Jeff Kupfer and Ron Allen
University of Colorado (Denver) and Simmons University (Boston)

Historically, spontaneous behavior has been tricky territory for complete explanations of behavior. In some cases, a spontaneous act has served as an opportunity for supplying a mentalistic explanation ranging from invented causes to the concept of agency. The Oxford dictionary describes spontaneous behavior as: performed or occurring as a result of a sudden inner impulse or inclination and without premeditation or external stimulus. Acts of creativity are often spontaneous as Wordsworth points out: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

Other words are used to reference actions without conspicuous causes. Inspiration, “the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative’ (Oxford dictionary). Inspiration can be traced to the process of respiration as “to breathe in” In the case of describing behavior at a distance, it can imply receiving the breath of divine stimulation leading to creative acts.

Writers take liberties when describing spontaneous behaviors and eschew scientific accounts of the same. Skinner (1953) describes early opposition to extending the reflex to account for more behavior:
The evidence they offered in support of a residual inner cause consisted of behavior which could not be explained wholly in terms of stimuli… arguments for spontaneity, and for the explanatory entities which spontaneity seems to demand, are of such form that they must retreat before the accumulating facts… Spontaneity is negative evidence; it points to the weakness of a current scientific explanation , but does not in itself prove an alternative version.(p.48).

Like many other complex behaviors, spontaneous responding is more behavior to be explained. For example, can stimulus control account for spontaneity, or perhaps other basic principles of behavior? In the 1980s, Epstein and Skinner conducted a series of experiments with pigeons (Columban Simulations) examining the origins of behaviors that are frequently cited as too complex for anything less than a cognitive account. These behaviors included use of memoranda (Epstein & Skinner, 1981), self-awareness (Epstein & Skinner, 1986), insight (Epstein, Kirshnit, Lanza, & Rubin, 1984), and tool use (Epstein & Medalie, 1983). In these experiments, pigeons were taught separate repertoires that came together spontaneously, and a new behavior emerged that was not taught, nor reinforced directly. Epstein emphasized that repertoires could become interconnected and that principles such as resurgence can account for spontaneous behaviors (Epstein, 1986;1987).

Instances of spontaneous behavior should be noted and examined for possible variables leading to their occurrence. In the insight and tool use experiments cited above, Epstein describes a key component of a spontaneous performance was due to specifically training “directional pushing” of the objects (e.g., pecking a box toward a dot located along the lower wall of the chamber), as opposed to randomly pushing an object around the chamber. This training led to an entirely different performance; directional pushing appeared “purposeful” whereas simple pushing appeared “happenstance”.
Another consideration is the role of spontaneity in selection by consequence. For example, can induction (see Baum, 2012) account for the origin of response variations that are emitted, reinforced, and subsequently called “creative” by a culture? Novel behavior, for example, must be emitted before a culture can declare it to be creative. After all, some novel acts can also be lethal to an individual or culture. In a personal communication with Skinner (1984), he suggests:

Occasionally, new things happen without usefully identified causes. All the variations in natural selection are spontaneous in that sense, and we must suppose that something of the sort occurs in the evolution of personal behavior through operant reinforcement, and the evolution of cultures. Variations do not, of course, imply a creative act. That was Darwin’s problem, and to some extent it is still ours.


Baum, W. M. (2012). Rethinking reinforcement: Allocation, induction, and contingency. Journal of the experimental analysis of behavior, 97(1), 101-124.

Epstein, R. (1986). Simulation Research in the Analysis of Behavior. In: Poling, A., Fuqua, R.W. (eds.) Research Methods in Applied Behavior Analysis. Applied Clinical Psychology. Springer, Boston, MA.

Epstein, R. (1987). The spontaneous interconnection of four repertoires of behavior in a pigeon (Columba livia). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 101 (2), 197-201.

Epstein, R., Lanza, R.P., & Skinner, B.F. (1981). “Self-awareness” in the pigeon. Science, 212, 695-696.

Epstein, R. Kirshnit, C., Lanza, R.P. & Rubin, L. (1984). “Insight” in the pigeon: Antecedents and determinants of an intelligent performance. Nature, 308, 61-62.

Epstein, R. & Medalie, S.D. (1983). The spontaneous use of a tool by a pigeon. Behaviour Analysis Letters, 3, 241-247.

Epstein, R. & Skinner, B.F. (1981). The spontaneous use of memoranda by pigeons. Behaviour Analysis Letters, 1, 241-246.

Skinner, B.F. (1953). Science and Human Behavior, Macmillan.