1457: Feedback

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
Jump to: navigation, search
A new study finds that if you give rats a cell phone and a lever they can push to improve the signal, the rats will chew on the cell phone until it breaks and your research supervisors will start to ask some questions about your grant money.
Title text: A new study finds that if you give rats a cell phone and a lever they can push to improve the signal, the rats will chew on the cell phone until it breaks and your research supervisors will start to ask some questions about your grant money.


This comic is a joke about the psychological theory that animals conditioned using seemingly random rewards and punishments promotes superstitious behavior, and then extrapolates this theory to humans and Wi-Fi or (more likely) Cellular signal integrity.

Often when connecting to unfamiliar Wi-Fi networks or when in a poorly covered area of a cell network, the signal displayed by the connecting device varies wildly, especially as distance increases. Poor wireless signal and drops in connection can be extremely frustrating, and hence Cueball has likely tried a variety of methods to improve the signal. As a result of his desperation, he replicates scenarios that are unlikely methods to increase his signal, but in some way mirror conditions where he has been successful finding a signal in the past. His past conditions have somehow led him to having the superstition that holding a pineapple while standing on top of a chair may resolve the problem. Likely, the signal increased at random while he was standing on a chair holding the pineapple, and he erroneously concluded that the chair and pineapple caused the signal strength increase. It is almost inconceivable that this technique could have any positive effect on the signal. This is related to the idea in comic 552: Correlation. See also the much later 2259: Networking Problems.

Megan questions his ridiculous behavior, but it seems Cueball has become extremely erratic due to the inconsistent signal strength.

The title text refers to a fictive study that apparently examined the behavior of rats in response to signal strength on a cellphone. It is a reference to B. F. Skinner's experiments. In these experiments, rats and, more frequently cited, pigeons are taught superstitious behavior by being rewarded at random intervals. In this new experiment the rats naturally could not understand the concept of signal strength,[citation needed] so they chewed up the cellphone till they broke, leading to the research supervisors questioning the validity of the study and questioning whether the grant money for the study was well used.

Skinner's real experiment[edit]

Skinner placed a series of hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to the pigeon "at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird's behavior." He discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as it was delivered, and that they subsequently continued to perform these same actions.

One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a 'tossing' response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return. Skinner suggested that the pigeons behaved as if they were influencing the automatic mechanism with their "rituals" and that this experiment shed light on human behavior.

See this Mind Field episode where this experiment has been performed on humans!


[Megan is looking up at Cueball who is standing on a chair facing away from her. He is holding a pineapple at breast height in his right hand while he is looking up at his smartphone, which he is holding up above head height in his left hand.]
Megan: Why are you standing on a chair holding a pineapple?
Cueball: I wasn't getting good reception but now I am!
[Caption below the panel:]
The erratic feedback from a randomly-varying wireless signal can make you crazy.

comment.png add a comment! ⋅ comment.png add a topic (use sparingly)! ⋅ Icons-mini-action refresh blue.gif refresh comments!


Could the pineapple here have any relation to the wi-fi pineapple? 05:27, 8 December 2014 (UTC)

Oh, it might as well be an obscure Psych reference. Please stop looking for extraobscure references.-- 17:57, 8 December 2014 (UTC)
I agree, in the context I really don't see how the Wi-Fi pineapple has any relevance. --Pudder (talk) 18:52, 8 December 2014


Cueball could be acting on being told that he could access an unknown Wifi using a pineapple. JamesCurran (talk) 16:45, 8 January 2015 (UTC)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sm3_qEMTdc4 06:35, 8 December 2014 (UTC) 06:37, 8 December 2014 (UTC)

I think the comic also refers to another experiment where pigeons received a snack from a dispenser at totally random times. The pigeons, thinking that whatever it is they did last helped trigger the release of food would develop a complex ritual dance to receive food. (http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Skinner/Pigeon/) (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

The intro to Mr. Nobody references this. It's what I immediately thought of when I saw this comic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YGcEy_W48Kc (the explanation starts around 1 minute in) (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

The title text may also be a reminder that despite signal strength being important enough to some humans to act in an insanity-suggesting manner, it is not an essential need of a living organism, as the rats visibly demonstrate. --Koveras (talk) 08:47, 8 December 2014 (UTC)

I thought 'reception' and 'wireless signal' referred to the cellular signal. That caused a lot of issues with the iphone and others. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Agreed. I don't think the comic has anything to do with wifi. The alt text seems to bolster this view. SeanAhern (talk) 15:09, 8 December 2014 (UTC)
Me too. In my house, cellular signal varies more than WiFi signal for small movements. 03:42, 3 December 2015 (UTC)

Was it Mythbusters who tin-foiled an entire room to see whether it acted as a make-shift antenna? --Pudder (talk) 15:23, 8 December 2014 (UTC)

What if the pineapple is actually where the signal is coming from, but it's a directional pineapple... greptalk18:32, 08 December 2014 (UTC)

Don't be silly. Everyone knows pineapples are omnidirectional... Of course, given the decreasing power away from the plane, if the pineapple is being held high up due to you being on a chair, if you're holding your phone up as well you probably also need to not be on the chair for your phone to get the very best signal from it... Obviously. 19:48, 8 December 2014 (UTC)

The first thing this comic made me think of was the belief in some people that if you hold a car key fob up to your chin and press a button, the signal from the fob will be more strongly focused (presumably by your skull) and thus able to reach your car from a greater distance. I wonder if there's any relationship? KieferSkunk (talk) 07:24, 9 December 2014 (UTC)

It's not really a believe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Uqf71muwWc -- 12:07, 9 December 2014 (UTC)
I have a few issues with that video, even though it SEEMs to be an established video series with mostly competent people doing the stuff in them. The experiment shown was far from exhaustive and there were several things I would have challenged the demonstrator to try, especially given the claims made as to how the range was increased... if you're interested, hit me up on my talk page and I'll try to explain. -- Brettpeirce (talk) 13:33, 12 December 2014 (UTC)
As he says in the video, don't prejudge, simply do the experiment yourself. I have, and it very clearly works. Miamiclay (talk) 22:25, 17 December 2014 (UTC)

I bet Woz loved this strip. He did a similar trick in college: http://archive.woz.org/letters/pirates/24.html -- 22:07, 20 December 2014 (UTC)

Quick question[edit]

I just wanted to followup on the request I submitted through your contact form a couple weeks ago as I haven't heard anything back. I pasted it below for your reference.

Is it okay if we feature your site in our next email newsletter? It's a perfect fit for a piece we're doing and I think our audience would find some of the content on your site super useful.

I know you're probably busy, so just a simple yes or no would suffice.

Many Thanks,