Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Imitation and Intelligence

Many people have the intuition that imitation is a primitive type of learning: Small children learn by imitating adults and other children, but more sophisticated learners try to intuit the goals behind another's actions, and are not so slavishly dedicated to reproducing actions exactly. Recent studies comparing the learning styles of chimpanzees and humans, however, show that it is the humans who faithfully imitate actions without understanding, while it is the chimpanzees who focus on the goals.

The different styles of learning come up in cases where it is possible to "see" that certain steps are irrelevant to achieving a desired goal. As described in the New York Times Science Times
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.

Derek Lyons, a graduate student at Yale, has continued research along these lines, and confirmed the initial conclusions: Chimpanzees avoid steps that are clearly unnecessary, but children imitate even pointless steps. He conjectures that as human tool-making and tool-using skills became more sophisticated, the strategy of intuiting the reasons behind the actions of tool-makers and tool-users became less and less successful. The humans instead learned to follow the strategy, "Do it this way, because that's the way it's done".

I always had a terrible time learning by imitation. I always wanted to know why I was doing something. I preferred to think this was a more "sophisticated" approach, but perhaps I'm only being more chimpanzee-like than my fellow humans.


Blogger Kyle McCullough said...

Or at least more chimpanzee-like than your fellow Scotsman.

10:54 AM  
Anonymous Rich said...

No, it's just that a chimpanzee is more lazy than your average child, bless their hearts.

9:56 PM  

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