Test compares the way humans and chimps learn

Carrie McLaren is a guest blogger at Boing Boing and coauthor of Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture. She lives in Brooklyn, the former home of her now defunct Stay Free! magazine.

Here's an interesting clip from a National Geographic documentary that compares the way humans and chimpanzees learn. When asked to perform a series of motions in order to get a treat out of a box, the human child will copy the adult's motions exactly. The ape copies the motions as well, until the box is replaced with a translucent version. Once it is, the ape realizes that half of the motions are pointless and takes a shortcut to get the treat; children, on the other hand, continue to do the meaningless motions that they were taught.

According to the filmmakers, this illustrates how both humans and chimps learn through copying, but children are "better" at it. That very well may be. But shouldn't the chimps should be given props for problem-solving here?

Experiments like this always drive me a bit crazy because the social setup isn't exactly parallel. Children are being asked to copy other humans, whereas the apes are expected to follow a different species. Would children be as good at copying (or obeying) if chimps were the ones giving instructions?

Of course, even if chimps were asked to imitate older chimps, they probably wouldn't copy as precisely as the children, and that's ultimately the filmmakers' point. The children are able to see rote repetition as the point of a game whereas the chimp might only be able to grasp "getting the treat."


  1. “children, on the other hand, continue to do the meaningless motions that they were taught.”

    In before ‘And that’s why we have religion.’

    …even though it probably is.

  2. To make this really a test about learning styles, you would have to remove another factor: that of the human child very possibly trying to please her teacher by imitating her as accurately as possible. I’m sure the chimp is far less concerned with seeming rude or impertinent than a child who has spent any time in a schoolroom.

  3. Ummm… I don’t see how this is points FOR the human child…. The CHIMP, in fact, is doing it “better” as he seems to be grasping the point of the exercise and getting the treat more efficiently. He’s taking his knowledge and improving upon it, not just copying…

  4. The tapping portion looked fun the reward for children may be two fold. While an Ape instincts define the priority food over play.
    Throw a ball and a piece of bacon and see which your dog goes for first.

  5. Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik talks about this at length (and considerable passion/insight) in her book The Philosophical Baby, which is coming out next week.

    Her argument is that when babies and young children behave this way — less goal-oriented, more fantastical — it’s an indication of their imaginative potential, rather than of a deficiency in intelligence (which earlier models of development posited). Also, that human children learn through imaginative play is the source of some our greatest evolutionary advantages over other primates: creativity, innovation, and the ability to hold lots of counterfactual information in mind at once without immediately discarding it in pursuit of a particular goal.

    I interviewed her on seedmagazine.com about these kinds of experiments. She’s a fascinating person, and the book’s a good read.



  6. Uh…what’s with the Aryan-looking chic testing a group of black kids vs chimpanzees?

    Was this filmed in Kentucky or something?

  7. Chimp studies never cease. There ought to be special academic degrees in the subject. We’ve studied them for a hundred years and learned an awful lot about them, most of it either boring or nasty. But there’s a coterie of chimp lovers who just won’t give up trying to get the brutes to think and act like people. They’re a dead end, they are what they are, and they’ll never do that voodoo that we do so well.

    Just ask Nim Chimpsky.

  8. There’s a wide variety of factors in play here… Humans have imagination, belief in magic, ritual, authority, the list goes on and on – all elements that contribute to the way we live, and that, in this case, appear to defy reason… which is why I like this experiment a lot.

    The interesting bit isn’t that humans do all the fancy moves on the clear box, it’s *why* we do them.

  9. #8: Hey, Nim Chimpsky was great at language, if by ‘language’ you mean randomly spewing out the five words he knew with a total lack of syntax. ;)

  10. Chimps have no appetite for seemingly pointless steps in a process? It seems like only a human can be a code monkey. Too bad. I’d given up on monkeys, but I thought that a chimp could at least handle http.

  11. “I don’t see why this part is important, but if they have a transparent box too, there’s probably a reason for it.”

    This is a much stronger method of passing on culture-based behaviors, such as tool making, than constant revision. Alice may be better at making a tool than Bob; she can skip some steps that result in a slight improvement, and still produce a better tool than Bob. These steps should probably be passed on to young Carol regardless.

