There’s an island in the Pacific Ocean that’s teeny tiny; 25 miles long and 12 miles wide. There are only about six thousand people living on it. It’s covered in palm trees and coconut groves and the people there wear grass skirts, and do ritual dances and they drink kava.
And every February 15th they get out their special bamboo rods and wave them at the sky. And they raise flags, and wave them at the sky. And they stand for hours in specially-built boxes at the end of the strip of land they’ve specifically flattened for this particular day and stare up at the sky. And they put on special ritual headgear that looks an awful lot like what we in the west would call headphones and they wave smaller bamboo sticks at the sky.
And all this sky waving has a purpose: they’re hoping it will bring the mythical god John Frum, King of America and of their island Tanna, to their volcanic home. And he will come with medicines, technologies and riches they haven’t seen in more than 70 years.
How did these rituals arise? FToor understand this, we have to turn to one of the classic texts in the psychology canon: B.F. Skinner’s Superstition of the Pigeon. But before we set foot in the cage...
In 1941, by the grace of physical proximity, Tanna was smack underneath the epic air battles of the War in the Pacific that raged overhead.
On the ground, these folks had notoriously been standoffish; they weren’t particularly interested in contact with anyone from the next island, let alone outside the archipelago. They'd pretty fiercely held on to their traditional myths and legends, even after the Europeans tried to interject Christianity one hundred years before.
But this time was different. About 1/4 of the population was recruited by the American air force to work on a base on the next island. These Tannese brought back all kinds of new knowledge about beyond-comprehension technologies, funny headgear and magic. The magic that brought the stuff from the sky.
Meanwhile, around this time in Minnesota, Burrhus Frederic Skinner was chasing a dream: he was sick of all the theorising about human behaviour; he wanted to once and for all actually study it. His method? Good old fashioned experimentation. His tool? A device that he developed as a post-grad at Harvard: an “Operant conditioning chamber”, more popularly known as a Skinner box.
Operant conditioning. Before you hold your head and say, ‘woah, scientist lady,” please let me explain. This is the lingo used by psychologists to describe one of the ways our behaviour can be changed. The idea is that if you know the right formula and the right situation in the right context, you can change what a person does or thinks. We can be programmed, of a fashion.
This was a very compelling idea in the US in the 40s and 50s. It was very neat, it explained away a lot, and as the field became more popular in the press, it helped to reinforce the mythos of the omnipotent psychologist. It’s a very compelling idea today too; CBT - that most popular therapy method - is all about Skinner’s conditioning.
The theory goes that you can extinguish or encourage behaviours you want, and extinguish and encourage behaviours you don’t want. This happens in two ways: either through reinforcement or punishment.
Positive reinforcement is when you encourage the behaviours you want. That’s pretty straightforward. You know, giving a treat for getting good marks on an exam. You want to do it again.
Negative reinforcement - somewhat counterintuitively - isn’t getting rid of undesirable behaviour; that’s punishment. No, negative reinforcement is when you encourage behaviours that you don’t want. Like crying at bedtime. You pick the baby up and give it a cuddle every time it cries because that calms the baby down. You don’t want it to cry; you want to get some sleep, and you want a calm baby. But the baby eventually associates sleep with being picked up. And to get that result, she has learned that she gets it when she cries. Ergo, sleepless nights.
But life isn’t black and white, and nor is reinforcement. Skinner’s great innovation was to moosh positive and negative reinforcement into his theory of behaviour. Experimentation meant that you could reconstruct the conditions that led to a behaviour so you could understand it and “correct” it. Perhaps one that was unhelpful. Or unhealthy. Or incomprehensible.
A man named Neloiag proclaimed himself John Frum, king of America and of Tanna, in the north of the island. He surrounded himself with an armed police, thanks to whom he requisitioned manual labour by means of village contingents.
It took anthropologists a while to realise that the origin story of this god of America and Tanna was John Frum, as in John from Tallahassee. Or John from Tuscon. Anthropologist Jean Guiart explained his significance to the people of Tanna.
John Frum would provide everything-metal houses, clothes, food, means of conveyance. He was the master of the planes, which, with the approach of war, in 1941, began to appear in the Hebridean sky...The people cleared a plateau at Ikelau with the intention of making an aerodrome which would enable American fliers to land.
Back to the cage I mentioned before. Or was it a Skinner box.
Skinner’s particular detective work for extracting what the right conditions were to change behaviour involved putting half-starved animals in a light-proof and sound-proofed box. These were more lenient times.
