Psychologists have been doing some experiments with chimps and young children looking for differences in the way they solve problems. In one of the experiments, they gave chimps a clear box containing food. The scientists showed the chimp how to open the box, but included several steps that were obviously unnecessary. When the chimps were left alone with the box, they retrieved the food imitating the method they had been shown. However, the chimps eliminated the unnecessary steps.
The scientists then tried the same experiment with 3 and 4 year olds. Unlike the chimps, children imitated the entire sequence of actions they had been shown, including the unnecessary steps.
This is an interesting difference. The chimps were focused on finding the fastest way to achieve the goal, while the children were more interested in recreating the process they had previously seen. The fact that humans are wired to repeat processes, even non-productive ones, can give you some insight into making yourself more productive.
By making a conscious effort to focus on your end goal, you can help avoid getting into a rut of process for process’ sake. Having a process can be very valuable, but learn a lesson from the chimps and make sure your focus is on the end instead of the means.
Originally Published on December 22, 2005.
“The fact that humans are wired to repeat processes, even non-productive ones, can give you some insight into making yourself more productive.”
Uhm, with due respect, as of now all we know according to this report of the study is that (some) 3 and 4-year old human children repeat processes, contrary to some age- and experienced-undetermined chimpanzees. Maybe that’s how human children learn, and it’s no proof that “humans are wired to repeat processes, even non-productive ones.” First, the research focused on children, and second, this kind of study cannot determine whether we are “wired” to do one thing or another.
Still, I’d be interested to read the original article, and as a simple story, it does indeed remind us to be mindful of unnecessary steps in things we do.
Wow focusing on the end result and how to get there as fast as possible. This should teach us (me) that it’s not always whats given to you that provides the proven way to get things done. I guess we have to evaluate what we do before hand to see if there is an easier quicker process since we are pre-wired to follow the standard.
In relation to our lives in general, maybe this is the reason many of us tend to struggle. In our pursuit of success and happiness we tend to follow others who have achieved these feats without evaluating if there is a quicker way.
@Mark: I hope I didn’t sound rude, and I’m sorry if I did, writing in a second language at 6:45am probably isn’t a good idea. :) I just wanted to point out some issues I had with the way inferences were worded, but I agree with you that even if the study itself didn’t/doesn’t prove anything, it does sound familiar when I think of our everyday lives.
Mark Shead says
@Emillie – Sorry I don’t have the original article. I took down some notes when I read it, but didn’t keep the reference. While you are correct that this experiment is limited in scope, it aligns very closely with what I see in the field as a business consultant–at least regarding the humans behavior. My consulting doesn’t let me work with chimps very often so I don’t know about them.
Does this really prove that humans are wired to repeat processes, or does it prove that by the time a child is 3 or 4 its been drilled into their heads that they should listen to adults and do what adults tell them to do? Or maybe humans have an inborn desire to please others, and copying the process exactly as described fulfills that desire.
“or does it prove that by the time a child is 3 or 4 its been drilled into their heads that they should listen to adults and do what adults tell them to do?”
Mayhap my child is a little slow (or advanced, maybe) as she doesn’t do what I tell her to do unless she wants to. As for copying me exactly, she may do it the first time or two, but the minute I turn my back, she’s usually figured out a faster way to get to the snacks than the one I use.
I think that part of the problem when dealing with lab animals is that they are inherently changed by being lab animals. They spend their time watching humans do what humans do, and pick up quite a lot that way.
Mark Shead says
@Emillie – Don’t worry you didn’t sound rude and you made a very good point about this being a limited experiment. We can draw conclusions about all of humanity from a few little kids. On the other hand…
@Hayley – Considering how much money people like the late Michael Hammer have made by going into organizations and asking “why are you doing it like that?” I’d say it goes beyond just the fact that 3 and 4 year olds are supposed to listen to adults. Also if I remember right the experiment wasn’t telling the kid how to do the task. They just let the kid watch the adult and then let the child do whatever they wanted with the object.
Toni Verbeiren says
Interesting article, thanks!
Just like Émilie, I was also wondering where you found out about the research. I did some browsing, and came up with other comparisons between chimps and children as well.
Could it be that you’re referring to the study mentioned in the following article?