Probing Culture’s Secrets, From Capuchins to Children
LONDON—Scientists once designated culture as the exclusive province of humans. But that elitist attitude is long gone, as evidenced by a recent meeting* here on how culture, usually defined as the passing on of traditions by learning from others, arises and changes. The 700 attendees, a mixture of researchers and members of the public, heard talks on cultural transmission in fish, meerkats, birds, and monkeys, as well as in extinct and living humans. Researchers probed questions such as what sparks cultural trends and how complex traditions are transmitted, and most agreed that studies of both animals and children will provide important clues. “The field of cultural evolution ranges from fish to humans and includes child development,” says meeting co-organizer Andrew Whiten, a psychologist at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom.
But why do certain cultural trends, such as fashions, begin and catch on? Even science finds it hard to answer that question. At the meeting, anthropologist Susan Perry of the University of California (UC), Los Angeles, described her team’s work observing white-faced capuchin monkeys since the early 1990s at several sites in Costa Rica. The monkeys have adopted a number of local traditions, some directly related to foraging for food, such as either cracking or rubbing woody capsules of Luehea fruits to get out their seeds. But other traditions have no clear survival purpose, such as sniffing each other’s fingers and inserting them into a companion’s nose, or biting off a big chunk of another monkey’s fur and holding it in the mouth while he or she playfully tries to get it back. Although foraging traditions tend to be long-lasting, Perry has found that, perhaps like some human fashions, these more mysterious capuchin trends tend to last only about 10 years or so before fading.
In one group of capuchins, the team’s long-term observations have allowed them to witness a rare event: the emergence of a new tradition. In what Perry calls a “bizarre” and “high-risk” ritual, the monkeys poke each other’s eyeballs. One monkey will insert his or her long, sharp, dirty fingernail deep into the eye socket of another animal, between the eyelid and the eyeball, up to the first knuckle. In videos Perry played for the meeting, the monkeys on the receiving end of the fingernail, typically social allies, could be seen to grimace and bat their eyelids furiously (as did many members of the audience) but did not attempt to remove the finger or otherwise object to the treatment. Indeed, during these eye-poking sessions, which last up to an hour, monkeys insisted on the finger being reinserted if it popped out of the eye socket.
Why would the monkeys do something potentially dangerous? Perry suggests that capuchins, which, like humans, are highly cooperative and live in large groups, use this apparently pain-inflicting behavior to test the strength of their social bonds. Back in the 1970s, evolutionary biologist Amotz Zahavi of Tel Aviv University in Israel suggested that some animals engage in certain behaviors to solidify alliances, and researchers have observed some examples. For example, some male baboons will hold each other’s testicles before teaming up to fight higher-ranking individuals, apparently to establish trust before going into battle.
When it comes to the capuchins, “this is a plausible hypothesis,” Whiten says, especially because more functional explanations do not seem to explain the eye poking. Nevertheless, Whiten adds, “it is difficult to test directly.”
Perry notes that capuchin behaviors such as eye poking and cracking fruit capsules are true traditions, but they don’t ratchet up into the kinds of complex culture prevalent in every human society, from language to literature to sophisticated technology. Animal traditions lack this cumulative cultural evolution.
How do humans wind up the cultural ratchet? At the meeting, Derek Lyons, a developmental psychologist at UC Irvine, presented new data on a phenomenon in young children that he and others think may be key to humans’ faithful transmission of complex culture: “overimitation,” or the tendency to copy the actions of an adult even when they are unnecessary for achieving a goal. No other animal has been shown to copy in this way, Lyons and others say.
Lyons’s work builds on a landmark 2005 study by Whiten and primatologist Victoria Horner, now at Emory University in Atlanta. They demonstrated that when young chimpanzees and children are shown how to retrieve a reward from a box using a series of both relevant and irrelevant steps, the chimps skipped the unnecessary steps, whereas children tended to imitate everything. Recent work by another team suggests that overimitation is universal in human children (http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2010/05/kids-overimitate-adults-regardle.html). Lyons and his co-workers reported further work in 3- to 5-year-old children in 2007 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. For example, children were shown how to retrieve toy turtles from transparent plastic containers using irrelevant steps such as tapping the container with a feather and relevant steps such as opening the container’s door. The children continued to overimitate even when they were led to believe that the experiment was over or when they were explicitly told to avoid “silly” extra steps.
