[Paleopsych] NYT: Children Learn by Monkey See, Monkey Do. Chimps Don't.
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Fri Jan 6 18:04:03 UTC 2006
Children Learn by Monkey See, Monkey Do. Chimps Don't.
By CARL ZIMMER
I drove into New Haven on a recent morning with a burning question
on my mind. How did my daughter do against the chimpanzees?
A month before, I had found a letter in the cubby of my daughter
Charlotte at her preschool. It was from a graduate student at Yale
asking for volunteers for a psychological study. The student, Derek
Lyons, wanted to observe how 3- and 4-year-olds learn. I was
curious, so I got in touch. Mr. Lyons explained how his study might
shed light on human evolution.
His study would build on a paper published in the July issue of the
journal Animal Cognition by Victoria Horner and Andrew Whiten, two
psychologists at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Dr.
Horner and Dr. Whiten described the way they showed young chimps
how to retrieve food from a box.
The 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.
The researchers turned to humans. They showed the transparent box
to 16 children from a Scottish nursery school. After putting a
sticker in the box, they showed the children how to retrieve it.
They included the unnecessary bolt pulling and box tapping.
The scientists placed the sticker back in the box and left the
room, telling the children that they could do whatever they thought
necessary to retrieve it.
The children could see just as easily as the chimps that it was
pointless to slide open the bolt or tap on top of the box. Yet 80
percent did so anyway. "It seemed so spectacular to me," Mr. Lyons
said. "It suggested something remarkable was going on."
It was possible, however, that the results might come from a simple
desire in the children just to play along. To see how deep this
urge to overimitate went, Mr. Lyons came up with new experiments
with the transparent box. He worked with a summer intern, Andrew
Young, a senior at Carnegie Mellon, to build other puzzles using
Tupperware, wire baskets and bits of wood. And Mr. Lyons planned
out a much larger study, with 100 children.
I was intrigued. I signed up Charlotte, and she participated in the
study twice, first at the school and later at Mr. Lyons's lab.
Charlotte didn't feel like talking about either experience beyond
saying they were fun. As usual, she was more interested in talking
about atoms and princesses.
Mr. Lyons was more eager to talk. He invited me to go over
Charlotte's performance at the Yale Cognition and Development Lab,
led by Mr. Lyons's adviser, Frank C. Keil.
Driving into New Haven for our meeting, I felt as if Charlotte had
just taken some kind of interspecies SAT. It was silly, but I hoped
that Charlotte would show the chimps that she could see cause and
effect as well as they could. Score one for Homo sapiens.
At first, she did. Mr. Lyons loaded a movie on his computer in
which Charlotte eagerly listened to him talk about the transparent
He set it in front of her and asked her to retrieve the plastic
turtle that he had just put inside. Rather than politely opening
the front door, Charlotte grabbed the entire front side, ripped it
open at its Velcro tabs and snatched the turtle. "I've got it!" she
A chimp couldn't have done better, I thought.
But at their second meeting, things changed. This time, Mr. Lyons
had an undergraduate, Jennifer Barnes, show Charlotte how to open
the box. Before she opened the front door, Ms. Barnes slid the bolt
back across the top of the box and tapped on it needlessly.
Charlotte imitated every irrelevant step. The box ripping had
disappeared. I could almost hear the chimps hooting.
Ms. Barnes showed Charlotte four other puzzles, and time after time
she overimitated. When the movies were over, I wasn't sure what to
say. "So how did she do?" I asked awkwardly.
"She's pretty age-typical," Mr. Lyons said. Having watched 100
children, he agrees with Dr. Horner and Dr. Whiten that children
really do overimitate. He has found that it is very hard to get
children not to.
If they rush through opening a puzzle, they don't skip the extra
steps. They just do them all faster. What makes the results even
more intriguing is that the children understand the laws of physics
well enough to solve the puzzles on their own. Charlotte's box
ripping is proof of that.
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
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."
In a few years, I plan to explain this experience to Charlotte. I
want her to know what I now know. That it's O.K. to lose to the
chimps. In fact, it may be what makes us uniquely human.
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