Saturday Morning Science Experiment: B.F. Skinner Makes A Pigeon Do His Bidding

Another fun experiment you can try at home! Although, given pigeons' tendency to carry disease, I'd recommend training a cat, spouse or younger sibling. The video, sadly, winks out right as the expert is being brought in to explain Skinner's research. So, instead, enjoy this explanation of the pigeon experiment and its practical value, courtesy PBS:

With pigeons, he developed the ideas of "operant conditioning" and "shaping behavior." Unlike Pavlov's "classical conditioning," where an existing behavior (salivating for food) is shaped by associating it with a new stimulus (ringing of a metronome), operant conditioning is the rewarding of a partial behavior or a random act that approaches the desired behavior. Operant conditioning can be used to shape behavior. If the goal is to have a pigeon turn in a circle to the left, a reward is given for any small movement to the left. When the pigeon catches on to that, the reward is given for larger movements to the left, and so on, until the pigeon has turned a complete circle before getting the reward. Skinner compared this learning with the way children learn to talk -- they are rewarded for making a sound that is sort of like a word until in fact they can say the word. Skinner believed other complicated tasks could be broken down in this way and taught. He even developed teaching machines so students could learn bit by bit, uncovering answers for an immediate "reward." They were quite popular for a while, but fell out of favor. Computer-based self-instruction uses many of the principles of Skinner's technique.

Image courtesy Flickr user foxypar4, under CC.