Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Mindless Imitation

Several months ago, I read an article in NewScientist titled Mindless Imitation Teaches Us How To Be Human. The article really blew me away because it suggested that, despite the popular notion, the true “aper” of the animal kingdom is Homo Sapiens. It turns out that from a very young age, we learn by rote imitation. This classic study was used as an example.

Andrew Meltzoff from the University of Washington in Seattle got 14-month-old infants to watch as a woman turned on a light box by leaning forward and touching it with her forehead. A week later when presented with the light box, two-thirds of the infants performed the head action to switch on the light, even though they could have more easily done it using their hands.

The curious thing is that no other animal shows this degree of fidelity. When given a choice, chimps will tend to do the “smart” thing rather than repeat what they were taught.

The difference between the way chimps and humans learn is clearly illustrated in a study with children and captive chimps published last year by Victoria Horner and Andrew Whiten of the University of St Andrews, UK. They compared the methods that 3 and 4-year-old children used to retrieve a reward from a puzzle-box with those used by 2 to 6-year-old chimps under two conditions, one where the box was transparent, showing its mechanism, the other where it was opaque. With the opaque box, chimps imitated all the demonstrator's actions, but when they could see the workings, they only reproduced those actions that actually functioned to open the box. Children, on the other hand, were happy to faithfully copy all the actions even when they could see that some of them were ineffectual (Animal Cognition, vol 8, p 164).

These results suggest that chimps can imitate, but if they can work things out for themselves, then they will.

My first thought was that that explained why us humans continue to believe in silly superstitions, Bronze Age religions, and other forms of magical thinking despite evidence to the contrary. I saw this as a handicap that needed to be overcome. However, upon further reflection, I have to agree with psychologists who believe it is our greatest strength.

At first glance such unquestioning imitation seems foolish. Like Sylvia, we may end up doing silly things for no good reason. Psychologists Gyorgy Gergely from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest and Gergely Csibra of Birkbeck, University of London don't see it that way. To them, our talent for high-fidelity copying is among our greatest assets. They think that our species is uniquely adapted to both receive and pass on knowledge and skills. What's more, they argue, this everyday education - which they call pedagogy - is at the root of the rich cultural life that marks us out from all other animals.

This seems like clear evidence that memetics is real. We would be unable to acquire and maintain the vast sum of knowledge that is human culture without such faithful copying of information. It is indeed one of our greatest assets. While “thinking outside the box” has become prized by many in the business and scientific communities, a perpetual novelist will not outperform an inerrant copier. You will bog yourself down if you constantly reinvent the wheel—even if your wheels are superior. The key is to faithfully copy but to be able to recognize those rare occasions when a new meme is in order. Magical thinking then becomes a side effect of one of our great strengths.

1 comment:

Kate said...

Honestly I feel the ability to "humor" others--exhibited in this study by doing the wrong thing as shown by others in lieu of the correct--is just a sign of slightly higher mental capacity. Humans are very social creatures and we recognize that when someone takes on a role of teacher, superior knowledge on the part of the teacher is assumed. If that is not the case, many humans would rather do the easy thing and imply respect via mimicry, versus asserting complete dominance (which is often difficult in the case of an inobservant opponent).