Pigeon guided bomb

Author, inventor, and renowned psychologist Burrhus Frederic (B.F.) Skinner (1904-1990) demonstrated how rewards and punishments can be used to “shape” behavior. Shaping involves conditioning the subject in gradual steps toward the desired complex behavior. “Too many people think of me as the person who taught pigeons to play Ping-Pong.,” said Skinner. “It turns up in the damnedest places! I did that for a classroom demonstration to prove what you could do with these techniques, to show people the product of shaping behavior. I didn’t do it to teach the pigeons to play Ping-Pong. That’s not the science!” Then he added, with comic timing, “Although the pigeons did get pretty good at it…angle shots and so on.” 12

“During World War II, Skinner conducted a series of experiments in which he trained sets of pigeons to navigate bombs dropped from aircraft so they would hit their targets accurately,” writes Harvey Mindess in Makers of Psychology: The Personal Factor. “The pigeons were to be harnessed inside the nose cones of the bombs.” 13

Greg Goebel reported that “the pigeons were trained with slides of aerial photographs of the target, and if they kept the crosshairs on the target, they were rewarded by a grain deposited in a tray in front of them. Skinner later found that the pigeons were less easily disturbed under confusing circumstances if they were fed hemp (marijuana) seeds rather than grains.” 14

As of Yet notes on their Muppet and Other Insanities page on Project Pigeon that, “Skinner’s control system used a lens in the nose of the bomb to throw an image of the approaching target on a ground-glass screen.… If the target’s image moved off center, the pigeon’s pecking tilted the screen, which moved the bomb’s tail surfaces, which corrected the bomb’s course. To improve accuracy, Skinner used three pigeons to control the bomb’s direction by majority rule” [Charles Eames and Ray Eames, A Computer Perspective (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), p. 131].15

“These birds would have been the equivalent of modern guidance computers,” writes Robert I. Watson, Sr., and Rand B. Evans in The Great Psychologists: A History of Psychological Thought.16

Our behavior was shaped by the pigeons much more than vice versa. The pigeons taught us more than we ever taught them.
– B.F. Skinner

“Some responses are easier to learn than others,” writes Dennis Coon in Introduction to Psychology:

For example, two noted psychologists, Keller and Marion Breland, went into business training animals for television shows, zoo displays, and amusement parks. Along with their successes came some revealing failures. In one instance, the Brelands tried to condition a raccoon to put coins in a piggy-bank for an advertisement. Instead, the raccoon repeatedly rubbed the coins together in a miserly-looking fashion (Breland, K., & Breland, M. (1961). The misbehavior of organisms. American Psychologist, 16, 681-684). No amount of reinforcement would change this behavior. The Brelands ran into similar snags with other animals. In each case, an innate behavior pattern hindered learning. They called this problem instinctive drift: Learned responses tend to “drift” toward innate ones.… In view of such observations, it is wise to remember that the laws of learning operate within a framework of biological limits and possibilities (Adams, J. A. (1980). Learning and memory. Homewood, Illinois: Dorsey Press).17

Harvey Mindess, in Makers of Psychology, claims “Skinner’s first public declamation of the world-saving power of behaviorism is contained in his Utopian novel, Walden Two (1948). A fuller exposition of his views on the future of the human race is put forth in Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971)”:

A Utopian novel set in contemporary America,…the people at Walden Two have been conditioned to be of service to the community and to carry out their appointed duties without complaint and without question. The resultant peacefulness and efficiency of the place becomes captivation to some of the visitors, but it disturbs others,… who continually raise[] the issue of human beings being deprived of their freedom of choice.…

The title [Beyond Freedom and Dignity] must be taken literally. Skinner lets us know from the outset that he considers the value placed on our so-called freedom to shape our own lives, as well as the vaunted ideal of the dignity of the individual, to be outmoded notions whose time has past.… He attacks them by insisting that a “technology of behavior” based on the principles of operant conditioning could produce a world as free from crime, unhappiness, and inefficiency as from our unfortunate overestimation of the worth of the individual and our common delusion that there actually is such a thing as freedom of the will.18

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12 B.F. Skinner, interview with Dr. Aubrey C. Daniels, 1990, at (retrieved: circa 2008).

13 Harvey Mindess, Makers of Psychology: The Personal Factor (New York: Human Sciences Press, Inc., 1988), p. 96.

14 Greg Goebel, See “Project Pigeon,” at (retrieved: 5 January 2011).

15 “Project Pigeon,” at (retrieved: 2 January 2011).

16 Robert I. Watson, Sr. and Rand B. Evans, The Great Psychologists: A History of Psychological Thought, Fifth Edition (New York: HarperCollins Publ., Inc., 1991), p. 491.

17 Dennis Coon, Introduction to Psychology: Exploration and Application (St. Paul, MN: West Publ. Co., 1977, 1980), p. 186.

18 Mindess, Makers of Psychology, pp. 94, 99, 100, 102.

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