Humans copy without understanding why

By Luke Andrews

Trump, the future president of America, has made some obscene remarks about women. He called some “fat pigs” and said he better use “tic tacs just in case [he starts] kissing her.” Comments like this are not unknown. They’re linked to toxic masculinity, a definition of the masculine gender role. It encompasses behaviours of violence, emotionless and sexual aggression. Men often accept this model of behaviour as children, by copying their role models. They regularly perform the actions associated with the model without understanding why.

The Anthropology Department’s annual Layton Lecture was on this topic, discussing how ‘opaque’ beliefs, beliefs not fully understood by people who have adopted them such as toxic masculinity, become part of a culture.

The talk was given by Dr Dan Sperber, a French cognitive anthropologist and major contributor to the field of cognitive anthropology. He told the audience that we all hold beliefs that we have accepted from other people. Often, he argued, we have accepted these beliefs without a full understanding of their meaning. We’ve simply accepted them because we trust their source.

So, how does a belief that we don’t understand become accepted? Anthropologists have tried to work that out.

Behind every belief, however ludicrous, is a perfectly good reason for accepting it.

“It is rational for human beings to accept beliefs they don’t understand” said Dr Sperber.

This is particularly evident in toddlers. They regularly copy their parents actions with little understanding of why they should do the action. To test this observation an experiment was devised. Infants were placed in a room with an adult. In front of the adult was a button that controlled the lights in the room. The adult turned them on by pressing their forehead on the button, and turned them off using the same action.

The experiment used two different scenarios to test whether infants copy their parents actions without understanding why. In one the adult had their hands behind their back whilst they pressed the button, and in the other, the adult had their hands on the table. The infant imitated the adults action 20% of the time when the hands were hidden, behind their back, and 60% of the time when their hands were visible, on the table. Dr Sperber contended that this observation showed toddlers are more likely to copy things they don’t understand. When they couldn’t see the hands they assumed that something else was happening so didn’t copy, but when the hands were visible and the adult still turned on the button using their forehead they assumed that this was the correct action and copied it. They trusted the source (adult) to show them the correct action.

The same tendency to irrationally copy ‘opaque’ beliefs has been observed in Melanesia. Dr Sperber used the example of Radu Umbres work there to provide proof of this idea. His work suggested that indigenous groups had started copying western customs with no understanding of why.

In 1839 the first missionaries arrived in Melanesia beginning a rapid process of Christianisation. As a result of contact with the West, cargo cultures began to change. Melanesians started to adopt Western cultural beliefs such as having 5 o’clock tea or putting flowers in vases. Radu and Dr Sperber argue that these actions were copied owing to trust in the source (West). It is this trust that caused the Melanesians to begin to behave in a certain way without understanding why.

This evidence proves, according to Dr Sperber, that people copy ‘opaque’ beliefs that they don’t fully understand, just like the toxic masculinity concept.

Throughout our lives, Dr Sperber argued, we often copy ‘opaque’ beliefs without understanding why we are copying them. We copy them simply because we trust there source, where we learned them from. His lecture encouraged the audience to consider beliefs they hold without fully understanding them. For example, why do we put flowers in vases? What’s the meaning of this?

It was an excellent and thought provoking lecture. The concept of humans holding beliefs that they don’t understand is a palpable one.

 

Photo Credit: Creative Commons

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