Sunday, 27 October 2013

poker-face or encephalisation quotient

Around a century ago in Berlin, local audiences, including scientists and emperors and the international public was coming to terms with what the latest object of fascination, much more than a side-show curiosity meant in terms of not only intelligence but for psychology. Around a decade prior, a school teacher, amateur phrenologist and some what of a charismatic, Wilhelm von Osten, bought a horse to hitch to a carriage he had had his eyes on. The stall available to him in the working-class neighbourhood of Berlin where he lived was too narrow to accommodate both beast and buggy and it turned out it the area was not the best to prance about, and so not discouraged, he undertook to teach his horse arithmetic, after repeated and at first accidental displays of precocity.
The world, still reveling from the recent publication of Charles Darwin's theories, had become engrossed with the idea of animal intelligence, and Mr. von Osten was more and more convinced that he had discovered the genuine article. With outstanding accuracy, the horse, Clever Hans (der Kluge Hans, after the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale), amazed audiences by clopping out answers to unscripted mathematical problems. The duo were a sensation and once learning that the Prussian emperor would have private audience, a scientific commission was called in order to avoid any royal embarrassment. The group, which included a top professor of psychology, a circus director, veterinarians and biologists, could find no explanation to the mysterious prodigy but also were convinced no trickery was involved. Besides, although he gained much fame, Mr. von Osten never charged admission or any other fees for his demonstrations.
The show continued, although, sadly Mr. von Osten died, under a new proctor, a business man who had studied von Osten's stage-presence and was enjoying some success in soliciting correct answers from Clever Hans. Hans' new owner even gathered a menagerie in a sort of equine classroom so Hans could impart his knowledge to others. The professor, however, who participated in the first commission was still mystified and launched a second investigation, this time with his students. Eventually termed the “Clever Hans Effect,” they slowly determined that the animals were quite clever though not in the ways the questioners had hoped, but rather became very good at reading body-language and non-verbal cues too subtle for audiences or skeptics to notice otherwise in order to get praise and rewards. It was a bit of a let down and Hans and his classmates were conscripted as war-horses and their fate is unknown. This effect, of course, affects all sorts of investigations and our ticks and tells give away a lot. It is funny to think also how well pets have their owners trained.