Clever Hans

I love this story. In 1891 there was an amazing horse named Hans who could do math. Seriously. When his owner, a German mathematics teacher named William van Osten, asked Hans how many 3 there were in the number 7, he would stomp his foot twice. If van Osten wrote the numbers 6 + 8 on the chalkboard, the horse would tap 14 times. So it seemed as though this horse could read as well! Beyond that, if someone other than van Osten asked the question, Hans was still able to answer correctly. 

As you can imagine, Clever Hans was quite a sensation in Europe. And I think it goes without saying there were skeptics. A commission formed in 1904 that included circus professionals, veterinarians, zookeepers, psychologists. Despite rigorous analysis, the commission was unable to find any evidence of trickery. 

Fast-forward three years. Oskar Pfungst, a biologist and psychologist, finally revealed Han’s method. Hans was quite remarkable, but not for the reasons most thought. Pfungst concluded that when the person asking the question didn’t know the correct answer, Hans didn’t either. Moreover, when the physical distance between the questioner and Hans increased, the horse’s accuracy decreased. When blinders were placed on the Hans, he was rendered completely ordinary. 

Pfungst recognized Hans was responding to subtle changes in body language. When Hans tapped his foot the correct number of times, the questioner (van Osten or any other questioner) would lean slightly forward or unconsciously change his facial expression. Hans would then stop tapping because he knew he had arrived at the correct answer. Rewarding Hans with a treat only reinforced his attentiveness to the physical cues of others. So he was a pretty amazing horse, but he couldn’t really solve math problems.

We’re not all that different from Hans. We react to subtle cues. The expectations we set – and those that others set for us – influence the outcome, for better or worse. The reality is we can’t control how others think or feel. But we can control our own thoughts. We can commit to positive self-talk. We can set high goals with the expectation of realizing them.

Now if you’re like me and believe a rising tide lifts all boats, I encourage you to make a conscious effort to elevate those around. Say positive things, genuinely cheer for someone else, lend a hand when you can. Being kind feels good, and who knows, they just might return the favor and send positive thoughts your way. Everybody wins!

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