Pigeon Missiles, Dog Mines and Clever Hans

Before the birth of his second child, influential psychologist B. F. Skinner wanted to minimise the stress a newborn baby would cause for his wife. To alleviate the problem, he invented an improved crib that he called the air-crib. The easily cleaned, climate controlled box was a success with his daughter and commercial production began. However, public perception of the device was terrible, in part because of images like the one above of a child seemingly trapped inside a cupboard.

The air-crib was also confused with Skinner’s more famous invention used in animal psychology studies, the operant conditioning chamber, or Skinner Box, which modified its subjects’ behaviour through rewards and punishments, such as a jolt from the electrified floor. The myth that Skinner raised his daughter in a Skinner box was parodied on The Simpsons with Dr Marvin Monroe’s plan to buy a baby and raise it in his ‘Monroe Box,’ his theory being that the child “will be socially maladjusted and will harbor a deep resentment towards me.”

The Pigeon-Guided Missile

One of Skinner’s lesser known inventions was a missile guidance system operated by pigeons. During the Second World War, radio-controlled guidance systems were vulnerable to jamming. Operation Pigeon aimed develop an unjammable system. Pigeons were first trained to peck at an image of a target, such as a German battleship. Three pigeons housed in the nose cone of a missile, each in its own compartment, could direct the missile by pecking at a reflected image of its target. A feedback system caused the missile to change direction based on the frequency of pecks. Despite interest from the military, the project was abandoned when electronic guidance systems became feasible.

The Anti-Tank Dog

The Russians conceived the idea of using dogs to carry explosives into battle. Dogs were trained for this purpose from 1930 until 1996, but were only deployed during World War II against Germans on the Eastern Front.

During testing, the dogs performed well, diving underneath tanks to retrieve food. In the field, however, numerous problems arose. Many of the dogs would not approach moving tanks and were shot while waiting for them to stop. Others, frightened by the noise of gunfire, returned to the trenches where their bombs detonated, killing Soviet troops. Furthermore, the dogs had been trained with diesel-powered Soviet tanks and were less inclined to approach the strange-smelling gasoline-powered German tanks.The Nazi Superdog

While the Germans ridiculed the debacle of the anti-tank dogs, the Nazis were themselves pursuing a far more ridiculous canine program. Believing that dogs were almost as intelligent as humans, they attempted to train dogs to speak with the aim of utilising talking dogs in the war. Despite some tantalising results, the project never came fully to fruition.

Some of the early successes, such as a dog who could write poetry by tapping its paw to indicate letters, are thought to be due to the ‘Clever Hans’ effect. Hans was a German horse with apparently high intelligence. His owner, Wilhelm van Osten, gave demonstrations throughout Germany in which Hans was asked a question and would tap his hoof to indicate the answer. Hans was able to read the time, perform arithmetic and answer other simple questions.

Upon investigation, it was found that Hans was remarkably good at reading subtle, unconscious cues from his audience. When Hans was unable to see anyone who knew the answer, his accuracy dropped from 89% to 6%. Dubbed the Clever Hans effect, the phenomenon has been observed in other companion animals and humans. Apart from complicating animal psychology studies, the Clever Hans effect also has repercussions on police interrogation of suspects and witnesses, the operation of juries and the interpretation of polling data.

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2 Responses to Pigeon Missiles, Dog Mines and Clever Hans

  1. alison says:

    If his daughter did not die than why do people hate this man so much?

    • Rhys says:

      That’s a good question Alison. In the case of the air crib, it was largely a case of people jumping to conclusions based on the image rather than the text of the original magazine article (Snopes has a good explanation of this). Skinner’s daughter, Deborah, has repeatedly defended her father’s parenting abilities. Many people also found some of Skinner’s theories disturbing, particularly radical behaviourism, the idea that human behaviour is a product of the environment rather than free will.

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