Dogs vs. toddlers: who’s smarter?

Are humans gullible? Or do we imitate our elders for a reason?

Gregory Nemec

Gregory Nemec

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The videos make for endearing entertainment: a researcher demonstrates a sequence of steps, most of them pointless, to remove a toy dinosaur from a transparent plastic box. Young children watch. Then the researcher leaves—and the children repeat every single step before removing the dinosaur.

We are over-imitators, as this 2007 experiment showed. Young children habitually reproduce actions they observe, without knowing what their purpose is. “The real-world example I like to give is children washing their hands,” says Angie Johnston, a doctoral student in psychology. “They don’t understand why the adult pumps soap onto her hands or rubs them under water for 30 seconds, but the children still do it without needing to understand why.”

Is this attribute unique to humans? Johnston and two colleagues in Yale’s Canine Cognition Center tested for over-imitation among dogs and dingoes. Like humans, dogs are social learners, “very attentive to certain cues, like eye contact, pointing, and calling names,” Johnston says.

She and her colleagues set a treat in a plastic box with a flip lid and a nonfunctional lever. Dogs were shown a two-step process to retrieve the treat: push the lever, then open the lid. Once released from their leashes, both dogs and dingoes were quick to nudge open the lid; they mostly ignored the lever. “This pattern of results suggests that over-imitation may be a unique feature of human social learning,” Johnston writes in Developmental Science. The findings, she says, point to the human ability to faithfully transmit knowledge—possibly helping to explain humanity’s unmatched cultural richness.

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