When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

14 December 2005

A strange new respect for chimpanzees

"Monkey see, monkey do" is useful shorthand for the concept that observation and imitation is a fundamental teaching model. (I'm teaching change management classes this week, and about an hour of the three-hour class is tool instruction... straight "monkey see, monkey do"; watch what the instructor does on the overhead projector and follow along on your PC.)

A new study just published in Animal Cognition (and referred to in this fascinating essay in the New York Times) indicates that humans might just be a little too imitative in their learning patterns.

In comparative experiments pitting chimpanzees against toddlers, behavioral scientists "taught" representatives of both primate species how to open up a box and get to a desirable treat by demonstrating the process. But they deliberately included some unnecessary steps in the process (e.g., tapping on the top of the box before opening it.)

The chimps quickly figured out which steps didn't get them any closer to the reward, and stopped doing them.

The children? Not so much. They did everything the teacher showed them, even when it was completely irrelevant to the task at hand.

One of the grad students who helped design the study thinks he knows why:
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.
Or maybe we need chimps taking a hard look at our business processes.

Really interesting stuff.

Children Learn by Monkey See, Monkey Do. Chimps Don't. - New York Times

(hat tip: Slashdot)

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