The Tail of the Raccoon, Part 1 – Educational Commentary

Sign-Tracking: The Symbol and the Reward

“The Tail of the Raccoon: Secrets of Addiction” is a scientific short story. The story was developed by Professor Arthur Tomie, an addiction research scientist at Rutgers University, in collaboration with Barbara Zito, an author and editor. They have pooled their talents to bring a behavior called Sign-Tracking to the attention of the general public.

One of the reasons why Sign-Tracking behavior fascinates people is because it defies logic. To the casual observer, Sign-Tracking behavior can seem peculiar. Sign-Tracking is described in “The Tail of the Raccoon: Secrets of Addiction” when a symbol (kindling wood) is seen just prior to receiving a reward (Mapache’s food). After this happens over and over again, the wood becomes a symbol of reward and the Raccoon begins to behave toward the kindling wood as though it was the actual food reward. This behavior, to act toward a symbol as though it is an actual reward, is called Sign-Tracking. It is apparent when the symbol of reward controls behavior. As described in the story, Sign-Tracking did not help the Raccoon get the food, rather the Raccoon’s Sign-Tracking behavior drew his attention away from the food reward. The Raccoon gnawed and chewed on the sticks, then dragged them into the lake, and splashed them about in the water. These peculiar actions are a waste of time and energy, and serve only to delay the eating of the real food rewards, to say nothing of their effects on the quality of Mapache’s fire.