In the Summer of 1947, behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner discovered that pigeons could develop what he came to call “superstitions”. When the birds under his care were hungry they began performing random behaviors in an attempt to satisfy that hunger. He found that he was able to draw out certain behaviors by controlling when the food was dispensed. Through this, he was able to make birds dance and even learn to play ping pong.
There is a connection between B. F. Skinner’s pigeon experiments with classical conditioning and the way the pollution of false assumptions that begin to reside in our individual and cultural maps affects our behaviors. Pigeons develop ritual behaviors that are not directly connected to the satisfaction of native biological drives but have been connected because of their expression during the drive’s presence. Biological drives such as hunger for food or social connection can become fused with whatever behaviors or properties are present while these hunger drives are engaged.
Because of our dependence on acting out specific behavioral rituals in order to satisfy native biological drives, these drives (hungers) make us more susceptible to looking for patterns. In aroused states where we become interested in satisfying drives, we are also more tuned to forge connections between environmental artifacts and that particular drive. These correlated events become erroneously perceived as causal. This “noise in the signal” becomes part of the basis of how our individual and cultural maps of the world are formed.
The connection between ritual and biological drive is like a map legend when comes to understanding animal psychology, including our own. This same effect has been shown to occur in human psychology. For instance, if a person becomes ill from a previously unknown infection right after visiting a particular restaurant, the type of food they ate can become connected to the experience of getting sick. This bond between illness and food will affect future behaviors. It can tune what the organism is attracted to and or repulsed by.
Neuroscience and biological behaviorism professor Robert Sapolsky describes a situation where a couple of students unattracted to each other decide to walk together to their dorm after classes. They stop for coffee and decide to get decaffeinated because it’s the end of the day. Due to an error, the female accidentally gets caffeinated coffee. She begins to feel the stimulation but is unaware of the source. She assumes she must have feelings for the male she was previously unattracted to because she conflates the stimulating effects of caffeine with the current social situation.
Other experiments reveal that we can be influenced by people planted in experimental conditions (called confederates) who ask a passerby to hold a warm cup of liquid vs. a cold cup while they pick up some “accidentally” dropped items. When these people are later questioned about the person they encountered, they will describe them in warm or cold terms depending on the temperature of the liquid they were asked to hold. In other words, disassociated items are mapped as patterns in our minds and these become the roots of what comes to shape how we behave. Our behavior quirks, preferences, beliefs, and so on are powerfully shaped by corresponding events that are not necessarily causal. This happens even if we never frame the influences in words and even if we are unaware of the origins of our perception. Local experiences and what we come to believe is forged when our biological drives are aroused and other events just so happen to be in that environmental context.
Marketers and propagandists use this arousal-connection technique to manufacture the thoughts and behaviors of people who consume mass media information. These bonds are literally forged by delivering high-test emotional content and connecting it to specific persons, groups, nation-states, words, brands, and so on.