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Conditioning and Superstition

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning occurs when an observable stimulus does not exist, the absence of such, produces a particular response in an organism in order to acquire something. This is non-reflexive behaviour. In other words, a person or animal will interact with the environment in an effort to establish what it is that it needs to do in order to get its needs met.

B.F. Skinner’s Experiments

The psychologist B.F. Skinner formulated his theory on operant conditioning by creating experiments whereby he could observe the behaviour of laboratory animals. Skinner's work was influenced by Pavlov’s experiments and the ideas of John Watson, father of behaviourism.


One of Skinner’s classic experiments would be to put a rat in a box, called a Skinner Box, in which it eventually accidentally presses a lever which dispenses a food pellet. After repeating this process several times, the rat eventually learns that it can cause a food pellet to be dispensed by pressing the lever. At this point the rat has been operantly conditioned because even after the food dispenser has been disconnected, the rat still presses the lever in anticipation of receiving further food pellets.

Skinner found that once the rat had been operantly conditioned, the behaviour could be reinforced by dispensing a food pellet in response to the lever pressing on an intermittent basis – this is called partial reinforcement. Skinner experimented with different types of partial reinforcement such as dispensing pellets after a fixed interval of say a minute or dispensing a pellet according to a fixed rate such as every twenty presses of the lever.

Unlike Ivan Pavlov's classical conditioning, where an existing behaviour (salivating for food) is shaped by associating it with a new stimulus (ringing of a bell or a metronome), operant conditioning is the rewarding of an act that approaches a new desired behaviour.

Videos of Operant Conditioning Experiments

Short videos of a rat in a Skinner Box, pushing a lever to dispense a food pellet.

A video of a Skinner interview showing operant conditioning with pigeons. Discusses schedules of reinforcement:

Conditioning and Superstition

B.F. Skinner also formulated a theory about how superstitions are formed. Skinner experimented with dispensing food pellets to pigeons on a random basis. The pigeons, however, were convinced that it was their behaviour which led to the pellet being dispensed. Skinner noted that the pigeons that were conditioned in this way, would exhibit predictable patterns of behaviour as a result of formulating a connection between their behaviour and the dispensation of the food pellet.

This type of conditioning also lends itself to human behaviour. It would seem that human beings are always trying to determine the means by which they can control their environment through their behaviour. So if a person walks under a ladder and something falls on their head, they can relate that unfortunate experience with the “bad luck” that is associated with their behaviour i.e. walking under a ladder. The fact that something bad happened because they walked under a ladder, had a rather obvious and practical reason associated with it because of the safety issue that the ladder presented.

Superstition is also associated with more impractical and random occurrences. For instance, a person might see a black cat and minutes later they find they have lost their purse or wallet. This person might not yet associate that bad experience with the sighting of the black cat. The same person could then see a black cat again and minutes later their mobile phone rings with someone on the end of the line giving them some bad news. After a few such random occurrences, a person could become convinced that black cats are a bad omen.

With this concept of conditioning in mind, we can see the various instances in which people become conditioned to behave in a certain way because of the belief formulated by the occurrence of random events.

I am certain that God also tests us in this manner and this concept certainly has its application in the life of the Christian. Some Christians don’t like the concept of being tested by God, and therefore, we shall say that God allows Christians to go through certain experiences.

Elijah’s Supernatural Experiences

I personally believe that one of the best illustrations of this testing is found in the story of Elijah when he was running away from Jezebel and he saw all sorts of supernatural happenings such as fire, wind and an earthquake – yet he did not get carried away with trying to fathom their symbolic meaning and purpose.

Instead of straining himself to try and work out what God was saying to him through the supernatural occurrences, Elijah just chose to ignore them whilst remaining quiet on the inside, listening for God’s direction.

I think some Christians get carried away with reading into the symbolic meaning behind random events and circumstances. Those who are accustomed to being led by the Spirit of God, such as Elijah, become acutely aware of when God is speaking to them and when He is not. It is only the Christians who are struggling to be led by God who anxiously seek to find the relevance and purpose in almost every little random thing that happens in their life.

Superstition in the Church

A Christian could do something that he knows is sinful like looking at a woman to lust after her or swearing. Then, something bad happens to him – perhaps he has a car accident or misses the bus. Straightaway, the Christian makes the association with the bad thing happening and the sin that he committed. The bad thing that happened, although a random occurrence, was seen as a punishment from God when it was nothing of the sort.

These superstitions are rife in the church and lend themselves to the perpetuation of wrong beliefs and false doctrine, handed down from other Christians, which is nothing more than a paranoid fear in response to random occurrences. When something bad happens, this will be attributed to sin or a lack of prayer, giving, works, etc.

