Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Pigeon managers

Jerry Stratton, October 13, 2009

I was reading about B.F. Skinner’s pigeon experiments today for an aside in a post on jury duty, and ran across a gem of a quote from The Oxford handbook of organizational decision making.

In Skinner’s pigeon experiment, pigeons are given food at regular or random intervals which have nothing to do with the pigeon. The pigeon, however, develops a random ritual that it “thinks” causes the food to appear. They end up doing a pigeon-dance when they’re hungry, in the hopes that it will make food come out. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, but the pigeons never stop believing in the dance. It’s in their nature to believe that they discover food, not that food happens.

The handbook went on to say:

Suppose the performance of an organization is high but independent of the actions of its managers. In this setting, anything that managers do will seem to be associated with high performance. As a result, through a process similar to that Skinner illustrated, managers may come to believe that the activities they are engaging in lead to high performance. (p. 274)

This could explain a lot of workplaces. But I’d guess that it goes further than just organizations where performance is always high. It is in the nature of managers to believe that failure comes from other people, and success from themselves. The same pigeon dance appears for failure, just outwardly-directed: “You found a bug while testing? Why are we wasting time testing when it clearly causes problems?”

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