Pigeons and People

The content below is from Season 2 Episode 25 of the Who’d A Thunk It? Podcast.


  • Record of Ragnarok
    • Last week’s recommendation segment was on Netflix’s live action drama about Norse Mythology. THIS week’s recommendation has a similar title, but a very different plot.
    • Record of Ragnarok is a brand new anime series with only 12 episodes available right now.
      • I know Anime is a super niche genre, but when I realized my Fiancée Shannon was enjoying the show as much as I was I thought it was worth recommending.
      • Unlike most anime series, Record of Ragnarok has a SUPER simple plot:
        • All the gods (Norse, Greek, Hindu, etc.) have grown tired of humanity and want to wipe us all out to start fresh. But at the last second before Zeus bangs his gavel declaring all humanity be eliminated, a Valkyrie from Norse mythology suggests they have a tournament (first side with 7 victories wins).
        • The gods pick their line up of their 13 best warriors and humanity can pick from their best 13 warriors (live or dead). Season 1 only covers the first 3 fights.
    • It is simple, fun, and definitely for adults due to the violence, language, and overt sexualization of Aphrodite lol.
This character from Record of Ragnarok is Adam… as in Adam and Eve. He fights Zeus wearing nothing but a leaf for decency and brass knuckles.


  • Pigeons in World War 2
    • If you have taken a Psychology course either in High School or college then you definitely have heard of the renowned Psychologist B.F. Skinner.
      • Skinner was an American Psychologist who studied and conducted experiments out of Harvard University.
      • Early on he worked with rats and discovered that if the rats were given a treat every time they pressed a lever they would press the lever progressively more. He called it Operant Conditioning.
    • Skinner applied his understanding of animal behavior in World War 2, and this may sound like a made-up story, but it is very real.
      • This time, instead of using rats, he used what some New Yorkers call flying rats: the pigeon. How did pigeons play a role in WW2 you ask?
      • Well the Germans had created a modern marvel of destruction: the V2 Rocket.
        • Developed in Germany from 1936 through the efforts of scientists led by Wernher von Braun, the V2 Rocket was first successfully launched on October 3, 1942, and was fired against Paris on September 6, 1944.
        • Soon after Germany’s development in rocket technology, most other players in WW2 were slinging rockets of their own.
    • While rockets proved to create a devastating amount of destruction, they seldom hit their mark.
      • While the militaries of today use GPS guided missiles, back in WW2 times they were 30 years away from GPS technology.
      • Soldiers tasked with launching rockets had to use math to calculate the
        • amount of fuel necessary,
        • the angle the rocket should be launched,
        • wind speed,
        • and possible heavy weather encountered during the rockets approach.
      • That is a lot to calculate. As you might guess the soldiers calculating trajectory on the ground were wrong quite a lot.
      • Remember how I said the first V2 rocket was launched at Paris in 1944?
        • Well, quoting the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum: “the rocket was neither accuratereliable, nor cost effective. On 7 September 1944 the first two operational rockets were fired against Paris, but both failed due to premature cutoffs.”
    • While the Germans were deploying unreliable spies in London to report back on how accurate their rockets were, the US was coming up with more unorthodox ideas for missile guidance: Project Orcon.
      • B.F. Skinner was confident that his Operant Conditioning research could be beneficial to the folks trying to guide missiles. Although many were skeptical of Skinner’s plan, the National Defense Research Comittee granted Skinner $25,000 (about $320,000 today)
      • You see, similar to the rat pressing a lever to get a treat, a pigeon could be trained to pet a specified target in order to be fed. (See video below titled Project Orcon).
    • Skinner made that specified target in to what the US Military needed to destroy, enemy battleships out at sea.
      • He then strapped his trained pigeons inside the head of missiles with 3 screens that showed what the missile was currently aiming at (see image below). Depending on which screen and where on the screen the pigeon pecked, the missile would direct course toward where the pecks were being registered by sensors installed in the screen.
