Do you ever find yourself bogged down by pointless instructions when learning something new? You should ask your dog to help you out.
In a new study, researchers determined that domestic and wild dogs are exceptionally good at ignoring bad instruction and eliminating unnecessary steps when solving a problem. So good, in fact, they outperformed both humans and chimpanzees.
The inspiration for this study was a phenomenon called "overimitation," which humans are notoriously bad for. When an adult teaches a child how to perform a task, such as solve a puzzle, the child will perform all of the steps the adult has taught them nearly all the time even if some of the steps are redundant.
To see if dogs fall into this same cogitative trap, the researchers gave both domesticated and wild dingoes a plastic box, either clear or opaque, with a lid on the top, a lever on the side, and a treat inside.
The researchers showed the dogs a two-step process for how to access this treat using the lever, but the lever was actually useless in opening the box - it could be easily opened without it.
After watching the demonstration, 75% of the dogs and dingoes correctly learned how to complete the two-step process. What's amazing though, is that it took only four trials for a significant number of the canines to realize that one of the steps-- using the lever-- was actually redundant and they could skip it all together. In total, 41% of the dogs and 58% of the dingoes eliminated the step to get to the treat faster.
Whether the box was clear or opaque made no difference to dogs, but the color of the box mattered to dingoes. The researchers aren't sure why, but when the boxes were opaque the dogs actually did a better job eliminating the unnecessary lever step.
So what does this mean for humans? Is it a bad thing that we're not able to eliminate these unnecessary steps? Not quite.
Our tendency towards overimitation is actually key to maintaining our species' social systems. If we skipped anything that didn't help us achieve our immediate goal as quick as possible, we wouldn't follow any of the social conventions that we've learned, such as washing your hands before a meal, saying please, thank you, holding doors for others, and so on.
These steps are not necessarily critical to achieving the goal we are working towards, but they are things that build culture and essentially make us humans. So it may seem silly that we are so inefficient at learning, but it might actually be a good thing.
As much as we love our pups, we don't necessarily want to be like them. But we could probably take a few notes from our canine companions to help us become more efficient in some situations.
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