Is Superstitious Responding a Matter of Detectability? A Replication of Killeen (1978)
Organisms may sometimes behave as if a contingency exists between behavior and consequences, even if this is not actually the case. Killeen (1978) suggested that such superstition occurs because of factors that bias subjects to behave “superstitiously” rather than because of failures of discrimination. We systematically replicated Killeen's experiment and compared contingency discrimination between different consequences. Six pigeons responded in a matching-to-sample procedure in which a response-independent or response-dependent stimulus change, food delivery, or blackout occurred. The pigeons reported whether the consequence was response dependent or response independent by choosing between two side keys. Discrimination was strongest after stimulus changes, weaker after blackouts, and weakest after food deliveries. These differences persisted even after additional training, suggesting asymmetries that may reflect differences in the disruptive effects of different consequences on remembering and/or behavioral mnemonics. Importantly, the pigeons were not biased to report response-dependent consequences unless that response was consistent with locational biases; that is, they behaved “superstitiously” when there was a reason to be biased to do so. These findings corroborate Killeen's and demonstrate that behavior may deviate from contingencies not necessarily because subjects cannot discriminate those contingencies but because they are biased to behave otherwise.