Issue #102, 3/8/2008
Family Court Philosopher
I recently saw a documentary comparing children and chimpanzees. At a young age, they are remarkably similar. Both are highly intelligent and can figure out, say, how to use a tool to obtain something they want. Both can communicate using symbols. Chimps don't have the vocal equipment to speak, but that can be taught sign language and can put together simple sentences. Why, then, do chimps and humans turn out so differently?
The essential difference was illustrated by an experiment shown at the end of the documentary. In it, chimps and young children at about the same developmental stage were shown a "magic box," a little bigger than a shoe box. The experimenter demonstrated to the subjects how to use the box to obtain candy. First, you tap on the top of the box three times with a stick, then you do a couple more things to devices on the top of the box, and finally you use the stick to reach into a hole in the front of the box and pull out a piece of candy which is hidden just out of view.
Both the chimps and the kids were about equally capable of imitating the experimenter, performing the demonstrated steps and retrieving the candy—but only as long as the box was opaque. Things changed, however, when the magic box was replaced with an identical one with clear sides. When the box was transparent, it became obvious that the preliminary procedures like tapping on the box had nothing to with obtaining the candy, since there was no connection between the top of the box and the opening in front where the candy was now plainly visible.
The chimps figured it out right away. Instead of following the procedures demonstrated by the experimenter, they immediately used the stick to reach into the front and get the candy.
The human children, however, continued to follow the ritual as instructed. Even though the candy was easily accessible in front of them, they still tapped three times on the top of the box and did all the other things they were instructed to do before reaching in with the stick and pulling out the candy.
This would seem to suggest that chimps are smarter than human children. They ignored the preliminary nonsense and cut directly to the goal. However, the kids' behavior—essentially a deference to authority—probably served them better in their long-term development.
What the experiment showed is that humans have an instinctive need to be taught by others. They are not going to look at an object and make their own decision about what it means, like the chimps do. Instead they are going to look to others to tell them what the object means. As the documentary explained it, kids instinctively "triangulate" between themselves, the object and their teacher, rather than relating to the object alone.
Even though the ritual of tapping the box had no real connection to obtaining the candy, the children apparently trusted the experimenter and assumed that he know more than they did. Their most powerful instinct was to follow his lead, even when it conflicted with their own senses and delayed the reward.
This seems to be the essential reason why humans have developed such an advanced culture compared to apes: humans are inclined to look to others for guidance rather than just obeying their own observations. This is a disadvantage in pursuing simple goals like the piece of candy, but it is of great value in learning more complex skills where the goals are remote and not immediately visible.
Unlike chimps, children are willing to go to school for years to learn relatively arcane skills like math and reading that aren't immediately useful to them but that are deemed important by their elders. Chimps simply don't have the patience. They can be educated in a laborious way, but each step has to be clearly rewarded, like with candy, or they quickly lose interest. (If you have ever tried to maintain discipline in classroom full of monkeys, you know what I mean. Talk about A.D.D.!)
Chimps are focussed on the concrete reward, while kids are focussed on their teacher and on trying to make him or her happy. This allows complex skills to be passed from generation to generation and even lets each generation build upon the accomplishments of the last. Chimp society, by contrast, is relatively static and doesn't change much from generation to generation.
This inclination to be lead is an essential element of human behavior and our advanced culture, but it is not all good. It also means that, when the circumstances are right, humans will follow each other like lemmings to their own destruction.
One of the most frustrating features of human behavior is people's instinct to follow the crowd, even when there is no logical benefit in it. This is true, in my experience, even among the highly educated and those who see themselves as independent thinkers. It is fine for a child to obey his parents or follow the lead of his older siblings, but in adulthood this urge to can generate some amazing absurdities.
Even in the internet age, when there's endless options for entertainment, we can still see 100 million people tuning in to the Super Bowl or American Idol, events that provide no survival benefit whatsoever. Is this honestly the best thing that each of those viewers could be doing with their time? No, but it apparently makes them feel good to be part of a crowd.
That humans are sheep should come as no surprise. That's what has given us our complex culture—the human willingness to blindly follow others—but it can be maddening nonetheless. It means that you can present a completely logical argument to an adult human and no matter how sound your reasoning may be, the human is still likely to follow the crowd.
The follower urge means that humans can believe in some kooky things even when the evidence clearly shows otherwise. They believe in these things largely because they see that other people do—people who they somehow perceive as part of their "tribe." Hence, the amazing effectiveness of advertizing in convincing people to buy things they don't need. The essential message of most advertizing is that you will be part of a hip crowd if you buy the product, and the ploy usually works!
The intellect of our species is clearly impressive, but too often it is used merely to generate complex rationalizations for obedient behavior. For example, if you are member of a religion, you probably can give some intellectual arguments for the choice, when in fact you probably joined because your parents were members or because someone you identified with lead you into it. Very few decisions people make are "rational"; instead they are driven by emotional needs—that is, by the same instinctual and evolutionary drives that made us the top dog on the planet.
The world is filled with religions beyond the obvious ones. These are environments where people follow each other on faith without really understanding why. When a celebrity endorses a product, people buy it because they want to follow someone they perceive as worthy and powerful. The celebrity is their priest with an assumed connection to God. The known fact that the celebrity is paid for the endorsement has little effect on it's persuasive power, because people just want to be lead.
You can tell someone, "Look, you don't have to tap on the box three times. You can just reach in and get the candy." But if the ritual is what everyone around them is doing they probably won't accept your logic. If they do eventually cave in and go straight for the goal, it is only because they have been cut off from the society that gave them the ritual or because they have been pressured by real-world constraints into abandoning it.
The urge to be taught is essential for children, but it can become a huge burden in adulthood. It means that you can rarely change someone's behavior by logic alone. Instead, you have to get a celebrity endorsement.
I don't know the name of the documentary. (It may have been one in the "Scientific American Frontiers" series.)
The "magic box" experiment is mentioned in this article in the New York Times: Children Learn by Monkey See, Monkey Do. Chimps Don't. It refers to "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."
“this was good” — 4/16/09 (rating=5)
“another excellent article!” — 8/14/10 (rating=5)
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