    More importantly, in small but regularly-interacting social groups, if Dave happens to wander in for a week or two, and teaches Alice and Bob a better way, priority 1 is replicating it. Once you know it for sure, then you poke around at it. See if the kids keep it up for an entire week, and I’ll start to agree with the “points for the chimp” view.

  12. I was always the sort of kid who would look at the grown up funny and either simply eliminate the unnecessary steps, or ask about the simpler way, depending on the situation or activity.

    I guess that makes me a chimp. :/

    But seriously, I’m not the only kid who would do this. Also, as some point in our lives, we all begin questioning processes, thinking critically, etc.

    I wonder if this timing has significance from a developmental point of view.

  13. You have to see this in another perspective, yet paradoxal: the chimps were more efficient than the humans. You can state that they achieved the same result spending less energy and effort. In fact, the chimps gave a bigger step because they innovated and were able to make their own thoughts instead of a mere “copy paste” action. Accurate copy paste actions are important but also innovations are – perhaps more. If you see this issue in this perspective, one must wonder where in the growth process the roles are inverted and humans start to innovate more than apes and apes become more sticked to “copy paste” actions. It seems chimps get some degree of development faster but then stagnate. It would also be interesting to apply the same experiment to grown up humans and chimps. I would say chimps would have the same behavior and adult humans will use the shortcut as well.

    Miguel Pastor Faria

  14. This is so dumb. The children do all the actions because she has told them to. The chimps on the otherhand don’t understand a word she says so do what they want.

  15. The video didn’t explain the instructions given to the child, which begs the question on how the situation was presented. If the tester gave the child the box and said to copy and get the sticker, they child could have simply assumed that she would not get the sticker if she didn’t copy precisely. The chimp, obviously, could not be told any instructions, so simply went on instinct: there’s food, and what’s the most efficient way to retrieve it.

    I’d want the child to be given the test without the researcher hovering over her. The researcher said what I assume is some sort of praise in the child’s language after the first attempt and “well done, very good” after the second attempt. At the very least, there is positive reinforcement for copying the actions beyond a simple sticker. The researcher didn’t act the same way with the chimp, and in fact the video indicated she was completely silently for both tests.

  16. After working with many African colleagues, and after reading Kapuscinski “In the Shadow of the Sun” (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0679779078) I found myself asking, “what about culture?”

    Because a lot of African cultures put a very high value on magical thinking, the idea that we do what we do because we are interacting with a world more complex than we can see… that a certain shot from a white doctor will protect them as well as a magical amulet (and vice versa), and that tapping something makes something else appear. The world of an African from a culture that sees the world like this is infinitely bigger than the world seen through my reductive eyes.

    Then the narrtor said, “children around the world do the same thing”.


    Also, I agree with “keeper of the lantern”. The white chick compares African kids to monkeys vibe was really unsettling. Tone deaf, just a little, NatGeo?


  17. The NOVA program stinks. Once again, all the wrong questions are asked. There is clearly a profound difference between the species, but they don’t define what it is; just the usual static about abstract thinking, reason, yackety-yack-yack. One suspects they are simply afraid of saying that the difference is qualitative. That’s a problem with the Darwinian paradigm: timidity.

  18. humans denied critical appropriate stimulation at the right time (like language) acquire permanent developmental handicaps (insurmountable ones too), why wouldn’t research chimps outside their jungle?

  19. It’s unfair to expect to be able to teach a chimp to ‘talk’ like us. They don’t have the vocal hardware.

    Sign language is more effective, but the challenge would be to raise a chimp from birth using complex human languages.. but it’s like trying to teach the complexities of philosophy to kindergartners.

    I think the fear is, eventually, is a few scientists will break down the language barrier, teach a few concepts of how humanity works..

    And then they get the chimp-translated equivalent of ‘get off my lawn, you hairless weirdos!’ and demand property and other rights allocated exclusively to humans.

  20. Hey

    This is funny at a quick scan of the comments, no one here has picked up the point, why its actually better in the long run to copy.

