Chimps, Children, & the Copycat Conundrum

In a surprising experiment, children tended to copy actions of an adult demonstrator, even irrelevant steps, to get a reward, whereas chimpanzees disregarded useless steps to get to the food. Do we do things just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it”?

No comments

An interesting experiment involving children & chimpanzees hints at an area for improvement for humans in the workplace. It shows that if we’re not mindful, we blindly accept what we’ve seen in the past.

Experimenters presented test subjects, both chimps & children, with a “puzzle box” that hid a reward inside, demonstrating a way to solve the puzzle-but deliberately included steps unrelated to getting the reward. When the puzzle box was black, the subjects could not see useless actions. But when shown the same procedure with a clear box, subjects could see the irrelevant steps. The experimenters presented the black box first, showing the series of steps to get the reward, then handed it over to the subjects to let them try to solve the puzzle. Then they did the same series of steps with the transparent box & again handed it over to the subjects.

Above Image: The puzzle box had a sliding bolt on top that was not related to getting the reward, although the demonstrators showed actions involving the bolt to the chimps and children. With the black box, it was not obvious that sliding the bolt had nothing to do with the reward, but when shown the clear box, it was easy to see that merely opening the door on the side and retrieving the reward was all that was required. Source from Horner and Whiten Casual Knowledge and Imitation/Emulation Switching in Chimpanzees (Pan Troglodytes) and Children (Homo Sapiens) available at this Emory University site.

Here’s the surprising part: Both Chimps and children copied the demonstrator’s actions with the black box. But when chimps saw that some steps weren’t helpful with the clear box, they didn’t bother to follow them when it was their turn to solve the puzzle. But the children tended to copy every step with both boxes, regardless of whether the steps helped get the reward.

You can see the actual puzzle box and experiment by clicking the link below:

The results don’t mean that children are less intelligent than chimps! It does indicate, however, the strong social nature of learning in humans. The children likely followed every step of the adults as much for social approval as for getting to the reward. It shows that there is pressure for us to do things just because others have done it that way…which is a good strategy for building a strong tribe, but can have disadvantages for innovation and improvement.

How often do we do things just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” without looking for improvement? When we finish a job at work, it’s helpful to stop & do an “after action review,” or what aviators call a “debrief.”  By reflecting on how well the job was done, what mistakes were made, and digging for areas that could be done more efficiently, we improve our operations & escape the trap of copying the past. 


One of my favorite podcasts, NPR’s Hidden Brain, had a recent episode that discusses this and other cases where studying primates has given insight into human behavior. You can listen here:

Leave a Reply