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  • Hey, Mind Field! Vanessa here.

  • Just kidding. My name is actually Michael.

  • That part when I said that I was Vanessa...

  • that was a lie.

  • So you're welcome.

  • Humans love lies.

  • More precisely,

  • we love things that aren't entirely true--

  • because we have to.

  • It's often all we have.

  • Completely proving something can be difficult,

  • if not impossible.

  • So instead, we have the faith of the believer,

  • the confidence interval of the scientist.

  • What we think we know,

  • we really only believe we know.

  • On this episode of Mind Field, I'm going to take a look at

  • a kind of lie we tell ourselves.

  • And I'm going to use belief to turn a lie...into a truth.

  • ( theme music playing )

  • Michael: If I'm going to harness the power of belief,

  • I need to find a good way to study belief and behavior.

  • So I'm paying a visit to UCLA's Dr. Aaron Blaisdell,

  • who I worked with on last season's

  • "Greater Good" Trolley Problem episode.

  • ( train whistle blowing )

  • Dr. Blaisdell, great to see you again.

  • Nice to see you again, Michael.

  • Thank you for your help last season,

  • but I've got this new thing I want to look into.

  • I started thinking a lot about belief

  • and how we form them.

  • Specifically beliefs about what causes our behavior.

  • I want to be able to break it down

  • and just look at how people respond to the environment around them

  • and how it changes their belief.

  • Well, a Skinner Box is a great place to start.

  • because what I tell my students is,

  • a Skinner Box, for a psychologist like myself,

  • is like a test tube for a chemist.

  • Dr. Skinner, what are you doing with this pigeon?

  • I'm getting ready to demonstrate a fundamental principle of behavior.

  • Michael: Invented by Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner,

  • a Skinner Box is a chamber in which animals

  • can be isolated and exposed to carefully controlled stimuli.

  • In one of his landmark experiments,

  • Skinner released food to pigeons in the boxes

  • at regular intervals.

  • What he found was that the pigeons seemed to believe

  • that whatever they happened to be doing

  • just before the food came

  • actually caused the food to appear,

  • and would then repeat that behavior over and over--

  • for example, hopping around or spinning in circles.

  • Skinner called this "superstitious behavior."

  • So what do you want to do-- what's your dream test?

  • Basically a replication of Skinner's superstitious experiment,

  • but instead of with pigeons, with people.

  • I would love to see: will people develop

  • their own sort of superstitious rituals or beliefs.

  • Have we done this with people before?

  • I don't think such a rigorous test of this has been done.

  • I think primarily, from the literature I know, it's pretty much pigeons.

  • B.F. Skinner's work showed that if you

  • regularly deliver a reward to a pigeon,

  • regardless of how it actually acts,

  • the pigeon won't figure that out.

  • Instead, the pigeon will develop superstitious behaviors

  • as if it thinks it is in control,

  • despite the lack of any evidence that it is.

  • But what about humans?

  • Watching people form new superstitions

  • might show us how beliefs are created, but here's the thing:

  • You can't just put a person in a Skinner Box.

  • People are quite clever, and so instead,

  • along with Dr. Aaron Blaisdell,

  • I have developed a much more elaborate ruse.

  • Welcome to Victory Vault.

  • Michael: "Victory Vault" is a fake game show we made up

  • to draw our unsuspecting subjects

  • into taking part in a human Skinner Box.

  • To accomplish this, we rented a sound stage

  • and constructed what appeared to be a game show set,

  • but was really our study.

  • We outfitted the room with a checkboard floor,

  • a button that serves no purpose,

  • multiple cameras and a live microphone,

  • all of which have absolutely no connection to winning the game.

  • We also included an ATM slot on the wall where, instead of food,

  • dollar bills would be fed into the room

  • at regular intervals.

  • Meanwhile, I would be playing the role

  • of the executive producer of this new game show

  • testing out the concept for a television network.

  • Our first subject is Rebecca.

  • Yes, I know nothing. I'm excited.

  • Excellent, excellent.

  • Well, I'll you some things that you need to know.

  • One, you will get to keep all of the money that you get today.

  • The object of the game is to collect as much money as possible.

  • - OK. ( laughs ) - Now, you will have ten minutes,

  • and that's all I'm going to tell you.

  • - Go. OK? - OK.

  • - Rebecca: OK. - Michael (over loudspeaker): All right, Rebecca, begin

  • in three, two, one, go!

  • Blaisdell: Of course, right to the button,

  • but she's not fixated on it,

  • she's definitely looking around there.

  • Rebecca: I'm trying to figure out

  • if there's, like, a puzzle, or what this is about.

  • Am I supposed to just get out?

  • No, not supposed to get out. OK.

  • Oh! OK, there's money. Is that one clue?

  • Rebecca: I've earned one dollar. ( laughs )

  • See? She's "earned" one dollar. Earned.

  • I mean, she thinks she caused it to happen.

  • Let's see. I think I might be onto something

  • - with this door, maybe? - Uh-huh.

  • - OK. - Blaisdell: The second dollar bill

  • came out really shortly after she manipulated the door.

  • That's what Skinner would call "adventitious reinforcement."

  • She accidentally just happened to be doing something,

  • - and now look. - Hello?

  • Look, it reinforced that behavior, look how strong it's become.

