Use Skinner’s Operant Conditioning model to explain supersti…

Use Skinner’s Operant Conditioning model to explain superstitious behavior, such as refusing to open an umbrella indoors, or stepping on a crack in the sidewalk. Why do we engage in these behaviors? Support your views with the assigned reading. Make sure to reference and cite your textbook as well as any other source you may use to support your answers to the question. Your initial post must include appropriate APA references at the end.

Superstitious behavior refers to the belief or practice of engaging in certain actions or rituals in the hope of bringing about a desired outcome, even though there is no logical connection between the behavior and the desired outcome. This phenomenon has been widely observed in various cultures and is often observed in everyday life. To explain superstitious behavior, we can turn to B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning model, which posits that behavior is influenced and shaped by the consequences that follow it. This model can shed light on how superstitious behaviors are acquired and maintained.

According to Skinner’s operant conditioning model, behavior is strengthened or weakened based on the consequences that follow it. Specifically, behaviors that are followed by a pleasant or rewarding outcome are more likely to be repeated, while behaviors followed by an unpleasant or punishing outcome are less likely to be repeated. This process is known as reinforcement and punishment, respectively. Superstitious behavior can be understood in terms of the reinforcement schedule that is inadvertently created through the timing and occurrence of coincidental events.

In his book “Science and Human Behavior,” Skinner discussed the role of reinforcement schedules in shaping behavior. He conducted experiments with pigeons, in which he provided food to the birds at regular intervals, regardless of their behavior. What Skinner observed was that the pigeons developed superstitious behaviors that were unrelated to obtaining food. For example, the pigeons would engage in repetitive movements or display specific actions immediately preceding the delivery of food. These behaviors were reinforced by the coincidental timing of the food delivery, despite having no actual causal relationship. Skinner referred to this as “superstitious behavior” since it resembled the superstitious beliefs and rituals observed in humans.

The same principles can be applied to understand why individuals engage in superstitious behaviors like refusing to open an umbrella indoors or stepping on a crack in the sidewalk. In these cases, superstitious behaviors are reinforced by chance occurrences or coincidences. For example, if someone believes that opening an umbrella indoors brings bad luck, they may refuse to do so. If something negative subsequently happens, like knocking over a glass or experiencing an unexpected event, the individual may attribute it to the act of opening the umbrella indoors.

This attribution of negative outcomes to a specific behavior creates a perceived link between the superstitious behavior and negative consequences, reinforcing the belief in its effectiveness. Similarly, stepping on a crack in the sidewalk might be associated with the belief that it brings bad luck. If someone were to experience misfortune afterward, they might believe it to be a result of stepping on the crack, further reinforcing the superstition.

The operant conditioning model can also explain the maintenance of superstitious behaviors. According to Skinner, behaviors that are not consistently reinforced can be relatively resistant to extinction. In the case of superstitious behaviors, the intermittent reinforcement schedule strengthens the behavior, making it more difficult to extinguish. The occasional occurrence of a desired outcome following the superstitious behavior reinforces its repetition, even if the majority of attempts do not lead to the desired outcome. Therefore, individuals may continue engaging in superstitious behaviors because of the intermittent reinforcement they receive.

In summary, superstitious behavior can be understood through Skinner’s operant conditioning model. The reinforcement and punishment that follow a behavior shape its likelihood of occurring. Superstitious behaviors are acquired and maintained through the coincidental reinforcement that occurs with chance occurrences or coincidences. These behaviors are reinforced when they appear to be followed by a desired outcome and are more resistant to extinction due to intermittent reinforcement. Understanding superstitious behavior through the lens of operant conditioning provides insight into why people engage in these behaviors, despite their lack of logical connection to the desired outcome.


Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. Macmillan.

APA References:

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. Macmillan.