He’d give the poor creature food and water when it pressed a lever or performed some kind of action. He wanted to see what happened when he gave it more or less random positive and negative reinforcement. Here’s a typical use, by Skinner himself. With a pigeon.
A pigeon is brought to a stable state of hunger by reducing it to 75 percent of its weight when well fed. It is put into an experimental cage for a few minutes each day. A food hopper attached to the cage may be swung into place so that the pigeon can eat from it. A solenoid and a timing relay hold the hopper in place for five sec. at each reinforcement.
And then he watched. And he saw his pigeons do things to try to make sense of the reward. Remember, he wasn’t trying to teach the bird anything. He wasn’t guiding it in any way. This just happened….
One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a 'tossing' response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return. The body generally followed the movement and a few steps might be taken when it was extensive. Another bird was conditioned to make incomplete pecking or brushing movements directed toward but not touching the floor. None of these responses appeared in any noticeable strength during adaptation to the cage or until the food hopper was periodically presented.
The bird started, effectively - and spontaneously - doing a rain dance: hoping through its weird and erratic behaviour that it’d summon mana from heaven. It wasn’t being trained to shake its tailfeather; it was just trying to make sense of a random world. An avian post hoc ergo propter hoc.
after this, therefore because of this
Skinner could be a described as a fan of this logical fallacy. After all, if he figured out what the propter hoc was, he’d be able to change behaviour.
The problem is, it’s often a detective game to wheedle out the origin story of a strange behaviour. It’s pretty hard to guess what the propter hoc might have been. It’s much easier to diagnose after the fact, right?
We are faced with a phenomenon of collective belief, escaping all logic, ignoring deceptions and denials. Everything has happened as though a myth, launched by one person, has been endowed with a life of its own, developing in systematic fashion what, in its setting forth, was scarcely foreshadowed in the beginning.
That was John Guiart again, in 1957, writing about the John Frumians of Tanna. The island is an excellent real-world example of a Skinner box: nothing comes in, nothing goes out. Except at totally random intervals.
So yeah: if good stuff comes when American men named John wave sticks at the sky, you might get conditioned to think that if you wave sticks at the sky, they’ll come to you too, right? Back to Skinner and his birds.
The conditioning process [was] usually obvious. The bird happens to be executing some response as the hopper appears; as a result it tends to repeat this response. If the interval before the next presentation is not so great that extinction takes place, a second 'contingency' is probable. This strengthens the response still further and subsequent reinforcement becomes more probable. It is true that some responses go unreinforced and some reinforcements appear when the response has not just been made, but the net result is the development of a considerable state of strength.
You’ll do your dances, you’ll wave your bamboo rifles - you’ll do anything to call the King of America and Tanna back to your manor. Because by gum, you really want the mana from the bellies of the big metal birds.
Skinner didn’t know anything about John Frum or Tanna. But what his birds taught him was the origin of something that’s also very human.
The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behavior. Rituals for changing one's luck at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances. The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if he were controlling it by twisting and turning his arm and shoulder is another case in point. These behaviors have, of course, no real effect upon one's luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing -- or, more strictly speaking, did something else.
This what I most love about this study: it’s about the unexpected outcomes of personal interpretation of events.
Tanna had been abandoned by the war, collateral damage without the bombsites. The locals had seen something the Americans were doing that brought mana from the sky, and they brought that home.
Psychologists might say this is perfect example of a Skinner Box in action, but we mustn't forget the complexities of human life.
What can start off as a Skinner Box conditioned behaviour may ultimately take on on deeper social meaning. Dancing around a maypole doesn’t bring fertility. Lighting candles in the middle of winter doesn’t bring spring. So while today the citizens of Tanna know that building airstrips and waving bamboo rifles at the sky won’t bring John Frum, they continue doing it because it reinforces their community, their culture and their heritage.
Over time, the myth becomes the important thing. The two steps forward-one step back is recognition of their ultimate reward.
This has been the N of Us. I’m Aleks Krotoski. Editorial and voice support from Ben Hammersley. Hannah Whittingham is our researcher. Original music is by Peter Gregson. We’re delighted to be supported by the British Psychological Society. For more on the series, to listen to the previous podcasts, and to catch up on all the full text of the stories featured in this episode, head to thenofus.com
Next time, we’re discovering what the zombie apocalypse has to do with clique behaviour. Check it out.