  • Now she's doing a lot with the door,

  • and this dancing, just like one of Skinner's pigeons.

  • - Anything? - See?

  • Michael: For the first two minutes,

  • Rebecca believed a specific combination

  • of the door and the button

  • were triggering the money.

  • She had created a superstitious ritual.

  • But when her old ritual ceased to line up with the reward being delivered,

  • she started exploring new actions.

  • Would you like to keep sending money?

  • Is it something with this? Hello, dollar bill.

  • Michael: This change in Rebecca's behavior

  • indicates that she stopped believing that pressing the button

  • is associated with money coming out.

  • Skinner called this "extinction."

  • ( singing ) ♪ Keep sending money, what if I dance? ♪

  • Michael: Not it seems she believes

  • her new actions might connect to the reward.

  • - Five, four, three, - ( Rebecca yelps )

  • - two, one... - Let's try coming out again.

  • - zero, stop. - And... OK.

  • I don't think I solved this mystery.

  • ( laughs )

  • Michael: Rebecca! You got some money, huh?

  • - I did! - Come take a seat.

  • So, first of all, how'd it go?

  • Oh! Very confusing.

  • I wasn't able to fully figure it out,

  • but it was something to do with the 20 white squares on the floor.

  • Something to do with the red button as well, like a pattern, maybe?

  • Oh! Maybe I should have tried clicking on the button 20 times.

  • - Yes! - OK, you wanna know what makes the money come out?

  • Yes. It's probably something really crazy.

  • - It's just 30 seconds passing. - Blaissdell: Yep.

  • - It has nothing to do with what you do. - Ohh!

  • You would have gotten the same amount,

  • but you could just sat on the floor and done nothing.

  • - ( laughing ) - Yeah.

  • This is actually a psychological experiment

  • based on some work done by B.F. Skinner,

  • and we are looking at the kinds of behaviors people invent

  • that they think controls the money.

  • - But I think this was fascinating. - Blaisdell: Yeah.

  • - And you really do get to keep the money. - Yay!

  • - Rebecca, thank you for your help today. - Cool. Thank you, guys.

  • Michael: Rebecca's rituals seemed to indicate

  • that she thought performing for the camera

  • would work the best.

  • Her beliefs about TV shows informed

  • the kinds of superstitions she would create.

  • But will other people develop the same superstitions?

  • Or will it depend on the beliefs and expectations they already have?

  • The object of Victory Vault

  • is to collect as much money as you can.

  • Oh, OK. Well, let me take these accessories off there really quickly.

  • As soon as that door closes, your ten minutes starts.

  • I don't get to ask questions?

  • Not on Victory Vault.

  • Michael: See you in ten minutes.

  • All right.

  • Where's the cash?

  • It's like an escape room.

  • Am I supposed to push this?

  • Blaisdell: Some people really wanted instructions. Michael: Yeah.

  • Contestant: I feel like if I push this, the time is gonna be up.

  • Michael: Like Rebecca, all of our subjects

  • immediately gravitated to the useless button.

  • That button is so salient.

  • Push the button?

  • Oh, shit!

  • ( Michael, Blaisdell laugh )

  • He was a little surprised at that.

  • Push the button?

  • Oh! OK, I think I get it. Is it push the button?

  • Will I push the button? Am I supposed to push the button?

  • ( rapping ) ♪ If you're gon' push the button, then you're goin' with the button

  • And I'm pushin' on the button-- ♪

  • Michael: It was clear that most of the superstitions

  • began with the button, but evolved into something else

  • very quickly, including this guy,

  • whose superstitious behavior

  • was doing absolutely nothing.

  • Blaisdell: He's just standing there.

  • Michael: Yeah. Will he do something...?

  • ( chuckling )

  • Maybe taking the money is...bad?

  • I know strippers get singles for dancing.

  • Blaisdell: Is he gonna dance? I hope he doesn't strip for us.

  • I can't dance like that.

  • Maybe I can sweet talk the machine.

  • It's just giving me money at this point.

  • I'm not doing anything. ( laughs )

  • Blaisdell: He's no fool.

  • He's not really showing much superstitious behavior.

  • Even in Skinner's experiments,

  • not all the pigeons showed superstitious behaviors.

  • Michael: Obviously there's a game, I called it a game show.

  • But the money's just piling up like it's contagious.

  • Oh, look!

  • Uh-- Oh.

  • He really doesn't want to push it.

  • Come on. Press it four times, out comes the money.

  • - Press it four times? - Out comes the money.

  • ( contestant laughing )

  • Press it four times, out comes the money.

  • She believes that pressing the button is necessary, is a cause.

  • And the ritual consists of a few actions strung together.

  • Five, four, three...

  • two...one, stop.

  • Can I push the button?

  • - Time is up. - Damn.

  • Stay where you are. We will see you very soon.

  • I feel like I was supposed to push the button.

  • Michael: Pigeons don't enter a Skinner Box

  • with nearly as many preconceived notions as humans do.

  • Humans come in with a rich diversity of expectations.

  • Some think they need to perform for the camera, or make the producers laugh.

  • This guy thought that the secret was to just be different.

  • Hold it! Oh, I thought--

  • Take a seat.

  • - What was that? - Michael : Great work.