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.


  1. I like the pigeon. My like of Skinner is diminished by knowledge of his conflict with Chomsky at MIT, and how hard he tried to suppress alternative approaches that dared to open the black box. Walden Two is seriously disturbing and misguided.

  2. Funny to see this regarded as an experiment. Clicker training (operant conditioning) is the accepted way to train animals that cannot be physically coerced into doing your bidding. The whales at waterparks, dolphins, even tigers who willingly submit to medical procedures like shots, all trained through use of a marker and rewards.

    It is becoming more widespread as the humane way to train dogs. The performance you can get out of a willing participant who joyfully performs his task because he finds it rewarding, is so much more reliable than a dog that performs out of fear of punishment. In a few years hopefully this will be the common way to train, not just a scientific oddity.

  3. Now prove me that it is not the pigeon which conditioned Skinner to open the feeder everytime it turned left.

  4. “My like of Skinner is diminished by knowledge of his conflict with Chomsky at MIT, and how hard he tried to suppress alternative approaches that dared to open the black box. Walden Two is seriously disturbing and misguided.”

    Skinner disagreed with Chomsky and said as much in the scientific literature but that’s what scientists are supposed to do with people they disagree with. I’m not aware of anything underhanded on Skinner’s part.

    Walden Two may have been utopian but it was no more misguided than a lot of other utopian novels of its kind. Actual attempts to replicate the Walden Two concept never got anywhere but the efforts were far more egalitarian than other attempts at communal living I could name.

  5. The link you give about pigeons and disease pretty much refutes your point. It says there are three human diseases known to be associated with pigeon droppings (it doesn’t discuss other vectors). The first is a fungal disease which only is a threat when pigeon droppings are in high concentration — and even if you get it, there’s usually no symptoms. The second is a fungal disease which healthy people are unlikely to get even when exposed in high concentrations. And the third is a bacterial disease which responds well to antibiotics and which is extremely rare. The exception to all of this is if you have a compromised immune system, like from HIV/AIDS. Otherwise, you really have no reason to worry.

  6. You can argue that since the invention of the telephone, we’ve all been living in Skinner boxes, where strangers can condition our behaviors by ringing a bell in our home. And now that we have cell phones, even our cars are Skinner boxes. Urgh.

  7. @eustace Skinner’s insight was that all behaviour up to and including speech is conditioned by environmental contingencies in exactly the same way as the pigeon is conditioned. “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” changed my life.

  8. “you’ve got mail”

    Southwest Airline’s “ding”

    The stadium that goes nuts when the winning field goal is kicked.

    Everyone uses conditioning. Some are just more aware of it than others.

  9. A lot of the Skinner hate comes from cognitive scientists who have discovered that there are things beyond operant conditioning. So there are. But that doesn’t in the least discredit the successes of operant conditioning — they can’t be swept under the rug, even though they aren’t the be-all and end-all of cognition.

  10. For details on how to use Skinner’s methods to train humans and animals, check out “Don’t Shoot the Dog” by Karen Pryor.

    There’s a fantastic story about how a group of students trained their professor. Every time he wrote in an area in the middle of the board, they would all lean forward and look engaged. When he wrote outside that area, the students would lean back and look bored. Eventually they had him writing all his points in a tiny section of the board. If I remember correctly, he was teaching them about behaviour modification, but was oblivious to the fact that they were conditioning him.

  11. My old professor, Thomas Verhave, trained pigeons to sort out defective pills for drug companies but was defeated by humans. The experiments were an amazing success but the unions and management politics defeated him. See the first hit on google for verhave pigeon or go to

    1. @bobk I noticed that you picked the two big boogeymen, unions and [clueless] management, to single out as why pigeons aren’t performing pill inspections, but you avoided mentioning the very first one listed in your link: customers complaining about unsanitary conditions. Funny how market based forces (i.e. customer rejection) somehow always gets dropped when there’s a chance to blame a union.

      I’m sure this is just a coincidence, and you’re not anti-fair wage-and-fair-working-conditions. No. Of course not.

  12. “Opening Skinner’s Box” has serious problems. Several of the scientists interviewed (Loftus, Kagan, for example, but were not the only two) wrote extensive objections and corrections. Many academic psychologists are not big fans of that book. The chapters that I read had creative and as noted in the boing boing review linked above, florid prose, but the salon article understates the problems with the content. Instead of offering any indication of how these experiments have had an impact on the popular imagination, or the course of scientific psychology, Lauren Slater guides you through how they have had an impact on Lauren Slater.

    As a psychology teacher myself, I would love to assign a book such as this to my students. The prose is interesting, and the stories are truly interesting. But there are just too many errors, not just of details, but of substance and of approach.

  13. It’s too bad that so many people concentrate on Skinner’s pigeon experiments.

    He wrote a fascinating book: “Escape from Freedom” which explored Germany’s descent into Nazi madness during the start of the 20th century.

  14. Nothing to do with me. Verhave himself didn’t mention sanitation as being an issue with using pigeons on the assembly line, management did. No customers ever got a chance to complain.
    Good thing they didn’t use pigeons for cherry picking.

  15. To nanuq @ #6: the real life counterpart to Skinner’s Walden Two has been found at long last!

    The Twin Oaks commune was founded on Skinner’s humanistic principles of positive reward conditioning. It has spawned Acorn, a spin off commune. Mother and daughter are fine.

    See wikipedia for details, and either double check, or “take with a grain of salt” ill-informed postings regarding the failures of innovative and humanistic nature.


  16. Pigeons are no more prone to disease than cats or dogs. Of course, if a bird spends its entire life living on a city street it will carry more germs than a dove from a pet store, but so would a stray cat or dog (and many of those diseases are harmless to humans anyway, or you would have to spend time rolling in or eating copious amounts of poop to become infected). Pigeons make excellent pets (they are smart and clearly trainable), and there are many available for adoption at animal shelters. Please be kind to pigeons.

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