Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Children Learn by Monkey See, Monkey Do. Chimps Don't. - New York Times

Children Learn by Monkey See, Monkey Do. Chimps Don't. - New York Times: "The researchers turned to humans. They showed the transparent box to 16 children from a Scottish nursery school. After putting a sticker in the box, they showed the children how to retrieve it. They included the unnecessary bolt pulling and box tapping.

The scientists placed the sticker back in the box and left the room, telling the children that they could do whatever they thought necessary to retrieve it.

The children could see just as easily as the chimps that it was pointless to slide open the bolt or tap on top of the box. Yet 80 percent did so anyway. "It seemed so spectacular to me," Mr. Lyons said. "It suggested something remarkable was going on."
...
We don't appreciate just how automatically we rely on imitation, because usually it serves us so well. 'It is so adaptive that it almost never sticks out this way,' he added. 'You have to create very artificial circumstances to see it.'"

I have a few problems with this study. No that it is a bad study or that it is terribly flawed. It's just that there are other factors going on too that I don't think they've accounted for.

First they are using children in preschools. That is very much an "get along to go along" environment. Put another way the children learn very rapidly to imitate what the teacher is doing to get rewards and avoid punishment. So I tend to think that weakens the general argument of the study. It would be much better to use children cared for at home.

Second, they used food for the chimps and stickers for the children. It might be better to use food and hungry subjects to equalize this a bit. Stickers while a lot of fun for children might not have the same intrinsic reward potential that food/candy would have.

Third I seem to remember a study with toddlers that was similar, where some toddlers were shown how to turn on/off a light with their head rather then hands, which they imitated in the case when the teacher had her hands full but not if she didn't. So it seems as though something is going on in the way of imitation and reasoning.

Fourth, there was a study done of creativity of 3-4 years olds and they were found to be 95% highly creative in their thinking, but when tested again at 6-7 only 5% remained highly creative in their thinking. It was not stated but the one almost universal factor would be their introduction into kindergarten and first grade.

In conclusion I feel that schools are having a more subtle and powerful effect then we appreciate. There is a definite pressure to conform, to fit in, to not rock the boat. This also seems to be tapped into by the media, with almost all messages being of the type, "buy this and be a part of our cool group."

By high school, when children are asserting their independence, even the non-conformist groups are fairly uniform in style, in my high school we had people dressing in black and wearing ankhs; precursors to the modern goths, but still recognizable as a group. Were they all that different from the jocks or cheerleaders? Not really, the clothes were different but the attitudes were not.

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