I usually like to blog about recent articles, and I try to limit myself to papers published in the last 2-3 years. I’m going to make an exception this time and write about a publication from way back (2005). By scientific standards, 5 years ago is literally ancient (kind of like computer standards), but bear with me, this is going to be worth it (unlike a 5-year old computer).
Researchers from the UK were interested in finding out more about learning patterns, and about how our learning patterns differ from one of our close cousins, the chimpanzee. To test this, they subjected human children 2-4 years old and chimpanzees 2-6 years old to a simple task: retrieving a treat from a box.
In the first set of experiments, the researchers gave the chimps an opaque black box, and showed them how to open it to retrieve a treat inside. This wasn’t a simple pull-the-top-off kind of box, though. The box seemingly could only be opened following a series of specific steps: pulling a bolt, putting a stick in a hole, opening a door, etc. Chimps are quick-learners, though, and by imitating the researcher, they were soon able to retrieve the treat, no problem.
How well did the human children to at the same task? Quite well. They too were able to learn how to retrieve the treat from the black box by copying all the steps the researcher showed them. It would have been slightly worrying otherwise. I mean, we’ve taken over the world, right? Surely we can teach our young how to open a silly box, right?
The second set of experiments was almost exactly the same as the first one, except this time the box was made out of clear plastic instead of being opaque. The researchers went through the same process of teaching the chimps how to open the box. But there’s a catch: with a transparent box, it became very obvious that most of the steps supposedly needed to open the box were irrelevant. All you had to do was open the door. Chimpanzees, our closest living relative, are quite smart, and dropped all the unnecessary steps. They didn’t bother with the bolt and the stick and all those irrelevant actions: they went straight for the door and grabbed the treat.
When it was time for the children to be tested on the clear box, they too got shown how to open it by the researchers, including all the unnecessary steps. And when it was their turn to do it, they obviously…
Started pulling the bolt, putting the stick in the hole, etc.
Did I get that wrong? I must have messed up the subjects… Wait… Nope. Those monkeys just fed us a piece of humble pie.
The researchers suggest that in the case of this study, the difference between how the chimps and how the children perform the task may have to do with a different focus of attention. Children pay more attention to the process of opening the box and the actions of the researcher, while chimps have their eyes on the prize, and focus more on the goal rather than the process. The researchers conclude by saying that imitation may be a human strategy that is often employed at the expense of efficiency.
The interesting thing about this article is that some news reports and descriptions of this experiment in magazines ended with a conclusion that more or less stipulated that our children imitated even the irrelevant steps of the task because that was the smarter thing to do, twisting the story around to make it sound like humans were superior to the chimpanzees in some way. Start your debate engines, but my opinion is that we should stop considering ourselves so superior. The results of this study are pretty straightforward. Do we really have to come up with a twisted interpretation of the results to make us sound like the winners? I would love it if we could just look at this experiment and say, hey, what do you know, we can learn something from the chimps.
Eyes on the prize, people. Eyes on the prize.
Reference: Causal knowledge and imitation/emulation switching in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and children (Homo sapiens). (2005) Horner V., Whiten A. Anim Cogn 8(3):164-81.