“And there is a good example of how you can move from the pigeon to the human case.”

B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) was an American psychologist, behaviorist, inventor and social philosopher. He founded a school of experimental research psychology — the experimental analysis of behavior. Skinner was especially know for his investigations in how certain behaviors can be reinforced by conditioning stimuli. B.F. Skinner is considered a pioneer of modern behaviorism.

One of Skinner’s experiments examined the formation of superstition in pigeons: A hungry pigeon is in a cage with a button and a closed door. The door shields the pigeon from a bowl of seeds. Like most other living creatures, the dove quickly associates the push of the button with a reward. But when a timer opens the door every 20 seconds, the dove starts to wonder: “What did I do to deserve this?” If it was flipping the wings on at the given moment, it will continue to flap the wings, convinced that it’s actions has a decisive influence on what happens. We call this “pigeon superstition”.

With the experiment Skinner showed how creatures – including humans – tend to construct meaning. Even when cause and effect don’t have an evident connection, we want to create one ourselves. The principles Skinner used to influence the pigeons are similar to techniques magicians use to trick audience’s perception.

“No theory changes what it is a theory about; man remains what he has always been.”


(C)Ken Heyman-Woodfin Camp and Associates B.F. Skinner. CH-745-003-A. Woodfin Camp and Associates, Incorporated 7th Floor 341 West 38th Street New York, New York 10018 Tel: (212) 947-2668 Fax: (212) 947-2664 email:

Realized with support from the Danish Arts Foundation