Who was Clever Hans?
Clever Hans was a horse purchased in the late 1800s from Russia by Wilhelm Von Osten, a German mathematics teacher who pushed many of the boundaries of psychology and science. Von Osten was known from phrenology (the idea that people’s intelligences could be determined by the shapes of their heads). More importantly, he was known for his belief that animals are as intelligent as human beings – and he set out to prove it. He tried training an indifferent cat, a ‘grumpy’ bear, and finally, Kluge Hans (Clever Hans in German).
Why is Clever Hans amazing?
He could count! And he could do arithmetic, including some square roots and even fractions. He could even spell. The horse was a genius.
Hans could respond to verbal questions as well as written questions and answer many queries posed to him, such as, “If today is Wednesday, how many days is it to Monday?”
It was calculated that Clever Hans had an 89% accuracy level, making mistakes only occasionally and making him as smart as a 14-year-old boy when it comes to math and spelling. Clever Hans truly was a clever horse.
Clever Hans’ Story
Von Osten bought his smart steed from Russia in the late 1800s and then proceeded to teach Clever Hans math and spelling. And amazingly, Hans was a prodigy! He first learned to count the numbers 1 through 9. He signified numbers by tapping his hoof. For instance, the number 2 equaled him tapping his hoof twice. Then Clever Hans learned to tap out numbers that were written on a chalkboard. The alphabet worked in a similar way: one tap for the letter “A”, twice for “B”, three times for “C”, and so on and so forth.
Soon Clever Hans was adding and subtracting, spelling, and going on tour. Von Osten took his horse’s attributes on the road, putting on amazing shows in which Clever Hans demonstrated his abilities and intelligence to audiences that were left in awe. They even got to see him for free. Of course, Clever Hans had skeptics – until they saw him preform.
And Clever Hans was a star.
What Happened Next for Clever Hans and Von Osten?
Soon, Clever Hans was attracting the attention of scientists who wanted to test Hans’ abilities with a series of tests. The “New York Times” even featured Clever Hans on the front page.
Germany’s Board of Education asked to test the horse’s abilities, and Von Osten agreed. After all, he knew he was right and they would find nothing false about Clever Hans’ intelligence and skills. They formed the Hans Commission, which included two zoologists, a horse trainer, a psychologist, several school teachers, and a circus manager, none of whom could prove Clever Hans to be fraudulent. They tested Clever Hans extensively and thoroughly, and in 1904, they announced that they could find no fraud, that Clever Hans was truly intelligent.
And then Oskar Pfungst became involved. He came up with a new test: what if Clever Hans couldn’t see the questioner, just the chalkboard? And what would happen if Hans could see the questioner but the questioner didn’t know the answers?
Clever Hans failed every single question (and gave a nasty bite in his horsey frustration).
Why Did Clever Hans fail?
It is simple: Clever Hans didn’t really understand math or spelling. But he did understand body language. He was picking up cues that humans didn’t even realize they were sending. Once he picked up tapping his hoof to signal numbers, he realized that his master was pleased. Clever Hans further released that the questioner and audience members tensed up with subtle body cues that humans don’t even realize they are giving but relax when the correct answer is reached. By deciphering these cues and picking up on the relaxation, Clever Hans proved himself a different type of genius.
Pfungst preformed a series of experiments after the failed tests with questioners and audience members who knew the answers and observed them intensely, thus discovering these subtle cues. He even discovered that people cannot suppress these cues even if they are aware of them and try to do so.
Since then, this phenomenon has been dubbed the “Clever Hans Effect”, and many animals are capable of it, including dogs. People can pick up on similar types of body language as well without truly realizing they are doing so.
Von Osten never accepted this theory, being a firm believer in his idea that animals have the same kind of intelligence as humans and continued touring with Clever Hans. They drew in huge crowds even so and enjoyed the spotlight.
And it can be said the Clever Hans was, indeed, an extremely intelligent and, well, clever animal. Maybe he couldn’t really do math or spell in German, but he certainly wasn’t stupid.
Clever Hans the Math Horse
Clever Hans – what is the Clever Hans effect?