“Copying is stupid!” (Or is it?)

by Zarja Muršič & Guy Lavender Forsyth

Imitation is one type of social learning, and it is one that humans are expert at. We are really very good at copying things around us, to the extent that some experiments have shown our willingness to copy even irrelevant, superfluous actions.

Take the example of trying to open a locked box. Imagine you are observing somebody trying to open the box. She grabs the red block on the box, then she opens the box by pulling a green string. What would you do to open the box? Grab the red block first or just the green string? In numerous cases experiments have shown our tendency to copy what we have observed and touch the red block first before opening the box by pulling the green string. This seems to remain true even when people can see that grabbing the red block does not have any functional role in opening the box. This example may be a little abstract, but in everyday life we copy others in the way we dress, eat, and act, as well as in the ways we solve problems.

In our ongoing research, using an exhibit where children build with wooden blocks, copying is clearly present as children depend on things they remember from daily life which they use to structure their buildings. We see very few buildings based upon novel abstract designs. They are overwhelmingly models of known things. These things vary wildly: from ‘army castles’ to elephants, and huts to smiley faces (complete with glasses). This copying is not restricted to depicting just the phenomena of the physical world: one boy’s ‘TNT cannon’ took inspiration from the virtual gaming world of Minecraft. And when not depicting ‘real’ things in miniature, the children tend to take their cues from (what we guess are) previous experiences with blocks similar to the ones we give them. This is especially the case with the game Jenga, which we have found to be absolutely endemic to the minds of the visiting public in the Centre for Life. Jenga appears strongly associated with the specific geometrical pattern in children. This remains true whether it be a classic Jenga tower like the ones we invariably toppled on wintry evenings as kids or, more adventurously, challenging the 90º angle tradition through addition of diagonals.

Children building with wooden blocks

The deviation from the Jenga model supplied to the children is perhaps evidence of one crucial capacity of human beings. When pre-existing structures are reproduced with embellishments, culture can become cumulative. It is such cumulative accumulation of elaborations and refinements, over generations, that is what gives us cars, computers, and space travel. It is also what gives us science like that we are conducting in the Centre for Life.

Cumulative culture is widely thought to be dependent on exact copying, and so by the time we are toddlers we are already accomplished in copying both peers and, more commonly, adults. Humans have many biases in their copying, for example one study found that children copy adults more often than they do a more knowledgeable child. On the other hand, when it comes to play, children copy their peers more often than adults. Thus we can say that the setting and context in which we put the child influences the way she behaves.

We are currently studying these topics in the Centre for Life. We don’t give children puzzle boxes that are often used in psychological research (i.e. the locked box described at the beginning of this post). Instead we present children with an open-ended task involving building blocks, which offers them the opportunity to be creative. Children are faced with wooden blocks and all we ask of them is to build something.

Currently we (Guy, an undergraduate student at Durham University’s Anthropology department, and Zarja, a PhD student from the same department), are conducting a study in which we explore the ways children build together in groups, and what it is they build. We see lots of children copying each other, but at the same time innovation or invention, both of which are required for cumulative culture.

We also have lots of fun after the children build their structures, since we get to ask them some questions. One of these questions being whether they copied (or not) when building, and why they did so.

Here is a snippet of their answers regarding why they didn’t copy:

“Copying is stupid. It might be wrong, e.g. in a test. You haven’t actually learned anything.”

“She [my sister] wouldn’t like it.”

“It’s cheating.”

“It’s stealing their ideas.”

“I like my own ideas.”

We are not yet sure what these responses mean for our study. But we will keep you updated with our results. We hope what we find will enable us to see the extent to which copying and innovation do actually occur when children are working in groups, in the relaxed atmosphere of the Centre for Life.


Author: Zarja Muršič

Biologinja in kognitivna znanstvenica. Trenutno živi v Veliki Britaniji, kjer na Univerzi v Durhamu in v znanstvenem muzeju Centre for Life v Newcastlu raziskuje ustvarjalnost otrok in načine, kako k temu pripomore socialno učenje.

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