Chimpanzees are pretty smart. If they’re taught how to retrieve some food from a puzzle box, they’ll skip extra, meaningless steps such as tapping on the box with a stick, and go right for the prize, reports The New York Times.
Preschool children are different. If a child is shown a similar box, her/she can solve the puzzle on their own. But if a teacher shows a child, who already know how to open the box, meaningless extra steps, the child usually will incorporate them into the box opening.
Researchers expected the children to discard unnecessary steps and go right for the prize just like the monkeys. What gives?
This “overimitation” seems to set humans apart from our ape ancestors, says Yale graduate student Derek Lyons. Humans may be hard-wired this way because as tool-making became more complex, learning by imitation would seem more efficient than self-directed trial and error, Lyon speculates. If we started from scratch each generation, we would never have gone much beyond the mud hut.
I have to wonder if another factor is at play. Might not learning by imitation also help provide order to the large social groups that humans form? After all, learning to tap on the box has a certain ritual quality that many humans love.
Is it possible that this willingness to learn these bogus steps allows leaders of a social group to enforce order via dogma? Are we drawn to these extra steps simply because they comfort our need for ritualized structure?
It’s difficult for me to tell, because I’m actually repelled by ritualized structure. In fact, it has a lot to do with why I have a difficult time functioning in most organized settings. I simply can’t do things just because someone tells me I’m supposed to. I almost always skip the extra step or challenge stupid policies.
Am I the anomaly? Maybe our researchers should go beyond preschoolers and see if overimitation dissipates as children grow older. Maybe overimitation is in play only during critical learning years.
I’m also curious if our researchers controlled for the children’s environment. For example, are kids from controlling families more likely to follow rituals while those who foster a more creative environment tend to eschew the tapping on the box? We’ll need some identical twins growing up separately for that one.
Regardless, further research into this area would be useful for parents trying to maximize a child’s critical learning skills. After all, we don’t want our kids to grow up a monkey’s uncle.