s schedule. Seven of the 12 children exhibited a clear and "specifiable dominant response" pattern (e.g., touching a clown on the nose) reminiscent of superstitious behaviors. Using a computer-interactive environment, Cerutti (1991) had subjects attempt to avoid time-based, response-independent tones by pressing panels during various mixed random-time (RT) and FT schedules. In this context, subjects' inaccurate guesses (as to the best way to avoid tones) were shaped by computer feedback. Results suggested that the subjects' verbal behavior in the form of guesses and panel pressing were more likely to be controlled by the shaping of guesses when response-independent tones were transmitted during highly indiscriminable random schedules. A replication by Cerutti (1994) forwarded the notion that compliance with shaped guesses was occasioned by indiscriminable random schedules as well as conspicuous monitoring (filming) of the subjects. Following these outcomes, Cerutti concluded that random distribution of events across time is a critical component to the self-generation of superstitious rules and behaviors (cf. …

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