Superstitious Behavior in Animal Training

Dog snarling

Superstitious behavior is easy to create and extremely difficult to extinguish (photo from galleryhip.com).

 

Superstitious behavior is behavior we erroneously associate with particular results. Animals create superstitions as we do. If, by accident, a particular stimulus and consequence occur a number of times temporarily close to one another, we tend to believe that the former caused the latter. Both reinforcing and inhibiting consequences may create superstitious behavior. In the first case, we do something because we believe it will increase the odds of achieving the desired result (we do it for good luck). In the second case, we do not do something because we do not want something else to happen (it gives bad luck).

In 1948, B.F. Skinner recorded the superstitious behavior of pigeons making turns in their cages and swinging their heads in a pendulum motion. The pigeons displayed these behaviors attempting to get the food dispensers to release food. They believed their actions were connected with the release of food, which was not true because the dispensers were automatically programmed to dispense food at set intervals.

Timberlake and Lucas concluded in 1985 “[…] that superstitious behavior under periodic delivery of food probably develops from components of species-typical patterns of appetitive behavior related to feeding. These patterns are elicited by a combination of frequent food presentations and the supporting stimuli present in the environment.”

We should be very careful when reinforcing any desirable behavior the animal we train shows us. If the reinforcement happens to coincide with other more or less accidental stimuli, we may be creating superstitious behavior. We may create superstitious behavior with any reinforcement, but probably food is the most liable to do it.

 

Dog barks at door.

This can be superstitious behavior: the dog believes that if it barks long enough at the door, someone will open it because it has happened before. Many CHAP (Canine Home Alone Problems) are not even remotely connected with anxiety as many dog owners erroneously presume.

 

In one of our Guinea Pig camps, we saw Guinea pigs displaying superstitious behavior. One of them would place a paw on the tin containing the target scent and would swing its head repeatedly in the direction of the trainer. The piggy created the superstition because the trainer presented the reinforcers (“dygtig” and food) when it swung its head and not when it placed the paw on the tin right after sniffing the target scent. It did not take many repetitions before the animal had created an erroneous association. Another would walk over the tin if it didn’t get a reinforcer right away.

Superstitious behavior is extremely resistant to extinction. Skinner found out that some pigeons would display the same behavior up to 10,000 times without reinforcement. Displaying a behavior expecting a reinforcer, and receiving none, increases persistence. It’s like we (as well as other animals) feel that we continue long enough the reinforcement will happen sooner or later.

As always, being an evolutionary biologist, the first question that comes to my mind is, “what conditions would favor the propagation of superstitious behavior?” Making correct associations between events confers a substantial advantage in the struggle for survival. That is what understanding (or adapting to) one’s environment means. The benefits of getting one association right outweigh the costs of making several wrong associations, so much that natural selection favors those who tend to make associations rather than those who do not—and that’s why superstitious behavior is highly resilient to extinction.

 

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How to Correct Superstitious Behavior

Dog Pawing.

Pawing is a common canine pacifying behavior. If we are sometimes a bit too late with our reinforcers and reinforce pawing instead of the behavior the dog just gave us, the dog may create an association between pawing and the reinforcer (and not the behavior we wanted). This is what we call superstitious behavior in animal learning (photo from WJLT).

As I wrote yesterday, we created superstitious behavior in two Guinea pigs by being slightly off with the timing of our reinforcers. The piggies showed the erroneous association between some irrelevant behavior and the reinforcers. This accidental association is what we call superstitious behavior in animal learning. It is (not surprisingly) very similar to the way we form our own superstitions.

In our case, and fortunately, we discovered it early enough so we could correct it relatively easily. Skinner found that his pigeons would repeat superstitious behavior 10,000 times even in the absence of reinforcing, but their behavior had been accidentally reinforced many mores times than the behavior of our Guinea pigs.

The trainers, aware of the undesired behavior they had created in their piggies concentrated their efforts yesterday on extinguishing it. Fully focused on applying the reinforcers to the desired behavior at the right timing, they trained some sessions and by the end of the morning, it seemed both piggies had gotten it right. It was not an easy task because it required excellent observation skills and an exquisite sense of timing. Remember that we wanted to extinguish the superstitious behavior, not the correct “paw on tin” behavior that we had chosen as our preferred indication behavior for the location of the target scent.

