« Is Wal-Mart Imitating Art? | Main | Faux Fendi Finale »

Human See, Human Do

Anthropocentric cliches are a bit beleaguered of late.  Animal lovers  take umbrage at various unflattering references to humans acting like denizens of the barnyard, and now psychologists have banished that withering dismissal of copycats (oops, make that copyists):  Monkey see, monkey do.

While organizing some files this morning, I came across an essay by Carl Zimmer about the work of two research scientists at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland, Victoria Horner and Andrew Whiten, and Yale grad student Derek Lyons, who was inspired by their findings.  In a nutshell, it appears that when learning how to solve a puzzle, humans will watch others and imitate all steps -- even the unnecessary ones -- while chimpanzees will simply figure out the most efficient method and skip extraneous steps. 

According to Zimmer, Lyons "sees his results as evidence that humans are hard-wired to learn by imitation.....  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."

Presumably the next step would be to decide which cool, cutting-edge hominids to imitate. 

All of which may help explain why so many people end up following trends, flattering or not.  It's only human.

Dr. Jane Goodall & friend