What can we learn from Chimps?

Researchers have been studying social learning behaviors for a longtime. They’ve been driven to learn how humans are different from other primates (and other animals, too) in our learning practices and patterns. I wondered how we have considered the implications of those studies for our own team’s learning and practices.

If you think about the last time you were taught how to do something, you might recall having a step-by-step guide to follow. And maybe, once in an organization long-long ago, you heard the words “We’re going to go through [ name the method du jour here ] training now because Companies A-Z are doing it”. Whatever it was you were learning for the first time, you followed someone’s example. The newer the concept, the more difficult the execution, you may have followed the example you were given right down to every teeny, check-listed detail. How long was it before you figure out you could skip steps 4-12 and just get to the desired result without that arduous effort and time spent in steps 4-12?

Some researchers have investigated this kind of learning in chimps and compared it to humans.

The punchline:
From their work, some researchers have found monkey babies seem to differ from young humans (3-4 yrs old) in that monkeys don’t seem to imitate as much as emulate the animals they are watching doing a new task. They instead find multiple ways to get to the desired (same) result they witnessed.

This got me to thinking: Is this why, when I’m learning how to use some new fancy tool, I just follow the instruction set or the trainer’s steps methodically (even if my struggle to my desired result remains agonizing)? In fact, researchers have also found exactly the same struggle with kids being shown how to play with specific toys.

Dr. Vicki Horner and Dr. Andrew Whiten published an interesting study that investigated this phenomenon with humans, and chimpanzees. They were curious to see how both animals would get into a puzzle box that had a reward inside, under two different conditions.

In one experiment, the chimps and 3-4 yr old children saw an opaque box. They had with them a human experimenter who was there to show them how to get into the box. There are a bunch of elaborate ways given to the experimenter to open the box; levers, tools, latches. As they watch, the humans and the chimpanzees copy exactly what the experimenter is doing in order to get into the box. This totally makes sense since they don’t know how to open the box.

In a separate experiment, though, the puzzle box is totally transparent and it’s very easy to see how to open it. There’s a door, and you simply open it to get into the box.

The human experimenter is again there to show the chimpanzees and the kids how to open the box. But the experimenter still struggles. They are using all the different levers and tools to try and open it, not making any progress.

In the second experiment, the chimpanzees just ignore the experimenter’s efforts, go to the box and just open the door. But the human children follow exactly what the experimenter was doing, and they too struggle in trying to open the box.

The researchers concluded that humans will imitate, even it means enduring a struggle that results in NOT getting the desired outcome.

Why does this matter? For one, I was immediately embarrassed and started figuring out how I could master short-cut keys faster. But more importantly, the authors of this study suggest our methodology actually limits our exploration.
I wondered about the implications of that for creating learning, creative and growing organizations. And, for what those organization churn out for all of us who buy their solutions.

If humans are prone to over-learn or over-imitate, what mechanisms could we put up to catch ourselves when it’s happening? Some thoughtful teams implement red-teaming or pre-mortems in project planning, or they eagerly hire and include “misfits“, trouble-makers or dissenters into their companies and meetings to ensure premier creative and 2nd order thinking happens, groupthink is avoided, or other cognitive biases, don’t take over. Couldn’t we create mechanisms that simply sit inside of our current processes so we guard against our human instinct to imitate (vs emulate)? And, if we assume the answer is, of course we could — then, now we are back to, WHY don’t we?

If we know that we might be over-indexing on doing something new in a painful way that makes no sense, costs us time, money and effort, then doesn’t it warrant our attention to figure out a better way to learn?

Granted, the why for NOT doing this is easy to guess: there are many moving parts in an organization’s system and culture that work against creating yet another process to improve this, that or the other. However, I believe the inputs that drive our outputs (or outcomes, more importantly) is the very place where competitive advantage originates and results in moats. Self-awareness, and continuous learning about the fundamental principles lying underneath what we build and why we build it, is a good first step in answering questions like these.

Just knowing the research, patterns and conclusions that others have found is a starting point for considering how we can all be better in our organizations. The fundamental principles behind human behavior are sitting on 20,000 years of recorded human history. That’s a nice large sample set from which we can trust for our next step forward.


Tanya Maslach Written by: