Can a horse think like a human?
To many people in the early years of the 20th Century, the answer to that question was “Yes!” After all, thousands had seen von Osten’s Russian trotting horse, Clever Hans, use hoof taps and head nods to solve multiplication and division problems, spell out words, name colours, and answer complex questions from a variety of people, even those who had never worked with him before. Sceptics were quickly convinced that what they were seeing was an animal capable of conceptual thought, limited solely by the lack of the ability to speak from taking his place in human society.
In Clever Hans (The Horse of Mr. von Osten), biologist/psychologist Oskar Pfungst disproved popular opinion regarding that clever horse — and, in so doing, created a landmark study in how to apply the experimental method to human and animal behaviour.
What made this horse seem so clever? Was it intentional fraud, rote behaviour, thought transference (yes, that too had been suggested), true intelligence or something else? Oskar Pfungst found the answer by means of a series of experiments. And the data, graphs and analysis of those experiments not only solved the mystery — they formed the foundation for future behavioural studies such as Experimental Psychology.
So, was Clever Hans truly clever? He was — for a horse. In order to win his carrot and bread rewards, he had learned how to interpret the tiny involuntary visual clues that helped him determine how many hoof taps or what sort of head nods were expected by his human companions. Pfungst’s hard work proved that, if Clever Hans’ handlers asked Hans a question for which they did not know the answer, Hans could not respond correctly; only when they did know the answer, and when the horse could see them as they awaited his response, did he give correct answers.
Oskar Pfungst’s colleagues recognized that this book represented an important step in understanding human and animal behaviour. But they also recognized the bravery of the writer — Clever Hans was not a “perfectly gentle” horse. In fact, Pfungst suffered several bites throughout the study.
This post was contributed by lhamilton, the DP General Manager.