Superstition and the Tithe

Another area, in which Christians can become operantly conditioned, is in the area of tithes and offerings. If a Christian struggles financially, he could be told by other, well-meaning Christians that he is being cursed by God because he does not pay a tithe to the church. The accepted idea is that if a Christian pays a tithe to the church, then God will rebuke the devourer and will pour out a blessing, according to Malachi 3:10-12.

If a Christian is desperate to be blessed, he might end-up paying a tithe, albeit begrudgingly, with the misguided notion that God will open the windows of heaven and pour out such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it. Then, if he pays his tithe and still does not get blessed – he will be told to be patient, or will be told he does not have enough faith, or that he must increase his giving, or will be asked if there is hidden sin in his life, etc.

The truth about the tithe is that the tithe was a commandment established in the Old Testament. The modern day church has taken Malachi 3:8-10 and made it into another rule for Christians to keep. The tithe actually related to food, not money, that a person was to bring into the storehouse. The tithe harkens back to the days in which Israel gave a tenth of their yield to the Levitical priests who looked after the priestly duties and were not hunter-gatherers. The concept of the tithe has been transposed in modern times to relate to pastors of churches who require the donations of the congregation to operate effectively and to fund the various programs of expansion that they have.

Punishment from God or Consequences of Resisting God?

Sometimes God does seem to punish Christians for their sin, but it is usually sin in the context of their propensity to do a certain thing rather than the actual sinful action which they commit. It is more about living according to the consequences of their disposition, their disposition being the accumulation of their beliefs, desires, attitudes, motives and patterns of thinking.

If God wants a believer to do something nice for a person who has offended them, then God is likely to be resisted by the pent up feelings of bitterness and resentment that a person has towards another person - If the believer has such an inclination towards being easily offended.

If a person walks in love towards others he will naturally flow with God according to His will, making himself better able to cooperate with God when it comes to getting his own needs met.

The Bible tells us that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). The Bible also tells us that the law, which brought condemnation, has been nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:14). So you see, it is not as if God is punishing believers for their wrong behaviour – it is more a matter of being able to respond correctly to the instructions of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

The Bible tells us that as we sow that shall we reap, this could be seen as being punishment from God, but really, it is simply reaping the consequences of our own actions more than anything else.

If Christians get carried away with the concept of punishment for their sins, it distracts them from the sacrifice that Jesus made for our sins, once and for all on the cross. This idea of sowing and reaping, sin and punishment, can lead the believer to identify all sorts of rather innocent things as being sinful, due to an association with random occurrences.

Galatians 6:8 contrasts sowing to the flesh against sowing to the spirit: one brings corruption (separation from God and self-reliance), whilst the other brings everlasting life (the presence of God). Sowing and reaping really comes down to how much we are able to yield our spirit as a vessel of the Holy Spirit for His use.

When Christians Get Blessed

When believers get blessed they can relate it to something good they have done an act of servanthood in the church or perhaps simply a reward for their diligent efforts to keep rules. This reinforces the notion that a person has to perform in order to be rewarded. We tend to carry that notion into the church with us when we get saved – it is the classic concept of effort-and-reward that exists in all of us.

This idea lends itself to Christians who force themselves to make all sorts of efforts to serve God, with the motive of becoming acceptable to God so that they can get their basic needs met and live a peaceable existence.

Don’t misunderstand me, I believe in the power of prayer. But I also believe that many Christians become encouraged to pray incorrectly. All sorts of prayer methodologies can be formulated in this manner. A believer could pray regularly for something, perhaps the salvation of a loved one, and then months later that person gives their life to the Lord. Convinced that it was their diligent prayer that got the person saved, the believer could then continue to pray in the same manner for someone else to get saved – even though the prayer could be rather unscriptural and fruitless. I have heard believers tell the story of how a loved one has come to faith in Christ, because they prayed for their salvation for eleven years.

If a Christian prays for someone who is admitted to hospital for some reason, then after a period of time the person gets better and is discharged from hospital. The praying Christian could then cite his prayers as being the reason why the person got better - despite the fact that it was simply down to the medical treatment that the person received whilst in hospital.

There is also a more obvious factor to consider: if a person commits to a certain pattern of behaviour, such as cigarette smoking, he will risk facing predictable and unpleasant consequences. The health risks associated with smoking are not punishment from God, as such, but simply the natural consequences of the person’s actions.

But again, behaviour is largely governed by the beliefs, desires and attitudes of a person. We see evidence in scripture of the concept of the sinful nature opposing the divine nature, in Galatians 5:17.

16 I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. 17 For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish.

Galatians 5:16-17

This tendency is ingrained in human nature. We have become convinced that our life experiences are utterly dependant on the way in which we interact with our environment. Christians then seek to compile lists of do’s and don’ts in an effort to control behaviour. This attitude can lead to people experiencing a sense of guilt for things that were not their fault and outside of their control. Conversely, some people can become puffed-up with pride as the result of something good happening that they had very little, if anything at all, to do with.


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