“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.


Ecsite 2016: impact through sharing

Team members Andy Lloyd and Bethan Ross shared the learnings and aspirations of the live research experiment ongoing through the interactive research pod at Centre for Life with the participants of the European conference for science centres and museums this month. The 27th Ecsite Annual Conference took place in June in Graz, Austria. It gathered 1,081 participants from 53 different countries, making it the second largest Ecsite Annual Conference ever.

As well as Beth and Andy presenting at the conference, Andy was interviewed for the European network of science centres and museums Magazine – Spokes#20 – June 2016. In it, Andy reports:

“I received a lot of interest in the live research exhibit in the Brain Zone. The experiment was devised by Anthropology researchers from Durham University. They are interested in social learning and “cumulative culture”, the way ideas are shared and passed on.  Previous research with non-human primates suggest that copying is very common, but humans are especially good at innovating and being creative. Our exhibit explores how the environmental conditions influence the creativity people demonstrate. We can change whether people are able to see and interact with each other as they play with building blocks, and record what they make. Interest was very high from other science centre people, so we have created a free pdf to show what we did and how we did it, that anyone can access here. The researchers want to track how the research ideas spread, so if you do make use of any of this we would love to hear how it goes”.

We’ve added a new Resources page to this website so that anyone can download our free guide in pdf format: How To… create an Interactive Research Pod.

Chair of Wellcome Trust visits exhibit pod

Baroness Manningham-Buller chats with the research team by the exhibit.


The Chair of the Wellcome Trust, Baroness Manningham-Buller visited the interactive research pod, and spoke to the Design for Creativity and Innovation in Informal Science Learning team of academic researchers and science centre practitioners. The team explained to the Baroness about the live science experiments we are undertaking with it, and the research outcomes we might see. The Baroness officially opened the Brain Zone gallery at the Centre for Life, where the interactive research pod is hosted amongst other exhibits that engage people with exploring how our brains work.

The Brain Zone has had input from practitioners and designers, and also from from a wide-range of scientists and researchers, from neuroscientists to psychologists. However, our multidisciplinary team of academics from Durham University broadened out the disciplines represented to include anthropology, digital humanities, and computer scientists! Continue reading “Chair of Wellcome Trust visits exhibit pod”

Piloting the pod

exhibit pod
The exhibit pod, with built-in video recording equipment and consent granting via touchscreen tablets.

Following nine months of iterative design and development by the research team, the interactive research pod has been piloted live over October half term in 2015 and during February 2016 half-term holiday. Some of you may have helped us experiment with it – thank you! We gave you the challenge of building the best building you could with simple wooden blocks. We were able to record the construction process and the finished results through a set-up of digital surveillance cameras built into the exhibit.

We gained permission to use the images of people building constructions through online consent forms on touchscreen tablets. If consent was given, the tablet screen exhibited green. Continue reading “Piloting the pod”