Tuesday, December 13, 2005


This article in today's NYTimes has an interesting article on "over-imitation", which is a psychologist's term for what happens when someone imitates an inefficient process. It's like playing "follow the leader" around the sides of a city square rather than cutting across the diagonal. Apparently chimps mostly don't over-imitate, but children do. It's the result of a series of lab experiments where food was enclosed in a clear plastic box and the experimenter demonstrated to the subject (chimp or child) how to open the box, except he threw in a couple extra steps. Chimps would bypass the steps, children wouldn't.

Here's an excerpt:
Children Learn by Monkey See, Monkey Do. Chimps Don't. - New York Times: "If they rush through opening a puzzle, they don't skip the extra steps. They just do them all faster. What makes the results even more intriguing is that the children understand the laws of physics well enough to solve the puzzles on their own. Charlotte's box ripping is proof of that.

Mr. Lyons sees his results as evidence that humans are hard-wired to learn by imitation, even when that is clearly not the best way to learn. If he is right, this represents a big evolutionary change from our ape ancestors. Other primates are bad at imitation. When they watch another primate doing something, they seem to focus on what its goals are and ignore its actions.

As human ancestors began to make complicated tools, figuring out goals might not have been good enough anymore. Hominids needed a way to register automatically what other hominids did, even if they didn't understand the intentions behind them. They needed to imitate."
It seems a commonsense adaptation, like developing a general-purpose computer rather than a specialized one. The psychologist was, after all, considerably simplifying real life when he set up the problem of the food in the box. In real life, you have to identify the problem for yourself and see whether anyone has a solution. That takes time and effort. So it's easier to apply the general rule of "follow the leader" if the leader seems to be halfway competent. The burden on evolution then turns to deciphering people to know what leaders to follow. (Is that why Bush is President--maybe evolution needs to do some more work?)

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