Collateral Knowledge: Clever Hans

Believe it or not, I actually put a fair amount of time into researching these daily doses of idiocy. I try not to make sure that anything I say that isn't obviously false is at least plausible. This leads to an awful lot of trips to Wikipedia. It isn't so much a site as a gateway drug. I go there looking for one fact and I walk away with a half dozen things I never would have thought to look for. Let's call it collateral knowledge.  Today, we'll talk about a clever horse named Hans.

Believe it or not, I actually put a fair amount of time into researching these daily doses of idiocy. I try not to make sure that anything I say that isn’t obviously false is at least plausible. This leads to an awful lot of trips to Wikipedia. It isn’t so much a site as a gateway drug. I go there looking for one fact and I walk away with a half dozen things I never would have thought to look for. Let’s call it collateral knowledge. Today, we’ll talk about a clever horse named Hans.

Hans was born in the early years of the twentieth century. His trainer Wilhelm von Osten discovered that Hans, by tapping his foot the correct number of times, could answer any numerical question asked of him. And so CLEVER HANS was born! (Not that great as superhero origins go, but pretty good for a horse.) The trainer went on tours showing off the genius horse to astonished crowds. People were easier to astonish back then. Since he wasn’t charging admission, it seemed unlikely that the trainer was running a scam, and expert after expert tried to find some way that he could have been faking it. Finally a psychologist named Oskar Pfungst (Man, Germans have the best names) figured out that the trainer had been unwittingly feeding Clever Hans the correct answer. As the horse tapped, the trainer got more and more stressed out, and when it hit the right number, he looked relieved. It turns out he’d managed to mistakenly train the animal to recognize his relief as the sign that he should stop tapping his foot.

For those of you wondering how someone could train a horse to do that without realizing, it turns out that horses communicate mostly through gestures and postures, so they are very good at picking up subtle human queues. Like all useless but interesting facts, that got me thinking. If horses are so good at recognizing stress levels, they’d probably make good lie detectors. Maybe that’s why there are still mounted police officers. The horse is an interrogation tool. A little game of good cop/horse would probably coax out a confession or two. Aside from sweating the truth out of suspects, a horse would probably be a good poker player, too. It may not know if it has a good hand, but it will always know if you’re bluffing.

Clever Hans, after being exposed as a less brilliant horse than initially thought, left behind a legacy. The Clever Hans Effect is named for him, and it is something that confounds animal intelligence researchers to this day. Since it is so hard to tell if the appearance of intelligence is genuine or the result of accidental prompting from the trainer, special techniques have to be used to rule out this effect. They are called Anti-Clever Hansing Techniques. That means that this horse not only had an effect named after him, which is something on my life’s to do list*, but he led to the most awesomely hilarious research technique ever. As for the horse himself? Well, just being declared an accidental fraud isn’t enough to stop the entertainment powerhouse of a horse tapping its foot. Hans continued to perform right up until 1916, when there were suddenly no more records of him. Wikipedia says he may have been involved in World War I. Permit me to speculate. Clever Hans, thanks to his remarkable ability to read people, was recruited into the special forces as an international spy. He turned on his German superiors and defected to the United States, where he settled down to raise a family. Some years later a descendent named Bamboo Harvester would rise to stardom as TV’s Mr. Ed.

That’s the end of this string of distracting facts. Surely I’m not the only one who has gone to Wikipedia looking for the history of the french language and ended spending 4 hours reading a list of fictional medicines. If any of you out there have any tales of collateral knowledge, be sure to leave a comment. You can never have too much pointless information.

*Before I die I want an effect, law, disease, or maneuver to be named after me. If I’m really lucky, maybe I can get them all at the same time.

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About Decoychunk

Editor, Writer, and general Knower-Of-Words, if there is text to be read on BrainLazy, Joseph Lallo probably has his fingerprints on it. As the final third of the ownership and foundation of BrainLazy, Joseph “Jo” Lallo made a name for himself when he lost the “e” from his nickname in an arm wrestling match with a witch doctor. Residing in the arid lowlands of the American Southwest, Joseph Lallo is a small, herbivorous, rabbit-like creature with the horns of an antelope. He sleeps belly up, and his milk can be used for medicinal purposes. Joseph Lallo is also author of several books, including The Book of Deacon Series, book 1 of which is available for free here.