Why do children do this? In London, Lyons played a new series of videotaped experiments with children of the same ages in which he attempted to, as he put it, “snap them out of ” their overimitative tendencies. In one experiment, a puppet orangutan named Felix, stationed at an opening on the other end of the box, competed with the children to see who could get the toy turtle out of the box first. Again, Lyons showed each child how to get the turtle while mixing in irrelevant actions such as tapping the box and pushing unnecessary levers. The children, who could not see what Felix was doing, continued to perform most of Lyons’s irrelevant actions, even when Felix kept winning and getting the turtle.
The only way to avoid overimitation, Lyons found, was to convey that one of his actions was unintentional. When he pretended to get a call from his mother on his cell phone and “accidentally” flipped a useless lever while gesturing during the supposed conversation, the children did not flip that lever.
These findings are inconsistent with earlier hypotheses that children overimitate to please adults, Lyons said. Rather, he concluded, they support something he called “automatic causal encoding” (ACE), in which a child assumes that the adult knows what he or she is doing and that each step in the procedure is necessary. “ACE is an important mechanism kids use to bootstrap their knowledge of complex artifacts,” he says. Archaeologist Dietrich Stout of Emory University, who studies prehistoric tool making, says ACE may have been important for the cultural transmission of stone-tool technologies in early hominins. “Certain things, like the internal workings of the plastic box or the precise force with which to hit a stone core, are not directly available to the observer,” Stout says. He agrees with Lyons that such a strategy is “a logical approach when confronted with a complicated, unfamiliar artifact.”
Uta Frith, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, concurs. “This is an example of actions for which we cannot see rhyme or reason but which we believe are important and relevant to us,” Frith says. “I am persuaded that this is the secret of the evolution of human culture.”
Mind and Matter : How Irrational Rituals Bring Us Together,
Human beings love rituals. Of course rituals are at the center of religious practice. But even secularists celebrate the great transitions of life with arbitrary actions, formalized words and pecluliar outfits. To become part of my community of hard-headed, rational , scientific Ph.D.s, I had to put on a weird gown and even weirder hat, walk solemnly down the aisle of a cavernous building, and listen to rhythmically intoned Latin.
Our mundane actions are suffused with arbitrary conventions, too. Grabbing food with your hands is efficient and effective, but we purposefully slow ourselves down with cutlery rituals. In fact, if you’re an American, the chances are that you cut your food with your fork in your left hand, then transfer the fork to your right hand to eat the food, and then swap it back again. You may not even realize that you’re doing it. That elaborate fork and knife dance makes absolutely no sense.
But that is the central paradox of ritual. Rituals are intentionally useless, purposefully irrational. So why are they so important to us
The cognitive psychologist Christine LeGarre at the University of Texas at Austin has been trying to figure out where rituals come from and what functions they serve. One idea is that rituals declare that you are a member of a particular group.
Everybody eats, but only Americans swap their knives and forks. (Several spy movies have used this as a plot point). Sharing your graduation ceremony marks you as part of the community of Ph.D.’s more effectively than the solitary act of finishing your dissertation.
The fact that rituals don’t make practixal sense is just what makes them useful for social identification. If someone just puts tea in a pot and adds hot water then I know only that they are a sensible person who wants tea. If instead they kneel on a mat and revolve a special whisk a precise number of times, or carefully use silver tongs to drop exactly two lumps into a china cup, I can conclude that they are members of a particular aristocratic tea culture.
It turns out that rituals are deeply rooted and they emerge early. Surprisingly young children are already sensitive to the difference between purposeful actions and rituals, and they adopt rituals for themselves.
In a new paper forthcoming in the Journal Cognition, Dr. LeGare and colleagues showed 3- to 6-year old children a video of people performing a complicated sequence of eight actions with a mallet and a pegboard. Someone would pick up the mallet, place it on one side, push up a peg with her hand etc. Then the experimenters gave the children the mallet and pegboard and said “Now it’s your turn.”
You could interpret this sequence of actions as an intelligent attempt to bring about a particular outcome, pushing up the pegs. Or you could interpret it as a ritual.
Sometimes the children saw a single person perform the actions twice. Sometimes they saw two people perform the actions simultaneously. The identical synchronous actions suggested that they two people were from the same group.
When they saw two people do exactly the same thing at the same time, the children produced exactly the same sequence of actions themselves. They also explained their actions by saying things like “I had to do it the way that they did.” They treated the actions as if they were a ritual.
