What Raindancing Pigeons Can Teach Us About Ourselves

We write the 14th century, and the times are tough. A plague is afoot, killing a third of the population in some parts of Europe, and no one really knows what is going on.

The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder depicts the devastation wrought upon Europe by the Black Death (Public domain).

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 3 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 they, representing the most gifted intellects of the day, have a hard time explaining what they can not explain. They are lacking a lot of the basics of what is later to be known as microbiology. These would only be developed centuries later, and will relate the illness to the influence of the invisible bacteria Yersinia Pestis.

The true culprit behind the Black Death: the bacterium Yersinia Pestis. (Public domain)

But the Paris Academy doesn’t have access to microscopes, and a sensible explanation is far out of reach. So instead they just 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.

It sounds ridiculous now, but it made sense in the day: Mars was, after all, a malevolent planet, breeding anger and war, so it obviously had to have something to do with the violent black death sweeping across Europe.

Seven hundred years later, amid another plague, we make fun of the Academy, and similar wild pseudoscientific theories such as alchemy. But have we really come this 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, and Frankl’s stories from the death camps confirm this.

But our ability to find meaning extends downwards from the highest metaphysical struggles to the more lowly and profane realms of everyday existence. We are great at finding patterns in the world and attaching meaning to them. Our life depends on it.

But life is complex, and moving fast, so we usually don’t have a lot of time to spend on checking the validity of our inferences. And while we are not only prone to infer non-existent relationships between events in the external world, once you bring our own actions into the mix, we become even more vulnerable.

Rainmaking is a weather modification ritual that attempts to invoke rain, for example by dancing. Rituals of this sort have been known from Africa to America to Europe. Now since our causal models of the weather have gotten a little better over the years, we look down upon people that believe that these rituals actually work as silly and superstitious.

But while most of us don’t literally raindance anymore, we perform our own little raindances in a hundred kinds of ways. 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 behaviorist B.F.Skinner observed the development of similar behavioral 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 behavior, 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.

B.F. Skinner with one of his pigeons (source).

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 behavior 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 behavior and the 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 favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances.”

The pigeon mind hard at work trying to figure out where all the food is coming from. Eatcha, CC BY-SA 4.0

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 behavior, 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 because it once was useful.

As the raindancing pigeons teach us, our 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 lifes. Let’s be frank: my local newspaper still features daily horoscopes that impressively showcases 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 our stirred by something we cannot explain. Just as during the black death, I think 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 reexamine our lifes and think about our own little raindances.

I love new ideas. My science podcast: https://anchor.fm/acit-science Connect via LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/manuel-brenner-772261191