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Shooing Away Your Inner Pigeon

By Daniel Hubbard | January 17, 2010

A funny thing happened to me on the way home from the library the other day. I’d been working in some genealogy databases—typing away, looking through the search results, then more typing… After doing what I’d planned to do, it was time to walk home. On the way, I thought of a psychology lecture I’d listened to a few days earlier.

If you don’t recognize the name, B. F. Skinner might be mistaken for an exterminator. He did, after all, spend much of his life with rats and pigeons. Skinner was, in fact, the founder of the school of psychology known as radical behaviorism. He is the man who put rats into boxes with little levers that, when pressed, released a food pellet. Perhaps the first time the rat moved the lever would either be a product of general sniffing around to check out the box or simply accidentally treading or sitting on it. Once the food appeared, the rat became more focused on what had happened and after an additional pellet or two, the behavior was learned and the rat continuously demonstrated expertise at this new method of gathering food.

The Genealogists Inner Pigeon (from Wikipedia)

Later, he worked with pigeons. Partially to keep the cost of feed down, he began to require the bird to peck not once but twice, three times, or more, before receiving food. The birds quickly learned how to peck the right number of times in rapid succession, spoiling Skinner’s attempt to reduce their overeating and save on birdseed. Later he tried rewarding the birds not after a fixed number of times but after a randomly varying number of times. The bird still needed to peck or nothing would happen but all guarantees were removed. An amazing thing occurred. His pigeons learned to just peck and peck and peck until something happened. It didn’t seem to matter that the last reward was a month before, the birds kept trying. Skinner called this gambling behavior and compared it to the way people perch on stools in front of slot machines, endlessly putting in coins and pulling levers, waiting for a reward.

As you may have guessed by now, it was no coincidence that these thoughts came to me while walking home from the library’s computer area. It takes effort to avoid falling into “pecking pigeon” mode while sitting at the computer searching—doing something but not accomplishing anything, just pecking away, waiting for the feed pellet to roll out of the CD drive slot with great-great-grandpa’s obituary on it.

The serious side to this is that one needs to really analyze what to search for, what resources to use, the time it will take and its chances of success, preferably before heading off to the archive or sitting down at the computer. Even better, write down what you plan to do. You may never look at the plan, you may not need to look at it for it to do you some good. There are many reasons to make serious use of your plan—as a skeleton for your research log and as a checklist to make sure research tasks don’t get forgotten, to name only two—but just the act of writing down your plan makes it more real and helps you remain on track.

You can always decide to be flexible, to do things differently, but that mental step of going outside your plan helps to keep you focused even then. Instead of just mentally wandering off, you will have to make the conscious decision to not follow your plan and you will be aware of the pros and cons. You will get a little voice inside of you asking if this is really the best use of your time and reminding you of what you had planned to do and how well thought out that was. Even a simple plan is an important way to prevent your “inner pigeon” from starting to aimlessly peck away.

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