Monday Minstrel: Clever Hans, the Counting Horse

Clever Hans performing in 1904 — Wikipedia

I am currently reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book Homo Deus. In it I found a very interesting section on the horse known as Clever Hans. Here is the text from the book.

In the early 1900s a horse called Clever Hans became a German celebrity. ….When asked, “Hans what is four times three?’ Hans tapped his hoof twelve times. When shown a written message asking, “What is twenty minus eleven?” Hans tapped nine times, with commendable Prussian precision……Even when Hans was separated from his owner and complete strangers presented him with the questions Hans still got most of the answers right.

In 1907 the psychologist Oscar Pfungst began another investigation and finally revealed the truth. It turned out that Hans got the answers right by carefully observing the body language and facial expressions of his interlocutors.When Hans was asked what is four times three, he knew from past experience that the human was expecting him to tap his hoof a given number of times. He began tapping, while closely monitoring the human. As Hans approached the correct number of taps the human became more and more tense, and when Hans tapped the right number, the tension reached its peak. Hans knew how to recognize this by the human’s body posture and the look on the human’s face. He then stopped tapping, and watched how the tension was replaced by amazement or laughter. Hans knew he had got it right.

Clever Hans is often given as an example of the way humans erroneously humanize animals , ascribing to them far more amazing abilities than they actually possess. In fact , however, the lesson is just the opposite. The story demonstrated that by humanizing animals we usually underestimate  animal cognition and ignore the unique abilities of other creatures. As far as maths go, Hans was hardly a genius. Any eight year old kid could do much better. However, in his ability to deduce emotions and intentions from body language, Hans was a true genius. If a Chinese person were to ask me in Mandarin what is four times three, there is no way that I could correctly tap my foot twelve times simply by observing facial expressions and body language. Clever Hans enjoyed this ability because horses normally communicate with each other through body language.What was remarkable about Hans, however, is that he could use the method to decipher the emotions and intentions not only of his fellow horses , but also of unfamiliar humans.

Yuval Noah Harari “Homo Deus”

Moral of this story….never underestimate your horse’s power of observation and his ability to know exactly what you are thinking or feeling!

22 Comments Add yours

  1. Ink 'em Down says:

    This was a joy to read! Horses are amazing. I recently read this research explaining that horses indeed are very observant of human expressions and body language. And they remember that! So if a human was smiling at them, they’d remember that and be comfortable around him/her next time. Whereas if a human had a negative expression, the horses would remember that and become tense and uncomfortable when they saw that same human again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. anne leueen says:

      Yes they can read us very well. Thank you for taking the time to leave this comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ink 'em Down says:

        My pleasure! 😊

        Liked by 1 person

  2. da-AL says:

    love this & totally agree! always upsets me that people measure intelligence only in ‘human’ terms — I think of my doggie — of how little I understand of her compared of what she understands about me! have put the book on my ‘to be read’ list πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. anne leueen says:

      The book is a pretty serious one. Harari gives his vision of how we have come to where we are now and where we will go to. I am half way through and I’m going to take a break and read something a bit lighter and then come back to it. I also loved his book “Sapiens”. That was a good read!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. da-AL says:

        you are good to not just go for entertainment, easy reading, Anne

        Liked by 1 person

  3. iScriblr says:

    I loved the story of Clever Hans! Brilliant!❀️

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Emma Cownie says:

    Yes, Hans really was clever. A lot of animals (cats, dogs, horses, pigs and sheep) are very clever as many of them have learned to read people and most of them will remember them. I watch a TV programme about how sheep recognized people and would not take food from a bucket from a stranger but would from their farmer.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. anne leueen says:

      Interesting to know that about the sheep They don’t trust the stranger. Wise of them as it could be poison! I think we do underestimate the intelligence and wisdom of animals simply because it is not the same as ours.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Emma Cownie says:

        I think most animals are pretty smart and farm animals are as individual as cats, dogs or even horses. We just don’t take the time to get to know them!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I do love the story of Clever Hans. Leanne Proops did some wonderful research on him and social cognition in horses it was fascinating.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. anne leueen says:

      Thanks for that information. I did not know of her research.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It is in the ISES Conference Proceedings from 2018 if you try to find it.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. anne leueen says:

          Thanks I will make a not of that

          Like

  6. You are so right. Hans was smart even without counting, One should assume that your dog (or horse) is watching you. Animals whether prey or predator have all the genetic reasons to keep their eyes on us.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. anne leueen says:

      Indeed they do and their powers of observation are very good.

      Like

  7. Alli Farkas says:

    I’ve always thought that Hans was indeed clever, just not in the way we assumed! If I had encountered him with no prior knowledge I’m sure I would have attributed human characteristics to him too.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. anne leueen says:

      I think that we do that because we have a relationship with them. Thanks for reading this one and leaving this nice comment Alli.

      Like

  8. dprastka says:

    I so enjoyed reading this today!! How very fascinating, horses are brilliant!! 😁

    Liked by 3 people

    1. anne leueen says:

      They have talents we sometimes are not aware of. πŸ˜ƒπŸ΄

      Liked by 2 people

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