2 March 2011

Empirical Theater

Filed under: Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:51 am

Reading Michael Tomasello’s monograph Why We Cooperate (2009), I’m struck by the cleverness of the studies that he and his colleagues run in evaluating theories empirically. The experiments are staged like very short one-act plays, with scripts and actors and props and multiple showings. There’s always a stooge in these plays, someone who doesn’t realize that it is a play, who is immersed in the mise-en-scene and who extemporizes. It’s the spontaneous performance of the stooge that generates the data, but it’s the staged and scripted part that embeds data in theory. Experimental design is part of the art of science.

Tomasello briefly describes a number of experiments for investigating the possibility that something like altruism is an innately human capability. In several of these experiments an adult human faces some sort of problem, and the stooge — usually either a human infant or a chimpanzee — is in a position to help. Here’s one study which the stooge has access to information that could help one of the actors.

“Researchers set up a situation in which twelve-month-old, pre-linguistic infants watched while an adult engaged in some adult-centered task such as stapling papers. The adult also manipulated another object during the same period of time. Then she left the room, and another adult came in and moved the two objects to some shelves. The original adult then came back in, papers in hand, ready to continue stapling. But there was no stapler on her table, as she searched for it gesturing quizzically but not talking at all.”

How do the infant human stooges respond to this scenario? Here are some of the features in the stooge’s performance that the experimenters looked for:

  • Did the stooge help the adult locate the stapler by pointing or otherwise indicating its presence on the shelf?
  • In providing this information, did the stooge discriminate between the stapler and the other extraneous object that would not be useful in performing the stapling task?
  • Did the stooge demand the stapler for him/herself (e.g., by whining or reaching), or was s/he content for the adult to use it for stapling the papers?

This little bit of theater incorporates a number of scientifically salient features. The infant stooges can’t use language, but they can point — a competency that first emerges in human development at around 11-12 months of age. Similarly, chimps can point but they cannot use language — which means that this sort of experiment can provide ethologically comparative findings. The stooges have to infer the adult’s intentions in order to provide her with helpful information. And the stooges must want the adult to achieve her own intentions rather than usurping the missing piece of equipment for their own use.


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