JERSEY CITY, N.J. — At the 2018 Liberty Science Center Genius Gala, Laurie Santos, one of the night’s honorees, performed an experiment on stage. She showed the audience a box with a cylindrical handle jutting from its side. She first jiggled the handle a few times and then opened the top of the box. She then repeated the process.
Santos said that if she asked a human to then open the box, the human would do the exact same thing: try to jiggle the handle first before attempting to pop the top open. But instead of asking a human, Santos invited a dog onto the stage to try to open the box, which contained a reward in the form of a doggy treat. Santos showed the dog, just as she did humans, how to open the box: Jiggle the handle, and open the top. The dog watched closely, but when it came time to claim its treat, it did its own sniffing and, ignoring the handle, popped the top open with its nose. It turns out that the handle wasn’t connected to anything in the box and had nothing to do with opening it. [10 Ways to Keep Your Mind Sharp]
Dogs are “really good at learning from us, but they might, in funny ways, be better at learning from us than we are from ourselves,” Santos, a cognitive psychologist at Yale University, told Live Science. They are “less irrational in following our behavior than humans are.”
Humans, on the other hand, can fall prey to a phenomenon called “over-imitation,” Santos said. “Sometimes we imitate too much; we are so prone to trust others that we kind of copy the things we see them doing, even when those things other people are doing might not be so smart,” Santos said.
Whether she’s teaching monkeys how to use money or teaching her extremely popular course at Yale on how to be happy, Santos is digging deep into animal cognition — humans included. “We have developed this cognition that can allow us to do these amazing things,” such as create cultures and develop technologies, Santos said. “But we’re not perfect; when you really look at our behavior, we have these ingrained tendencies that might be leading us astray all the time — I think that can be humbling.”
Originally published on Live Science