December 15, 2005

Monkey See, Monkey Don't

Before it disappears behind their archive firewall, be sure to check out this interesting article in the New York Times by Carl Zimmer. He reports on a new study that builds on an earlier study contrasting the learning styles of young humans with chimpanzees.

The earlier study indicated that young humans are much more likely to "ape" (sorry!) their teacher than are chimpanzees. Both children and chimps were shown different boxes that they had to get something out of:

The [first] box was painted black and had a door on one side and a bolt running across the top. The food was hidden in a tube behind the door. When they showed the chimpanzees how to retrieve the food, the researchers added some unnecessary steps. Before they opened the door, they pulled back the bolt and tapped the top of the box with a stick. Only after they had pushed the bolt back in place did they finally open the door and fish out the food.

Because the chimps could not see inside, they could not tell that the extra steps were unnecessary. As a result, when the chimps were given the box, two-thirds faithfully imitated the scientists to retrieve the food.

The team then used a box with transparent walls and found a strikingly different result. Those chimps could see that the scientists were wasting their time sliding the bolt and tapping the top. None followed suit. They all went straight for the door.

When they turned to human children, however, 80% followed the unnecessary steps for the transparent box.

The more recent study built on these results, using new experiments designed to test the human child's tendency to "overimitate" versus a chimpanzee. Carl allowed his young daughter to participate in the study.

Using new puzzles, the researchers showed that children (who could solve the puzzles on their own) would faithfully "overimitate" their teachers by following extra and unnecessary steps. Thus:

Mr. Lyons sees his results as evidence that humans are hard-wired to learn by imitation, even when that is clearly not the best way to learn. If he is right, this represents a big evolutionary change from our ape ancestors. Other primates are bad at imitation. When they watch another primate doing something, they seem to focus on what its goals are and ignore its actions.

As human ancestors began to make complicated tools, figuring out goals might not have been good enough anymore. Hominids needed a way to register automatically what other hominids did, even if they didn't understand the intentions behind them. They needed to imitate.

Not long ago, many psychologists thought that imitation was a simple, primitive action compared with figuring out the intentions of others. But that is changing. "Maybe imitation is a lot more sophisticated than people thought," Mr. Lyons said.

We don't appreciate just how automatically we rely on imitation, because usually it serves us so well. "It is so adaptive that it almost never sticks out this way," he added. "You have to create very artificial circumstances to see it."

Posted by JohnL at December 15, 2005 11:27 PM | TrackBack

Interesting. If true, it would be a step similar to the invention of writing- institutional memory would tend to be preserved. Hmm.

Posted by: owlish at December 16, 2005 11:28 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?

Save This Page