At Edinburgh Zoo, the ‘Living Links’ Research Centre was designed to explore and showcase the evolutionary roots of human behaviour (primates being ‘living links’ to our ancient ancestors). So as well as working with the primates housed at Living Links, increasingly scientists also research human behaviour directly by working with zoo visitors.
If you have visited the zoo over the last few years you or a family member may have been asked to participate in our research, based either within Living Links or in Budongo – in fact there is now a special ‘Research room’ for this purpose, located opposite the lemur walkthrough. Recently, three of these research projects with zoo visitors have been published in international journals. This is a great achievement and could not have been done without the help of RZSS, Edinburgh Zoo and the fantastic participation of zoo visitors. At least two of these articles are Open Access, meaning they are free of all restrictions on access and free of many restrictions on use.
All three research projects were investigating ‘social learning’; humans are amazing at learning from each other and this social learning ability is thought to be one of the reasons why humans stand apart from other animals. We are extreme ‘cultural animals’. Scientists from St Andrews and affiliated universities are working to better understand the exact ways in which we socially learn, and the rules we implicitly use when we are learning.
Two of the research projects investigated the ways in which children socially learn and whether children have preferences for whom they copy. Lara Wood (Abertay University & University of St Andrews) and colleagues worked with zoo visitors aged four to six years old. The children were presented with a puzzle box containing a token reward and then shown videos of a child getting the token one way and an adult getting the token a different way. Interestingly, the children generally preferred to copy other children over adults. The researchers think this might either be because the puzzle box seemed quite ‘toy like’ and therefore children may be seen as better models than adults, or that children may want to affiliate more with peers than adults and show this by copying them! (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022096516300625)
Amanda Lucas (University of St Andrews & Exeter University) and colleagues worked with a wider range of children who saw their mother operating a puzzle box using one of two methods and an established ‘expert’ – who had been shown on video to be good at solving puzzle boxes – using the alternative method. Five- to six- year-olds copied the technique their mother used, in preference to the one used by the expert. However seven to eight year-olds tended towards copying the expert. Children aged nine- to ten-years did not copy either model, but rather they did their own thing. These findings show that development might have a real impact upon whom children choose to copy and suggest that older children may realise it’s not always the case that ‘mother knows best’, and other models may sometimes have the special expertise worth watching. (This article is still in press)
Andrew Whiten (University of St Andrews), Nicola McGuigan (Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh) and colleagues investigated behaviour that seems surprising at first sight, whereby humans often copy other’s actions on puzzle boxes that are clearly not necessary for getting a prize out of the box. There are different theories as to why humans do this while other primates appear not to do so. Perhaps people know these actions are unnecessary but are keen to copy anyway to please the model, or because they think the model is purposefully showing them the conventional way of operating the puzzle box. In order to test this, researchers placed a puzzle box in the Living Links exploration zone. One researcher pretended to be a zoo visitor solving the puzzle box for the first time- they succeeded by using both necessary and unnecessary actions and then walked away from the task. Many visitors, children and adults alike, copied the actor and the unnecessary actions. The researchers argue that this rules out that this copying is due to wanting to please the model or adhering to a social convention (as the model had left) and maybe suggests that the copying of irrelevant actions is an automatic process that helps make humans very efficient imitators. Note: all visitors were debriefed after the experiment and were happy to have their data recorded! (This publication will also be Open Access).