Rewarding crows for picking up litter: Discussion

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In a 2008 10-minute TED Talk, Joshua Klein described how he created a vending machine for crows, and how he trained crows to use it using basic operant conditioning principles. Once trained, crows deposited coins in exchange for peanuts, a tasty snack for crows. (See? You’re not the only one working for peanuts.)

While the coin vending machine is fun, it’s not very practical. Maybe, say, in the 1970s coins were commonly dropped on the street, because, well, there were more coins being carried around. But now? I doubt that our local crow population be able to come up with enough coins to cover the cost of the peanuts.

Coins, though, are not the only thing that could be deposited in a vending machine.

Södertälje, Sweden (home to the Tom **bleep** Experiment Science Museum*) evidently has a problem with people tossing their cigarette butts on the ground. A company called Corvid Cleaning has created a crow vending machine where, once trained, crows will be able to deposit cigarette butts in exchange for peanuts.

After covering operant conditioning, share the above information with students, then open it up for discussion. Here are a few discussion questions to get things started.

  1. What responsibility does Corvid Cleaning have to ensure that the crows are not harmed by the litter they are picking up? [They report that they will be monitoring the health of the crows.]

  2. Is it ethical to pay wild crows to pick up human litter? Would it be more ethical to train humans to not toss their cigarette butts on the ground?
  1. Using what we know about operant conditioning, how could we train humans to not litter?


*I visited the museum’s website to learn the story behind the name. Because my knowledge of Swedish is limited to what I learned from the Muppets Swedish chef, I was very thankful that they offer an English translation. From the museum’s About page: “The slightly quirky name Tom **bleep** originates from a an imaginary figure who carried out scientific experiments in the French magazine L'Illustration at the end of the 19th century. Tom **bleep** demonstrated experiments and encouraged the readers to try out various fun activities with a scientific theme. Which is pretty much what we do here at Tom **bleep** Experiment!”

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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.