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.