Did Skinner answer why we have a thing called religion?

In 1948 the famous Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner did a test on some pigeons (poor things). He kept the pigeons in a box and with a button they could operate a mechanism that provided food. So, not surprisinlgy, the pigeons learned how the system worked: ‘push button, get food’. Lesson: pigeons are capable of learning, no news there. but then Skinner took this test to a different level.

B.F. Skinner
B.F. Skinner


These pigeons did not have the intellectual capabilities of actually understanding what happened when they pushed the button; this button that gave off an electrical signal that set some mechanical device in motion thet released food into the box (or something like that). As far as the pigeons were concerned, this could all just have been magic. What Skinner did, was randomize the dispensing of food in the box. At completely random moments, without any sort of button or switch the pigeons would get food in the box. Skinner then saw that the pigeons started developping all sorts of rituals that -in their minds- preceded getting food. Some pigeons started doing elaborate dances (not unlike a raindance I’d imagine) other started pecking the walls of the box. All of this in anticipation of food, which eventually came. As far as the pigeons were concerned: their rituals worked.


The key in this experiment is not the proof that pigeons apparently may learn to operate a button, but are incapable of understanding the mechanism behind a switch; it is that pigeons developped some sort of religious rituals that they believe worked, since they could not grasp the concept of randomness. And, my fellow human beings, neither can we. It is a well known saying that ‘the way to predict the future is to study the past’. But this is also a great misconception.


Divine intervention

If you look back on past random events, our human minds operates in a way that will start seeing patterns, even if they’re not there. Sure, we understand the randomness of the outcome of throwing a pair of dice, but not the randomness in the failure of the crops. For that; there must be a reason. And, if we cannot find this reason; than that must be a case of divine intervention, right? There must be a reason why food drops down your box and the reason is ‘I did this dance’ and if your dance wasn;t followed by food, than you must have done something wrong. And that might just be how religion is born. Religion might just be a way of understanding this very randomised world around us.

Photocredit: Pigeons photo from Melody McFarlands blog.


5 reacties op ‘Did Skinner answer why we have a thing called religion?

    1. Thank you for your comment Jack. You are right, most superstitions do not develop into a religion. However, some of them do. Which is why I still feel that my hypothesis may be true. I will expand on this thought further in a future post.

      1. Forget religion for a moment. Realise that this shows how flawed our perception of reality could be! There are tons of places where we have complex, well thought out explanations and behaviour which could be totally disconected from reality! Think of Economics, Medicine, physics… I am not expounding scientific nihilism, far from it, but rather good old fashion caution where flashing lights and food are concerned! 😉

  1. Pingback: Quora

Geef een reactie

Vul je gegevens in of klik op een icoon om in te loggen.

WordPress.com logo

Je reageert onder je WordPress.com account. Log uit /  Bijwerken )

Google+ photo

Je reageert onder je Google+ account. Log uit /  Bijwerken )


Je reageert onder je Twitter account. Log uit /  Bijwerken )

Facebook foto

Je reageert onder je Facebook account. Log uit /  Bijwerken )


Verbinden met %s