When they saw the single actor, they were much less likely to imitate exactly what the other person did. Instead, they treated it like a purposeful action. They would vary what they did themselves to m ake the pegs pop up in a new way.
Dr. LeGare thinks that, from the time we are very young children, we have two ways of thinking about people – a “ritual stance” and an “instrumental stance.” We learn as much from the irrationaly and arbitrary things that people do, as from the intelligent and sensible ones.
Sense and Superstition
By JANE L. RISEN and A. DAVID NUSSBAUM
SUPERSTITIOUS people do all sorts of puzzling things. But it’s not just the superstitious who knock on wood. From time to time, we all rap our knuckles on a nearby table if we happen to let fate-tempting words slip out. “The cancer is in remission, knock on wood,” we might say.
In fact, it’s so common we often don’t think about it. But it’s worth asking: why do people who do not believe that knocking on wood has an effect on the world often do it anyway? Because it works.
No, knocking on wood won’t change what happens. The cancer is no more likely to stay in remission one way or the other. But knocking on wood does affect our beliefs, and that’s almost as important.
Research finds that people, superstitious or not, tend to believe that negative outcomes are more likely after they “jinx” themselves. Boast that you’ve been driving for 20 years without an accident, and your concern about your drive home that evening rises. The superstitious may tell you that your concern is well founded because the universe is bound to punish your hubris. Psychological research has a less magical explanation: boasting about being accident-free makes the thought of getting into an accident jump to mind and, once there, that thought makes you worry.
That makes sense intuitively. What’s less intuitive is how a simple physical act, like knocking on wood, can alleviate that concern.
In one study, to be published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, one of us, Jane L. Risen, and her colleagues Yan Zhang and Christine Hosey, induced college students to jinx themselves by asking half of them to say out loud that they would definitely not get into a car accident this winter. Compared with those who did not jinx themselves, these students, when asked about it later, thought it was more likely that they would get into an accident.
After the “jinx,” in the guise of clearing their minds, we invited some of these students to knock on the wooden table in front of them. Those who knocked on the table were no more likely to think that they would get into an accident than students who hadn’t jinxed themselves in the first place. They had reversed the effects of the jinx.
Knocking on wood may not be magical, but superstition proved helpful in understanding why the ritual was effective. Across cultures, superstitions intended to reverse bad luck, like throwing salt or spitting, often share a common ingredient. In one way or another, they involve an avoidant action, one that exerts force away from oneself, as if pushing something away.
This pushing action turns out to be important, because people’s beliefs are often influenced by bodily feelings and movements. For example, other research shows that people tend to agree with the same arguments more when they hear them while they are nodding their head up and down (as if they were saying “yes”) rather than shaking it from side to side (as if they were saying “no”).
Because people generally push bad things away, we suggest that they may have built up an association between pushing actions and avoiding harm or danger. This led us to speculate that when people knock on wood, or throw salt, or spit, the ritual may help calm the mind, because such avoidant actions lead people to simulate the feelings, thoughts and sensations they experience when they avoid something bad.
To test this, in our knocking-on-wood experiment we asked some people to knock down on the table and away from themselves, while we had others knock up on the underside of the table, toward themselves. Those who knocked up engaged in an approach action, not an avoidant one. Despite knocking on wood, people who knocked up failed to reverse the perceived jinx; if anything, their concerns were made worse compared with people who did not knock at all.
Next we tested whether avoidant movements would have the same effect in situations free from the baggage of superstition. Instead of having participants knock down on wood after jinxing themselves, we had them throw a ball (also an avoidant action, but not one associated with a superstition). We conducted two studies, one in Chicago and another in Singapore. We found that the act of throwing a ball also reduces people’s concerns following a jinx, in either culture. Even pretending to throw a ball has the same effect as actually throwing it.
While almost any behavior can be turned into a superstitious ritual, perhaps the ones that are most likely to survive are those that happen to be effective at changing how we feel. We can seek to rid ourselves of superstitions in the name of enlightenment and progress, but we are likely to find that some may be hard to shake because, although they may be superficially irrational, they may not be unreasonable. Superstitious rituals can really work — but it’s not magic, it’s psychology.
Jane L. Risen and A. David Nussbaum are, respectively, an associate professor of behavioral science and an adjunct assistant professor of behavioral science at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago.