Tag Archives: operant conditioning

I feel like a pigeon…

Photo courtesy of thierr26.free.fr (under Creative Commons licence: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.5/)

One of the famous tests by behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner was an experiment in which food was presented to hungry pigeons at pre-determined intervals. The pigeons in the experiment would then associate whichever random behaviour they happened to be performing at the time (e.g. pecking at a particular spot, nodding its head, walking in a circle, etc.) with the appearance of the food, and a type of learning called operant conditioning would take place.

Each pigeon would keep displaying the random behaviour until the food re-appeared, thereby reinforcing the association and strengthening the false association between cause and effect. This was interpreted by Skinner as the pigeons showing ‘superstitious’ behaviour. In fact, as demonstrated on illusionist Derren Brown’s TV programme, this seems to work in humans too.

So why am I writing about pigeons? Well, I feel like I’m experiencing my own version of this superstitious behaviour with our little boy. It’s probably fair to say that he’s at the lower end of the bell curve of hours of sleep per day, given the average of around 16 hours a day. So we find ourselves having to do a lot of soothing between his unerringly regular feeds.

This means we’ve taken to all sorts random behaviours, from sitting him in a particular chair to playing Bach DVDs. Sometimes one of these will work and we then become convinced that that is what he needs to lull him to sleep.

It’s also very tempting to start to draw conclusions about what he does and doesn’t like on a higher emotional level, especially when a smile or a fixated stare coincides with a stimulus. It seems that early newborn smiling does not necessarily carry any emotional content and is rather a spontaneous event for up to at least one month. Their vision also has a long way to go in development. Any stimulus that co-occurs with such a behaviour can easily be causally linked in the observer’s mind, which obviously has implications for the emotional state projected upon the infant.

Clearly, social smiling and cognitive awareness do start to develop within the first few months of a baby’s life, but I thought I’d make this cautionary note on an intriguing behavioural trait that we all exhibit from time to time.

And it may be the case that walking sends my son to sleep, but I can’t help feeling like a pigeon when I’m on my third lap of the block.

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