Learning by imitation

By HSC Staff Writer • Published: March 20th, 2006
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

It’s no coincidence the phrase “monkey see, monkey do” describes people.

Scientists say when it comes to learning new things, people are quick to ape procedures that are demonstrated to them… even pointless ones.

Scottish researchers writing in the journal Animal Cognition compared how young chimps and three- to four-year-old children open boxes to get a reward.

Researchers demonstrated how to open the box.

But they threw in unnecessary steps, needlessly sliding a bolt back and forth, and rapping on the top of the box.

Both chimp and child faithfully followed directions to get a morsel of food or a sticker.

When scientists used a transparent box, it became obvious that all the bolt-rattling and box-tapping was pointless.

The chimps quickly abandoned the monkeyshines and proceeded to the step that led to food.

But eighty percent of the children… in this case three- and four-year-olds… needlessly slid the bolts and tapped on the boxes, even though they could see just as easily as the chimps that it was all monkey business.

Score one for the chimps.

But score one for people, too.

Researchers have a theory why humans favor imitation, even though it’s often considered a simple if not dim-witted act.

As our early ancestors began to make complex tools, they needed a way to quickly learn new procedures. If they took the time to grasp the purpose of their acts, we might still be reinventing the wheel.

Fortunately, we live in a world of “people see, people do.”