We had a most satisfactory Guinea pig camp training day yesterday. Problems will always and inevitably arise and there is nothing we can do about it. Preparation is necessary and reduces the odds of running into problems considerably, but there are too many variables. We cannot reasonably expect never to encounter issues. Therefore, the key to success is to keep cool, analyze the issues, devise a plan of action to correct them, apply the plan and monitor its results. Sometimes, not seldom, we need to adjust our repairing plans a few times before we get the result we want. It’s all part of the process of training, and we’d better enjoy it. Getting upset does not lead us anywhere. On the contrary, in will only complicate further the resolution of the problems.

Since superstitious behavior is highly resistant to extinction, as Skinner demonstrated, and I explained yesterday, we should keep a sharp eye on the behavior of our animals. Remember that in most cases, it is us who create the erroneous associations between stimulus and consequence by accidentally reinforcing the wrong behavior. Reinforcers are powerful learning tools. With them, we can create (almost) all sorts of desired as well as undesired behavior.

ลูกปุย (Lūk puy) performed very well once we had extinguished his superstitious behavior. In the afternoon, he and his team passed the double-blind test in scent detection. I leave you here with the little movie of that moment. We will edit the footage we have and will publish later a movie of the work of the other (equally successful) teams. This was indeed a memorable Guinea pig camp and we were very fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn so many good lessons.

Thanks to all the teams and to Michael and Natalie McManus for hosting the camp. Life is great!

 

 

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Warning—You May Be Teaching Your Pet to Be Superstitious

Dog barking.
Warning: superstitious behavior is easy to create and extremely difficult to extinguish.

 

Superstitious behavior is behavior we erroneously associate with particular results. Animals create superstitions as we do. If by accident, a particular stimulus and consequence occur a number of times temporarily close to one another, we tend to believe that the former caused the latter. Both reinforcing and inhibiting consequences may create superstitious behavior. In the first case, we do something because we believe it will increase the odds of achieving the desired result (we do it for good luck). In the second case, we do not do something because we do not want something else to happen (it gives bad luck).

In 1948, B.F. Skinner recorded the superstitious behavior of pigeons making turns in their cages and swinging their heads in a pendulum motion. The pigeons displayed these behaviors attempting to get the food dispensers to release food. They believed their actions were connected with the release of food, which was not true because the dispensers were automatically programmed to dispense food at set intervals.

 

Dog barks at door.

Some cases of CHAP (Canine Home Alone Problems) could be superstitious behavior. The dog believes that if it barks long enough at the door, someone will open it because it has happened before. Many CHAP cases are not even remotely connected with anxiety as the dog owners erroneously presume.

 

Yesterday, we saw two of our Guinea pigs displaying superstitious behavior. One of them would place a paw on the tin containing the target scent and would swing its head repeatedly in the direction of the trainer. The piggy created the superstition because the trainer presented the reinforcers (“dygtig” and food) when it swung its head and not when it placed the paw on the tin right after sniffing the target scent. It did not take many repetitions before the animal had created an erroneous association. Another would walk over the tin if it didn’t get a reinforcer right away.

Superstitious behavior is extremely resistant to extinction. Skinner found out that some pigeons would display the same behavior up to 10,000 times without reinforcement. Displaying a behavior expecting a reinforcer, and receiving none, increases persistence. It’s like we (as well as other animals) feel that if we continue long enough the reinforcement will follow sooner or later.

As always, being an evolutionary biologist, the first question that comes to my mind is, “what conditions would favor the propagation of superstitious behavior?” Making correct associations between events confers a substantial advantage in the struggle for survival. That is what understanding (or adapting to) one’s environment means. The benefits of getting one association right outweigh the costs of making several wrong associations, so much that natural selection favors those who tend to make associations rather than those who do not—and that’s why superstitious behavior is highly resilient to extinction.

ลูกปุย (Lūk puy) not only survived the day before yesterday but seems to be in top form, charming as always and showing his skills in scent discrimination.

 

The 20 principles Cover EN

"The 20 Principles All Animal Trainers Must Know" for only EUR 89.
Course and book by ethologist Roger Abrantes (book available in English, French, Portuguese Spanish and Italian).
Study online at your own pace. Follow your passion and earn a certificate.
Click here to read more and enroll.