        • On paper it was genius. Pigeons can process visual information 3 times faster than humans and cost virtually nothing to produce. Once properly trained, the pigeons were extremely accurate hardly ever missing their targets during simulated runs.
      • But in October 1944 the project was scrapped. The Defense department thought money was better spent elsewhere like the Manhattan Project, AKA the Atomic Bomb which cost $1.9 billion($23 billion today).
      • Defense officials couldn’t bring themselves to entrust billion dollar rocket projects to pigeons.
        • Skinner himself said that the project was scrapped not because it didn’t work, but because no one took them seriously.
  • Skinner’s Superstitious Pigeons
    • That brings me to the real reason I wanted to do this episode. You see I’ve known about the Missile Guiding pigeons for quite some time. I like to tell people about it while I’m out drinking and socializing. The topic is bizarre, exciting, and involves WW2. I love to talk WW2 over a few brews.
    • But there was another experiment that Skinner conducted after the war that really intrigued me. I recently heard about Skinner’s Superstitious pigeons.
    • I stumbled on an old video hosted by the esteemed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
      • In the video Dawkins explains how Skinner studied pigeons’ behavior in 1947 by placing them in a controlled environment (rather a small transparent box) and feeding them whenever they pecked a button.
      • But then Skinner set the feeding apparatus to feed the pigeon at random. Whether the pigeon pecked the button or not had no bearing on how often the food was dispensed.
    • One might think the pigeons just sat back and waited for their food to be given at random times, but that is not what happened.
      • The vast majority of pigeons in the experiment developed what Skinner himself called superstitious behavior.
      • An example would be that if a pigeon just happened to lift up its right wing when food was dispensed then that pigeon associated the right wing lifting with food. The result was that the pigeon would continuously lift its right wing over and over again until the food was given again. This behavior persisted and further enforced that pigeons false association.
    • What interests me is the implication of these superstitious behaviors and what it means about human behavior.
      • If you think you can’t be compared to a pigeon in this sense you are wrong. We humans are subject to this superstitious behavior just as we are subject to Operant Conditioning.
        • Just as the rats kept pressing the lever for food; Give a patient suffering from pain a button that dispenses morphine in to their bloodstream. It is only a matter of time until they are pressing the button much more than necessary sometimes to the point of overdose.
        • Just as the pigeons displayed nonsensical behavior to be given food; we humans perform all sorts of nonsensical rituals to avoid pain and obtain pleasure.
          • Probably the main difference between humans and the pigeons is the lengths we will go to in our superstitious pursuits. Where pigeons simply make displays with their bodies, we humans create entire industries and institutions around our superstitious beliefs.
    • Some examples of human superstitious behavior
      • Tarot cards
      • Palm readings
      • Knocking on wood for good luck
      • saying “bless you” when someone sneezes
      • Don’t step on a crack or you’ll break your mother’s back
      • Black Cats crossing your path
    • You may think those examples I gave are for children or those more gullible than you, but I would disagree.
      • University of Iowa’s Psychology department provides a definition:
        • Superstitious behavior arises when the delivery of a reinforcer or punisher occurs close together in time (temporal contiguity) with an independent behavior. Therefore, the behavior is accidentally reinforced or punished, increasing the likelihood of that behavior occurring again.”
    • I would argue superstition has invaded just about every facet of our society and given the chance, could destroy it.
      • I’ll end this episode with an example: remember the Salem Witch trials? An entire town allowed themselves to be overtaken with superstition.
        • By the end of the Salem witch trials, 19 people had been hanged and 5 others had died in custody. Additionally, a man was pressed beneath heavy stones until he died.