    Tip think why the Neanderthal kept using the same stone tool for 30,000 years, and the Cro-Magnon copied every thing he seen. from one tribe to another

  21. It would be interesting to see what happens when the rewards are swapped and the kids are starving for some food.

  22. There’s a better example of a non-human animal outperforming humans on a cognitive task:

    Pit humans against pigeons in a prediction contest. A light flashes on every 10 seconds, it’s either red or green. Before the light flashes, the subject has to try to predict what color the light will be by pushing a button. In the long run, the light flashes red 1/3 of the time, and green 2/3 of the time, but each flash is random. Pigeons quickly arrive at the optimal solution: predict green every time. Humans, it seems, can’t resist trying to do better, and try to pick up on patterns, and throw a red one in every once in a while (such as after a run of 3 greens).

  23. i believe the children are only going through with the entire process, the nonsense tapping and peg dislodge, is because they feel it is necessary to do the “correct” procedure and to stay honest in front of the teacher. now, i would like to see what would happen if Victoria had told the child, do not be afraid to use a short-cut, a faster way to receive the sticker.

  24. Pigeons? Why are you throwing pigeons in here with us apes? We don’ need no stinkin’ pigeons!

  25. (captcha: “castrate them”: fitted well with the unsettling children-as-objects thing)

    I’d really like to read the experimental protocol and see how they compensated for the effect of language and gesture. I suspect this is why they are doing it with a group of kids from a different culture: otherwise language becomes an issue. If the teacher says “copy what I do” while training with the opaque box, then “now do it with this transparent box”, then they will copy her actions perfectly with the transparent box.

    If the teacher says “here is how you get a cookie out of this box”, then “look, here’s a transparent one”, then they will be oriented to the task of getting the cookie, rather than copying.

    Some of that could still be conveyed in gesture, though.

  26. “tested children all over the world”

    And yet, the documentary chose to go with the black kids when being compared unfavorably to chimps. Smooth. Real smooth.

    It doesn’t seem to take into account that the humans being tested have almost certainly already been taught that they should just do whatever adults tell them to, no matter how stupid it seems, rather than exercising independant thought. That sort of undercuts the validity of the argument that this is an inherant difference.

  27. Due to language, the demonstrator by virtue of being an authority figure, may be unwittingly giving the message; “Repeat my actions to retrieve the reward, (and the implicit reward of my praise for being such a good student.)”

    To take this factor out of the equation I would re-do the test(s) as follows:

    1) Give test to a blind subject of same age and cultural background. (I believe that a blind subject would have a more “mechanical” touch and have a feel as to what are truly effective actions.)

    2) Change the instruction to; “Here is a box that contains a reward, solve this puzzle (but offer minimal or no guidance.)”

    3) Observe the subject (hidden camera) but don’t provide an audience to lavish verbal praise.

    4) Train a younger sibling (less of an authority figure) to do the demonstration. Observe reaction of older sibling responding to training, and older sibling out of view of audience (hidden camera.)

  28. I’d like to see this repeated with unschooled children/children not in awe of the researcher. The establishment spend a great deal of time in mainstream education teaching children to do what they are told and not to ask inconvenient questions. Unschooled kids on the other hand, are more used to making their own minds up and doing what they think is right.

    When a university professor friend of mine mentioned Perry’s stages of cognitive development to me, he seemed a bit nonplussed that my view as an unschooling parent was that schools actually create the stages delineated there… and that children need not follow the “normal” progression if they are not subject to the controls which are introduced in schools. I’m still waiting for the results of my own experiments in this direction (aged 14, 17 and 19).

    This may in fact be the main advantage of not going to school. The first stage outlined by Perry is that there’s a solution to every problem and the student’s job is to learn that right answer (and please the teacher). On the whole, we praise children if they are abe to follow a complex set of instructions and get it “right”. I agree with the other commenters that what was said to the children is crucial in understanding why they didn’t take a short cut. If they thought that the task was to follow the instructions, rather than to get the thing out of the box, then that will inform their choices.

    I’m not sure what to make of the choice of children vs chimps. Maybe they are blind to the colour or ethnic origin of the children, which would be the best thing?

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