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  • Writer's pictureRoy Jibrin

Clever Hans: A story of a horse and us.

In the early 1900s, a horse named Clever Hans became a sensation in Germany. Touring towns and villages, he demonstrated his exceptional skills in mathematics. He could answer complex questions like 'What is 24 minus 14?' or respond to a written question like 'What is 3x4?' by tapping his hoof the correct number of times. Crowds were amazed by his intelligence, and Hans became a celebrity.

I recently discovered the complete story of Hans and found it worth sharing, not to draw parallels or complex analogical reasoning, but for its own fascinating narrative.

As fame always brings trouble, a commission was appointed in 1904 to look into the matter. All 13 members were convinced that it was a scam and were trying to prove their point, but couldn't prove any wrongdoing.

In 1907, a psychologist named Oskar Pfungst began a different type of investigation, one that focused on the public watching and the people asking the questions. He discovered that Hans was not actually performing mathematical calculations, but instead was picking up on subtle cues from his interlocutors. For example, when Hans was asked 'What's four times three?' he knew from past experience that the person was expecting him to tap his hoof a certain number of times. As Hans approached the correct number of taps, the person became more and more tense, and when Hans tapped the right number, the tension reached its peak. Hans recognised this by the person's body posture and the look on their face. He then stopped tapping and watched as the tension was replaced by amazement or laughter, knowing that he had gotten the answer right.

Hans' abilities were far bigger than simple mathematics. Pfungst noted that people produce these cues even when they are fully aware of which cues are helping the horse guess the answers. We produce these cues involuntarily regardless of whether we wish to exhibit or suppress them.

Our understanding of animals is limited and often biased by our human perspective, except in rare situations like the Clever Hans story where we gain insights into their perception of our behaviour.

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