Yep! I’m ending this one on a cautionary note. Don’t allow yourself to be overtaken by superstition. Build up your mental defenses against it by continuing to learn about the world around you.

Thanks for listening Who’d a Thunkers!

    • I’m going on Vacation to Jamaica and will not be producing another episode of Who’d A Thunk it? Until July 15th.
    • Sorry… not sorry lol. I’ll be enjoying genuine Jamaican jerk chicken in a hammock over looking the Caribbean sea.



der kluge Hans

The following are notes from Season 2 Episode 13 of the Who’d a Thunk It? Podcast. If you prefer to listen to this content just mosey on over to my Podcast hosted by by clicking: Who’d a Thunk It?

  • Recommendation Segment!!!
    • For this episode I wanted to recommend a book I listened to this past winter: Sapiens.
    • I think I would call it an educational book, but it doesn’t feel boring like most educational books might. It is about the story of man as far as we know it and a bit about where we are going (our future).
  • The Realm of the Scientific Method
    • In November of 1859 Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published and sold out immediately. This publication introduced the world to the theory of evolution.
    • In the decades that followed humanity’s world view began to shift.
    • Evolution provided so many answers to scientific questions (namely biology), it proposed contradictory claims to religious world views, but perhaps the most astonishing change the Theory of Evolution had on the world was its ability to spread among the common man therefore influence how the vast majority of humans saw the world.
  • A Time of Discovery
    • Because of Darwin’s discovery, everyday people began to show an increased amount of interest in animals.
    • One such everyday man, Wilhelm von Osten, began ponder the intelligence levels of the animals around him. Wilhelm von Osten was a gymnasium mathematics teacher, an amateur horse trainer, phrenologist, and something of a mystic.
    • Wilhelm von Osten took one of his prize stallions named Hans and trained him to communicate by tapping his hoof. In time, Hans was trained to solve math equations, identify colors, read and spell, and even identify musical tones. When asked to do so, Hans the stallion was providing answers that rivaled the intelligence of most humans during that time.
    • Von Osten would ask Hans, “If the eighth day of the month comes on a Tuesday, what is the date of the following Friday?” Hans would answer by tapping his hoof eleven times. Questions could be asked both orally, and in written form.
    • Wilhelm von Osten would write a problem on a chalk board, display it to Hans and wait for Hans to start tapping his hoof. Using this method, Hans was able to give a correct answer about 90% of the time. Whenever Hans tapped his hoof the correct number of times, Wilhelm von Osten gave the horse a tasty treat.
  • The Skepticism of Psychology
    • News of this incredibly intelligent horse spread fast. Everyone was talking about Clever Hans (or “der kluge Hans” in the original German language).
    • Von Osten exhibited Hans throughout Germany, and never charged admission. Hans’s abilities were reported in The New York Times in 1904.[3]
    • the German Government launched a formal investigation. A total of 13 people were asked to look in to Clever Hans and to see if any fraudulent behavior was afoot, or to see if Hans really was a genius horse.
    • Among this panel of 13 investigators was a Circus Manager, Zoo Director, Veterinarian, Calvary Officer, and a they were all lead by the Philosophy/Psychologist Carl Stumpf. Together they were known as the Hans Commission.
      • This commission concluded in September 1904 that no tricks were involved in Hans’s performance. They were ready to declare Hans a genius horse until a student at the Psychological Institute at the University of Berlin named Oskar Pfungst decided to throw his 2 cents in to the investigation.
  • The psychologist Oskar Pfungst – decided to run more tests on Hans and Wilhelm von Osten by:
    • Isolating horse and questioner from spectators, so no cues could come from them
    • Using questioners other than the horse’s master
    • By means of blinders, varying whether the horse could see the questioner
    • Varying whether the questioner knew the answer to the question in advance.
  • Pfungst ran a lot of trials to rule out as much as he could.
    • First he separated Hans from Von Osten. Hans was still able to get the answers correct without Von Osten present which ruled out fraud. So Von Osten wasn’t deliberately trying to hoodwink the public.
    • But then through more trials Pfungst found that Hans’s level of success depended upon whether the human questioner was within eyesight and knew the answer themselves.
      • So if Von Osten (or anyone else asking the questions) was given a chalk board with a question on it, but wasn’t allowed to look at the question themselves, Hans had about a 6% success rate.
      • Also whether the human questioner did or did not know the answer was irrelevant if Hans was unable to see the questioner.
      • If Hans could see the person asking the question AND that person knew the answer to the question then Hans gave the correct answer about 90% of the time.
  • So here’s the point where I ask you, my listeners (and/or blog readers) to think. How is Hans able to get the right answer so often under these specific conditions, but when these conditions aren’t met he only gets 6% of the answers right?

=============Think for a second. You got it? ============

  • Pfungst concluded that through Wilhelm Von Osten’s training method, Hans was very clever, but not how you think.
    • No, Hans did not understand math, language, or music.
    • Instead, Hans was able to read the human questioner’s body language to determine at which hoof tap he was expected to stop.
      • As the horse’s taps approached the right answer, the questioner’s posture and facial expression changed in ways that were consistent with an increase in tension, which was released when the horse made the final, correct tap. This provided a cue that the horse could use to tell it to stop tapping. The social communication systems of horses may depend on the detection of small postural changes, and this would explain why Hans so easily picked up on the cues given by von Osten, even if these cues were subconscious.
    • So by human standards Hans was no genius, but he was able to read body language MUCH more fluently than us humans.
      • I bet Hans was a killer at the poker table. lol horse humor
    • Von Osten disregarded these findings. Dismissing Pfungst’s meticulous use of the scientific method to determine the source of Hans’s success, Wilhelm Von Osten went on to tour Europe with Hans. They continued to gather large crowds.
  • The rigor of Pfungst’s trials and the detail of his observation are considered classic early examples of experimental design in behavioral psychology.
    • After Pfungst had become adept at giving Hans performances himself, and was fully aware of the subtle cues which made them possible, he discovered that he would produce these cues involuntarily regardless of whether he wished to exhibit or suppress them. Recognition of this phenomenon has had a large effect on experimental design and methodology for all experiments whatsoever involving sentient subjects, including humans.
    • The Clever Hans Effect has also been observed in drug-sniffing dogs. A study at University of California, Davis revealed that cues can be telegraphed by the handler to the dogs, resulting in false positives.
    • Pfungst’s final experiment showed that Clever Hans effects can occur in experiments with humans as well as with animals. For this reason, care is often taken in fields such as perceptioncognitive psychology, and social psychology to make experiments double-blind, meaning that neither the experimenter nor the subject knows what condition the subject is in, and thus what their responses are predicted to be. 
  • So the world of Psychology grew quite a bit from the story of Clever Hans, but what happened to the horse himself?
    • After von Osten died in 1909, Hans was acquired by several owners. After 1916, there is no record of him and his fate is unknown.
    • Although highly unlikely (more like virtually impossible), perhaps “der kluge Hans” is still out there somewhere, tapping his hoof in beautiful symphony of music or solving mathematics’ greatest problems.
  • Thanks for listening Who’d a Thunkers! Check out the accompanying blog post for a visual component to the episode, link in description.
  • Until next week! Catch you later 🙂


If you prefer to listen to this content just mosey on over to my Podcast hosted by by clicking: Who’d a Thunk It?