Superstitious Pigeons

How humans find meaning when they can’t find the answers.

Superstitious Pigeons

How humans find meaning when they can’t find the answers.

The 14th century. Times are tough — the Hundred Years’ War is raging, newly freed peasants are trying to find a place in society, and a plague is afoot. The Black Death has already killed a third of the population in some parts of Europe, and no one really knows what is going on.

The Paris Academy, one of the major scientific institution of its day, is hard at work trying to explain the rise of what is later to be known as the Bubonic plague. After three years of consultation, they release a report. To their credit, it opens quite sensibly:

Seeing things which cannot be explained, even by the most gifted intellects, initially stirs the human mind to amazement; but after marvelling, the prudent soul next yields to its desire for understanding and, anxious for its own perfection, strives with all its might to discover the causes of the amazing events.

But the ‘most gifted intellects’ of the day cannot explain what they cannot explain.

They lack the basics of what we know as microbiology, a subject that would be developed centuries later with the help of crucial inventions such as the microscope. Scientists would need to be able to peer into realms hidden from the naked eye to finally relate the illness to the invisible bacteria Yersinia Pestis.

But the Paris Academy has no microscopes, and a sensible explanation is far from reach. So they invent one:

We say that the distant and first cause of this pestilence was and is the configuration of the heavens. In 1345, at one hour after noon on the 20th March, there was a major conjunction of three planets in Aquarius.

Mars was a malevolent planet, breeding anger and war, so it naturally had to have something to do with the violent black death sweeping across Europe.

Seven hundred years later, amid another plague, this kind of inference sounds ridiculous even to the most untrained ear. We make fun of the Academy, and similar wild pseudoscientific theories such as alchemy. But have we really come much farther?

Victor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning is a haunting reflection on his experiences during the holocaust, and a testament to the ability of man to endure even the greatest of hardship if he or she is able to find meaning within it. As Nietzsche says, “he who has a why can bear any how”.

Our ability to find meaning extends downwards from the highest metaphysical struggles to the most profane realms of everyday existence. As a species, we excel at finding patterns in the world and attaching meaning to them.

Often, our lives depend on it.

But life is quick, and complex, and accelerating in its pace everyday. We don’t usually have a lot of time to check the validity of our inferences. We’re prone not only to infer non-existent relationships between events in the external world, but to go even further astray — especially when we bring our own actions into the mix.

Rainmaking is a weather modification ritual that attempts to invoke rain, for example by dancing. Rituals of this sort have been known to exist from Africa to America to Europe, but we look down on them now, since our causal models of the weather have improved over the years.

But while most of us don’t literally raindance anymore, we perform our own little raindances in a hundred kinds of ways every day. These superstitions falls into the broader category of cognitive biases: systematic perceptual distortions that make us deviate from rational judgement. There are many cognitive biases (Wikipedia lists literally hundreds of them), and these biases are deeply rooted within us.

Evolutionary psychology can help us explain why.

Following the logic of our “good-enough-brains” vs. our slow and deliberate brains (or System 1 vs. System 2, as Daniel Kahneman calls it in his popular book Thinking, Fast And Slow), we are better sorry than safe. Good and fast heuristics are more important than timeless truths when we are, to reuse the cliché metaphor, running away from a tiger in the savannah.

And conversely, we are not the only species susceptible to developing biases. Famous and infamous behaviourist B.F.Skinner observed the development of similar behavioural patterns in pigeons in the 1948 in his work ‘Superstition’ in the pigeon, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

If a clock is now arranged to present the food hopper at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird’s behaviour, operant conditioning usually takes place. In six out of eight cases the resulting responses were so clearly defined that two observers could agree perfectly in counting instances. One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage.

The crucial point here is that the food is delivered to the pigeon completely at random. There is no pattern for the pigeon to be discerned, and the pigeon’s behaviour can in no way influence when food is given. But the pigeon’s brain is still constantly on the lookout for an explanation behind the food suddenly arising in the middle of the cage. In the words of the Paris Academy:

Seeing things which cannot be explained, even by the most gifted pigeon, initially stirs the pigeon mind to amazement…

So once the pigeon observes a correlation between its behaviour and the appearance of food, it infers causality and starts to perform a raindance. After the raindance is reinforced, Skinner notes that “A few accidental connections between a ritual and favourable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behaviour in spite of many unreinforced instances.”

Our brains construct our reality, and modern neuroscience teaches us that our brains are, first and foremost of all, agents acting in the world (as I went through in more detail in my article on why we might be looking at the brain in the wrong way).

When we bring a lucky charm to an exam and write a good grade, when we think of someone and that person calls us twenty seconds later, or when we do something nice to a stranger and get a pay-raise the next day, we quickly think about these events as having been influenced by our behaviour, as falling under our agency. We talk about the law of attraction, about Karma or synchronicity, but very probably we should just acknowledge our tendency for over-inferring causality between things unrelated.

As the raindancing pigeons teach us, the drive to connect external events to our actions is deeply rooted within us. And while we make fun of the misconceptions of the past, cognitive biases have their way of sneaking back into our lives. Let’s be frank: your local newspaper likely still features daily horoscopes that showcase our ability to infuse just about every kind of vague statement with a profound sense of meaning.

This is especially true in times of large uncertainty when our minds are stirred by something we cannot explain. Just as during the black death, the rise of conspiracy theories around COVID-19 bears testament to that fact.

And while abstractly knowing about our biases doesn’t make us immune to them, it can always be fruitful to take a moment to re-examine our lives and think about our own little raindances.

In 1979, a certain Russell Schnell of the University of Colorado was wondering why tea plantations in Kenya hold the world record for hailstorms. Upon investigation, he found tiny particles in the dead and decaying tea-leaves that were remarkably similar to the particles around which the hailstorms were formed — and what’s more, those particles were far more effective than man-made cloud-seeding chemicals.

The critical actors, it turned out, was a certain kind of bacteria, dubbed the Pseudomonas syringae, that had the special ability to trigger ice formation at a relatively high temperature. Pseudomonas used this ability to break down the cell walls of the plants it fed on — but it also used them in the skies, to trigger condensation and rainfall. We now know that several kinds of bacteria, fungal spores, and algae have this special ability, which means any human activity that puts bugs into the air is a potential rain-making activity, including tramping tea plantations — and raindancing.

It almost makes one wonder if those pigeons, too, were on to something after all.