COMMENTARY 887.3: Learning From Pigeons

by Michael Josephson on July 8, 2014

in Choices, Commentaries

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During an experiment, pigeons were put in cages with one green and one red button.  In one cage, if the birds pecked the green button they would get food every time.  In the other, the green button yielded food erratically and the pigeons had to persist to get enough food.  In both cases, pecking the red button did nothing.  Both sets of birds thrived, learning what they had to do to survive and to ignore the red button that yielded no food.  But when the birds that were used to getting a reward every time were put in the cage that fed them only occasionally, they failed to adapt; they hit their heads against the cage and pecked wildly at everything in sight.

There are two worthwhile lessons from this study.  First, the pigeons quickly learned from experience to avoid the red button because it was unproductive.  There are lots of people who would lead smoother and happier lives if they just stopped pushing red buttons that never give them what they want.

Second, even birds who have it too easy get spoiled and develop an entitlement mentality that prevents them from adapting to situations where they can solve their problems if they just work harder.  Some people are like that too.  They don’t deal well with new circumstances especially those that require persistence.

Part of being responsible is learning from experience to appreciate the benefits of tenacity and the wisdom of avoiding useless, harmful and self-defeating patterns of behavior.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

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