Experiments on lab animals have found that they sometimes associate an action with a reward because it coincided with a random food drop. For example, a pigeon looks over its left shoulder, then a food pellet drops, and the pigeon spends the next week constantly looking over its left shoulder trying to make more food appear.

Is there a term for this in humans? "Superstition" and "magical thinking" are close. "Irrational behavior" covers it but is very broad; is there something more specific?

I'm most interested in a term or phrase that refers to acquiring this kind of behavior, but a term for the behavior itself would also be appreciated.

  • 1
    In animals this is rational behaviour, not irrational. When an animal has to hunt daily for its food, it makes sense to follow patterns/visit locations/observe weather changes which were successful before. However, if there are no further rewards animals soon adjust their behaviour and hunt elsewhere, as they can't afford to waste time. It's only humans that insist on repeating superstitious, irrational behaviour in the face of all evidence to the contrary! :)
    – Mynamite
    Dec 10, 2014 at 16:53
  • Perhaps I didn't understand your question, but maybe end-driven or consequentialism will help you. As in "the end justifies the means". It doesn't necessarily imply the conditioning though (which might also be what you're looking for)
    – pfff
    Dec 10, 2014 at 19:33
  • Fwiw, when the famous BF Skinner observed and induced this in pigeons he called it superstition. psychclassics.yorku.ca/Skinner/Pigeon
    – Dan
    Dec 10, 2014 at 20:57
  • This is just a mistaken assignment of cause. Superstition and magic are means that people use to explain what they don't understand.
    – Oldcat
    Dec 10, 2014 at 21:56
  • I doubt any animal would reproduce behavior based on a single instance. And remember, humans are animals too and often looking over their shoulders.
    – Lambie
    Jul 16, 2022 at 17:44

5 Answers 5


Illusory correlation, the false perception of a relationship between two variables (including actions/events, as you've described).

You can find more information at the Wikipedia page.


I think that superstition and magical thinking are exactly what you are looking for.

Both of these describe a belief in supernatural causality, or that one event may cause another without any natural process connecting the two.

  • I think the distinction is that the link is not believed to be supernatural, but rather simply isn't examined. "I ate there once and got fired the next day, I'm not going back there again!" doesn't claim that a spirit of unemployment is haunting the restaurant, rather the person is assuming a causality without giving it much thought.
    – user9383
    Dec 10, 2014 at 18:06

Operant conditioning is the term for when someone is trained (either deliberately or accidentally) to perform an action with the expectation that it will result in some sort of reward.


I think the phrase would be ritual or ritualistic behavior. I will leave it to the reader to Google the definitions, but examples include a baseball player who doesn't shave during the season because the one time he didn't shave he pitched a no-hitter, or the OCD guy who has to lock and unlock his door 3 times before leaving the house because once he couldn't remember if he locked the door and it bugged him all day long.


A term for the phenomenon borrowed from anthropology and later popularized by physicist Richard Feynman is cargo cult, originating in studies of religious rituals observed on various Pacific islands after the Second World War.

During the war, these isolated and technologically primitive islands suddenly saw an influx of thousands of American soldiers and vast quantities of supplies and war matériel appearing out of nowhere, and then disappearing as Imperial Japan's perimeter shrank and the war drew to a close. As described by Paul Raffaele in a February 2006 Smithsonian Magazine article entitled "In John They Trust" about such a cult on Vanuatu:

The locals don’t know where the foreigners’ endless supplies come from and so suspect they were summoned by magic, sent from the spirit world. To entice the Americans back after the war, islanders throughout the region constructed piers and carved airstrips from their fields. They prayed for ships and planes to once again come out of nowhere, bearing all kinds of treasures: jeeps and washing machines, radios and motorcycles, canned meat and candy.… [A]lthough almost all the cargo cults have disappeared over the decades, the John Frum movement has endured, based on the worship of an American god no sober man has ever seen.

(the theory behind the name John Frum or John Fromme is that the islanders interpreted an introduction as the name: Hello, I'm John from Dubuque, and this is John from Pensacola).


Since then, the term has been appropriated and snowcloned by others. The most famous use is by Feynman warning against cargo cult science in a 1974 CalTech commencement address, referring to

research that never seemed to yield provable results, but acquired public acceptance because they possessed the veneer of rigorous methodology

(Hiltzik, Michael. "More on the crisis in research: Feynman on 'cargo cult science'," The Los Angeles Times, October 28, 2013)

Another use is cargo cult programming, referring similarly to the ritual insertion of code, libraries, structures, etc. by a developer even though they serve no purpose. It is a half-step away from voodoo programming. Extended to management, Steve McConnell has described cargo cult software engineering as the attempt by software development firms to emulate more successful ones by requiring long hours and unpaid overtime of their developers— though those are the effects of motivation in the successful shops, not the cause of success.

Cargo cult politics, cargo cult journalism, cargo cult dieting— try a web search on any field or interest; there is probably someone condemning cargo cult behavior in it.

  • This doesn't fit. The correlation between products and US servicemen was a real one, not accidental. The means they use to try and call the servicemen and product back are magical and ineffective, but that isn't germane to the question.
    – Oldcat
    Dec 10, 2014 at 21:53

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