...the human instinct to copy rather than think for ourselves is good for us, up to a point. Cultural anthropologists have done the most to establish that our instinct to copy parents and peers helps us to learn, to get along, to organise, to bond, and ultimately to build the shared behaviours that enable us to survive and progress. They’ve discovered that compared to other primates humans “over-imitate”: we copy even when there’s no reason to.
In a much-replicated experiment, a complicated-looking box is presented to chimps and the researchers demonstrate how to access a bit of food inside. They include some unnecessary steps: tapping the box three times, fiddling with a bolt, whatever. The chimps quickly work out all they need to do is pull a door and grab the food, and ignore the superfluous actions. Do this experiment with very small humans, however, and the kids copy all the actions. The chimps are more efficient and in a way more ‘rational’ but it’s the other primate which has built cities, ships and cathedrals.
Traditions we don’t understand ought not to be dismissed too quickly, since the collective intelligence of the past dwarves our own. In The Secret of Our Success, the anthropologist Joseph Henrich argues that individual humans are not nearly as smart as we think and that it is culture that makes us a successful species. The Naskapi, a foraging tribe from north-eastern Canada, hunt caribou. They have to decide where to hunt, which isn’t straightforward because if they visit one location too often the caribou know to stay away. The best hunting strategy therefore requires randomisation.
But individuals like to think they’re smart and left to their own devices, Naskapi hunters probably wouldn’t be satisfied with setting out in a random direction every day; they’d come up with brilliant plans which proved to be disastrous. Tradition saves them. To decide where to go, the hunters use a divination ritual which involves heating a caribou shoulder blade over hot coals until cracks and spots start to appear on it; the resulting pattern is then used as a map. In a sense it’s a mindless ritual, but it’s also a randomising device which helps the hunters overcome their decision-making biases.
Here’s what I like about the dupes. When everyone around them behaved in a certain way, their first thought wasn’t “I must be smarter than them”. It was, “They must know something I don’t”. There is an admirable humility to that, even if, in this case, it led them to say or do something absurd. The ability of individual humans to think for ourselves is crucial to progress; equally crucial is that we trust, sometimes unthinkingly, in judgements made by others, alive or dead. Societies where too few people are willing to question norms and traditions tend to stagnate and to perpetuate injustices. But there is a positive side to conformism, too. Just as in an imaginary nightclub on fire there’s a good chance that a passing group will lead you to an exit, there’s a good chance that whatever the people around you say is right, is right, even if you don’t fully understand why yet. Society functions best when we’re sheepish.