Michael Tomasello, James F. Bonk professor of psychology and neuroscience, was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and National Academy of Science. Tomasello received his Bachelors of Art from Duke in 1972 and his Ph.D from University of Georgia at Athens in 1980. The Chronicle sat down with him to talk about his work and career. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The Chronicle: Based on your research, what kind of advice would you give to academia?
Michael Tomasello: Potentially, some of the stuff we have done on children's collaboration could be useful in educational settings—peer learning and peer collaboration, rather than just getting things from the teacher. More and more schools are doing more of that, but I would probably suggest more, because when you collaborate with a peer, you do a lot more thinking about what the other guy is thinking. When the teacher is just telling you stuff, you tend to be more passive.
College students notoriously do not enjoy group projects because there's often a free loader. Part of the human cooperation complex is excluding free riders. What would have happened earlier in human evolution is if you and I spend all afternoon hunting an antelope, and someone else comes up and says, "I'll have some too," we have a natural tendency to say, "No, you don't deserve it." What you need to mimic the real situation is what we call partner choice. In earlier humans, you would have had a situation where you go out hunting and you get to choose our partners. That way, everyone would know very quickly who the free loaders were, and no one would choose them. What you would do is structure the situation in which people got to choose partners and you had multiple group projects over the semester, and every one of them would have a free choice of partners.
TC: Can you summarize your research on how humans are uniquely human?
MT: In a nutshell, I would say that great apes, monkeys and primates are very clever individually. They can solve problems on their own, they can use tools, they can predict what others are going to do, but it's all individual and it's involved in competition with others. And what's happened with humans is that humans have found ways to put their heads together to become smarter. That takes place over time through culture. It's really what we call shared intentionality—that is, putting your heads together to get smarter.
TC: How have your academic views on this subject changed over time?
MT: When we started, we thought that chimps and other apes were not able to do a lot of the things that they are. We thought the difference between humans and other apes was much larger than it turned out to be. We thought that chimps couldn't even understand anything about others' mental states. But now we think that they do. So that means that the comparison between them and humans is a little harder. We thought before that humans were sort of individually smarter, but then when we found out how smart chimps are, we started looking around for another hypothesis. It turns out that it's not that humans are individually smarter but that they're collectively smarter by forming cultures in which people exchange ideas. That's the real difference.
TC: One of your other positions is with the Max Planck Institute. How do you think that doing that kind of international and cross-disciplinary work has influenced your own work?
MT: The international [work] is really important. I find that there's a lot of really interesting and important work going on in Europe in particular that doesn't always get the attention that it deserves in America.There are some things that Americans do that the Europeans don't get, but it's much more in the other direction. I don't know if I can come up with something very specific, but in general, the more different ideas and different perspectives on things you can get, the better.
TC: What are your lab and institute working on now?
MT: We're working on the idea that some of these shared intentionality things emerge quite early in infancy. Already human infants are attempting to relate to adults in special ways with things like joint attention and emotion sharing at various times. We're looking at how that kind of emotional tie of shared intentionality works now. When we share, something is pleasurable to us. We bond. For example, if you're having coffee with someone and you start sharing things about yourself and they start sharing things about themselves, you naturally become closer. If you do something together with somebody, you go somewhere to do something, those kinds of things are part of what make us feel closer to people, and we think it's already working with human infants and adults. Part of the reason they're interested in this kind of cooperative communication, emotional exchange and joint attention is precisely to bond.
TC: How do animals work together differently from how humans collaborate?
MT: We think that in those situations, each individual is using the other as a social tool. For example, one of them gets the food and in the end they just eat—they don't go around sharing it. But with humans, hunter-gatherers for example, when they capture an antelope or something, they bring it back to the camp and share it with everyone. So for example, there's a study about kids that shows that if they're working on something collaboratively and one of them by accident—actually it's orchestrated by the experiment—gets their reward, they keep going until the others get their reward. But that hasn't been done with any of the other animals. If it were, I would predict that once an individual gets their reward, they would stop before helping the other animals to get their reward. Humans are doing this in a more prosocial way, and we're all in it together.
TC: What kinds of technological breakthroughs have revolutionized psychological experimentation?
MT: The big one in behavioral research in general and child development was videotapes. I know that's a long time ago, especially for people your age, but videotapes only became easy to work with 30, 40 years ago. That really revolutionized everything because you could watch it over and over again. In our research, this eye tracking technology was a great breakthrough because it's allowed us to figure out what apes and children are thinking by seeing where they're looking. With the same eye tracking technology, you can check out when the pupils of kids or chimps dilate. We've been using that to also see how children are understanding situations, what they're finding surprising or arousing.
TC: How might your research relate to ideas about cultural superiority and inferiority?
MT: Cooperation can be used for good or for ill. Wars are fought by armies that cooperate with one another. On each side there are cooperative enterprises fighting each other. I think that it's becoming more and more widely accepted in evolution that different cultural groups would compete with each other for access to resources. I think that the idea of ingroup and outgroup is part of our evolutionary heritage too. It's quite analogous to excluding freeloaders, right? The freeloader is not part of us when we're hunting and now we're part of a big cultural group and working together, but now this outsider comes, and we exclude him. I guess I would say that way of operating comes from humans' evolutionary heritage. Now we're in a new world, and we should all cooperate, but we're just going to have to figure out how to do that.