Thursday, December 22, 2005

Humans “overimitate:”

The New York Times discussed what I suspect is a very important study that seems to show a difference between humans and chimps. A certain Derek Lyons constructed this experiment (based on the work of others). Here's the idea: suppose you make a transparent box containing food, with a bolt that needs to be removed so you can open the box. If you “show” someone how to open the box by performing several useless steps as well as removing the bolt, then hand them the box, what will they do?

Chimps open the box in the quickest, simplest possible way to get the food. But young children will carefully imitate the shown procedure to open the box, doing the extra unnecessary steps. Lyons believes he has demonstrated that humans have a trait, a desire to over-imitate, that generally turns out well for us. He has illustrated the trait by artificially constructing a test situation in which over-imitation appears to be a wasted effort.

Here, according to the reporter, is Mr. Lyons' take on imitation: "It is so adaptive that it almost never sticks out this way, ... You have to create very artificial circumstances to see it."
I'm afraid that examples of over imitating may not be so hard to find:
  • The very unfunctional clothes we wear to work, especially:
  • Ties!
  • The lack of variety in companies I've worked at.
  • Similarities in supermarkets and stores.
  • The Nigerian Scam...
and I could go on and on. But I'm being unfair. Derek Lyons has constructed an experiment that really shows us we are more “monkey-like” than monkeys.

Incidentally, Lyons' experiment uses 3 and 4 year old children. I wonder how this experiment would go with 6 or 9 year olds? (A New York Times letter-writer reported that adult humans act more like chimps.)

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