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Who Pays Attention to Whom?

Our pre-human ancestors looked upward; our human ancestors looked around.

Key points

  • The attention structure of our pre-human primate ancestors was based on dominance hierarchies. Everyone looked up.
  • Our hunter-gatherer ancestors did away with dominance hierarchies; people looked around.
  • With the advent of agriculture dominance, hierarchies returned to human groups. Today we are constrained to look up, but we also look around.

Hierarchy channels attention. Animals generally pay far more attention to those above them than they do to their equals or to those beneath them, and for good reasons. The dominant animals usually have the most experience; they tend to know where the best resources are, and they are responsible for protecting the group from predators.

Status hierarchies are usually effective at distributing information, but because they are one-way streets, they can also block the flow of information in a social group. The story of the monkey genius of Koshima Island provides an intriguing example (Kawai M.; Tsumori A; Motoyoshi R 1965).

In the 1950s, Japanese researchers set out to see how macaques living on otherwise uninhabited islands would respond to new, unfamiliar food. They threw sweet potatoes onto the beach of one island. The monkeys loved the potatoes, but they were frustrated by the gritty sand. Early in the experiment, a juvenile female discovered that she could take a sweet potato to a tide pool, dip it in, wash the sand off, and eat a clean potato.

One would think that it wouldn't take long for such a beneficial innovation to catch on in the troop, but almost all of the animals were unable to pay attention to the young female. In fact, it took the most dominant males years to learn to wash their potatoes.

Continuing with their research, the scientists threw kernels of wheat onto the beach. Lo and behold, the same female, the “monkey genius,” discovered that she could take a handful of wheat and sand over to a tidal pool and drop the mix in. The wheat would float, the sand would sink, and she could eat the kernels off the top. Meanwhile, the dominant animals continued to pick the wheat, grain by grain, out of the sand.

In the next phase of the experiment, the researchers transported a high status male, who had finally learned the wheat technique, to another troop on a different island. After allowing him to establish a level of dominance in his new group, the researchers threw some wheat on the beach for this group. The dominant male came down to the beach, picked up a handful of wheat, and took it to a tide pool. Within hours every animal in the troop had acquired the knack.

The nature of life in a hunting and gathering band caused humans to pay attention differently. When males and females started living together, they had to pay a new kind of attention to each other. Living in the same hut or igloo day after day is very different from coming together only when a female is in heat. In addition, both mothers and fathers paid attention to the young who explored, discovered, and sometimes came up with innovations.

In the bands of our ancestors, as in contemporary hunter-gatherer bands, decisions were made collectively and many people contributed to the discussion.

The vital collaborative activities of the extended family hunters were "supervised" by the family headman. He was re­ferred to as inhumataq, or the one who thinks. In summer he gave the signal for the beginning of fishing or caribou hunt­ing, and he decided matters pertaining to migration and camp selection. Yet all these decisions were taken informally and gently, in consultation with the other adult hunters of the extended family, involving long discussions when every­one present could freely express his opinions. In a sense the headman's task was to achieve consensus without hurting the feelings and designs of the other hunters, whose auton­omy he respected (Balikci, 1970, p. 116).

While our pre-human ancestors could only look up, like macaques, our human ancestors could look around. They could pay attention to—and learn from—anyone.

When hierarchy made a comeback after the agricultural revolution, people were once again constrained to look up. What the king, the lord, or the priest was saying or doing could affect one’s life profoundly, so it made sense to pay attention to them. We still look up today and for the same reason. What the boss says and does is important. But that doesn’t stop humans from looking around as well.

When Bernhard told his wife the monkey genius story, she immediately saw the connection with her job. She was an advisor in a university program. All of the advisors who worked directly with students were women; the director was a male faculty member who didn’t know the work but had been appointed by the president as a reward for his support. The women worked around him as best they could, but were often frustrated by his inexperience and his resistance to their suggestions. My wife told the monkey genius story to her colleagues, and it became a running joke in the office. When one woman asked another how things were going she would say, “I’m just washing my sweet potatoes, how about you?”


Balikci, Asen. 1970. The Netsilik Eskimo. Garden City, N.Y.: Natural History Press.

Kawai, M. 1965. "Newly Acquired Pre-Cultural Behavior of the Natural Troop of Japanese Monkeys on Koshima Islet." Primates 6:1-30.

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