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When pigeons were missile guidance systems

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Among the V-2's notable technological accomplishments was its control system of two gyroscopes for lateral stability. This was a more advanced guidance system than anything American scientists had at the time, though this wasn't for lack of trying: American scientists had been working on guiding missiles to targets throughout the war. Psychologist Burrhus Frederic (B. F.) Skinner got into the missile guidance game by researching a very non-traditional guidance system: pigeons.

The Animal Psychologist

B. F. Skinner happened upon psychology almost by chance. During a brief stint in New York City where he worked as a bookstore clerk, he read works by physiologists Ivan Pavlov and John Watson. Inspired, and curious to learn more, he enrolled as a student in Harvard's Psychology Department at the age of 24. There, he found himself under the mentorship of the department chair William Crozier.

Crozier's study of animals "as a whole" was in line with Skinner's interest in correlating animal behavior with experimental conditions. Skinner worked with rats. He trained them to press a pedal, then changed the apparatus as the rats adapted to the experiment. Eventually, the graduate student developed a cumulative recorder of his rats' behavior that revealed the impact of continually changing the environment on their responses.

What Skinner discovered contradicted what he'd learned from Pavlov and Watson. The rate at which his rats pressed the pedal depended on what came after they pressed it, not whatever stimulus he offered them beforehand. This was a new development in the field, a phenomenon Skinner called "operant behavior." The overall process of using aftereffects to shape animal behavior he called "operant conditioning." Skinner spent five years studying this new field thanks to a fellowship, and synthesized his results in his first book, The Behavior of Organisms, which he published in 1938.

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