Superstition

I have a BS in animal science and am now taking graduate courses in animal behavior while working to save up for vet school. A topic we are discussing in class is comparative cognition in a psychology and neurobiology program. This has to do with what is known about the nervous system, perception, and learning across species. It covers species from single-cell organisms to mammals. I have worked with horses and have had my own pony or horse since I was a kid. But before this course, I never looked at learning in animals in this way. We never discussed anything about learning and perception in animal science courses or in horse management courses. Even though animal behavior is all new to me, the academic approach seems to make more sense of this complicated topic. It should be extremely helpful to people who work with animals.

I don't expect to become a practicing behaviorist, but I am trying to convert my own thinking and language about animal behavior and training from the everyday horse talk I have grown up with to the terminology of cognition, perception, and learning science. As I go through each concept, I am trying to come up with concrete examples in horse training, and think through all the contingencies. I have come up with examples for all the types of reinforcement and punishment and for the schedules of reinforcement. I am stuck for an example of the concept of superstition. Can you help me?             Behavior student


First, thank you for your comments on the importance of perception and learning to animal science and veterinary medicine. It has been one of the major soap box messages of veterinary behaviorists for many years. It's a shame that there is often so little time in curricula for behavior, especially learning and simple conditioning. A common conjecture among behaviorists is that because much of this knowledge on learning and behavior modification has been generated within the realm of psychology and human education, it's quite alien to animal science and veterinary curriculum planners. Now that the fields of neurobiology and psychobiology have emerged, perhaps this material will be recognized as the disciplined science that it is. The good news is that it seems the discipline is gradually becoming accepted as important to animal science and veterinary medicine. At least administrators are talking about it. Now to your question on superstition as it relates to animal learning.

Superstition is a term that I believe was first used by B.F. Skinner to describe that stage of training at which an animal's behavior suggests it is accidentally misunderstanding the contingencies. In other words, it is learning, but not quite getting it clearly. As training progresses, either due to poor planning of the trainer or by inadvertent unexpected associations, the animal is responding as if he has learned some associations that were not intended by the trainer. You could think of it as a state of confusion.

One example in horses that comes to mind at the moment is from cognition trials in our behavior lab. In these trials, we train the pony to respond differently between sounds, shapes, textures, colors, etc. Pairs of stimuli are presented, and when the pony responds appropriately to the correct choice, a food treat is given. The two stimuli are randomly presented on the left and right. If in the initial few pairs presented the correct one is on the right as opposed to the left, the pony might go through a stage of choosing the one on the right.

In Skinner's 1948 article on the topic, he cites the example of development of unique head movements that often emerge when training a pigeon with food rewards (Superstition in the pigeon, Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38:168-172). He specifically mentions that they are usually transient and extinguish (diminish) as training progresses.

Just yesterday, I saw a great example of a problem superstition behavior in a dog, and I wonder how long it will take for the new accidental behavior to extinguish. The dog had recently been started in training with one of those electronic shock collar systems to keep pets contained on the property. The dog is shocked whenever it goes over the buried wire marking its travel limit near the property line.

After a couple of days of training, when the dog went outside, it was reluctant to step on any of the lawn. It stayed on the driveway the entire time outside--to sleep, to exercise, and even to eliminate. The owners indicated that the driveway had been the only area so far that the dog had not been shocked. They figured the dog had mistakenly concluded that the grass led to shock.

The practical significance of understanding this and other basic learning concepts is that trainers, particularly if new to training or if training a new task, get discouraged when the animal doesn't respond correctly and might blame this on some deficiency in the animal rather than thinking through the learning scenario and looking for accidental associations. Sometimes the trainer concludes, "stupid animal," when in fact it might be the very bright animals that process subtle cues and inadvertently make wrong "conclusions."

An example of a common problem behavior in horses is pawing, kicking, or other activities at feeding time. By chance a horse might paw in frustration while waiting for the feed cart. By chance, while--or shortly after--the horse is pawing, the feed cart arrives and the horse gets its grain. Or, to stop the pawing, the caretaker runs over and gives the horse its grain. The caretaker does not mean to teach the horse to paw, but the pawing is reinforced, so the horse learns to paw. (For more information see "Equine Learning Ability," www.TheHorse.com/emag.aspx?id=6494.)


Can you explain the term anthropomorphism as it applies to horse behavior and training? This is for an assignment that I had in an animal behavior course, and I totally bombed that question. I had no idea where to start with this one.     Another behavior student


The term anthropomorphism refers to the attribution of human characteristics--such as complex human emotions, thought, intentions, motives, language, and cognitive abilities--to animals or objects. With horses, people show anthropomorphism at all levels. An example would be attributing complex motives, such as: "My horse won't eat its medicine just to spite me." A non-horse example might be: "Our houseplants don't like the house sitter and all die when we go on vacation."

A 1992 book summarizing the history of anthropomorphism and its importance to understanding human and animal behavior is available in paperback by John S. Kennedy: The New Anthropomorphism (Problems in the Behavioural Sciences).

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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