The Tail of the Raccoon, Part 1 – Scientific Commentary

Sign-Tracking: Unmasking the Secrets of Addiction

This story introduces the reader to the phenomenon of “Sign-Tracking”, as revealed by the behavior of “Sign Tracker” the Raccoon character and protagonist of the story. Sign-Tracking is observed when animals repeatedly experience pairings of a small object with a food reward. As revealed by the story, this experience leads to the development of feeding behavior directed at the small object predictive of the food. Sign-Tracking has been widely reported by behavioral scientists studying the effects of this type of Pavlovian conditioning procedure; thus, the strange behavior of “Sign Tracker” is based, in part, on research findings published in scientific journals.

The Raccoon in the story exhibits several features of the Sign-Tracking phenomenon:

  1. The Raccoon’s Sign-Tracking behavior develops after he has experienced repeated pairings of the kindling wood (reward symbol) with the food (reward substance).
  2. The Raccoon is compulsively drawn to the reward symbol (kindling wood) as though unable to impede the performance.
  3. The Raccoon behaves toward the kindling wood symbol as though it were actually food, i.e., salivating and gnawing on the kindling wood symbol.
  4. The Raccoon actually loses many possible food rewards because he becomes so involved in symbol-directed behavior.