Michael Tomasello On the Surprising Origins of Communication and Cooperation

Michael Tomasello
I’m Alan Alda, and this is Clear + Vivid, conversations about connecting and communicating.
Mike: I’ve had over the years all of my colleagues and students who had babies, and I just say, “Nine-month revolution, wait for the nine-month revolution.” And between nine and 12 months of age it’s like clockwork. They start pointing, and holding things up, and showing them, which chimps don’t do either. Just like picking up a toy and holding it up in the air and showing it, just to share attention to it.
That’s Michael Tomasello talking about something we don’t think about much, but that may be at the very heart of relating and communicating: Shared attention… I first met Michael when I interviewed him a few years ago in Leipzig, Germany. He was already doing experiments that studied the differences between how human children and chimps learn to communicate. He’s tracked the fascinating path humans take in learning to connect with one another – and we can learn a lot from it.
Using technology that chimps may not get to for a while, Michael and I talked through video conferencing between our studio in New York, and his lab at Duke University.

Alan: 00:00 Michael, I’m so glad to be able to talk to you today, because we talk all the time about communicating and relating, conversing with one another. And you’ve spent a great deal of intellectual resources figuring out where it all began, where we got that. To the extent that, that makes us different from other animals. I think you’ve really pointed us toward a new way of looking at it. And talking about pointing, I just said the pointing. I guess that was an unconscious introduction into your thing. Because it seems to begin with pointing, doesn’t it?
Mike: 00:43 Certainly the unique aspects of human communication begin with pointing. Pointing is the Ur act of reference, and is especially interesting. Because if I point for you right now in a certain direction, I’m essentially saying, “look in that direction,” and you’ll know what I mean. The point by itself doesn’t have any communicative content, it just tells you to look somewhere and then get the inferential machinery going and read my mind. And so-
Alan: 01:14 Yes, it’s so interesting. We take pointing for granted. We know instinctively, or in some ways some inner voice is saying to us, “That point has meaning.” You’re not just raising your hand with one finger out.
Mike: 01:28 That’s correct.
Alan: 01:29 And we know that you want … I know you want me to see something significant, or that you regard as significant. So how did you … Is that actually the basis of language itself, do you think?
Mike: 01:45 It is. People have, philosophers have wondered about the origin of meaning for many centuries. But linguistic meaning is a special type, and linguistic meaning comes from the conventions that we have that we, that we have a convention that we’ll call this object here a chair. But in another language they have a different convention, and that’s a very sophisticated form of communication that builds on this more basic type. And the more basic type is essentially … Manifests most clearly in pointing. Where again, I show something to you, and I am in essence saying you’re going to find this interesting or relevant. And then you search to try to see how that might be. [crosstalk 00:02:36].
Alan: 02:35 I get the impression … Pardon me for interrupting.
Mike: 02:38 Yes.
Alan: 02:39 I just really, I want to break in right on that thought. I get the impression that pointing is already a more sophisticated form of communication than what I always thought was the origin of language, which was … Like, there’s all kinds of … I can give you. I can give you one that says, “I’m hungry. I can give you one that says, “Get away from here.” Or I can give you one that says, “I’m in pain.” And that’s an expression of my state to some extent, but it doesn’t involve you necessarily.
Mike: 03:20 That’s correct.
Alan: 03:20 Accept, “Get away from here,” does involve you. And that seems to me to be a really powerful source of communication. Now, why do you focus on pointing more than, say … which is, “Watch out, don’t come too close to me.” Why pointing, over that?
Mike: 03:37 Well, you’ve glossed it as, “Watch out, don’t come close to me,” but I think a more natural gloss is, “I’m angry.” And so, I’m just expressing my emotional state, and that’s what vocalizations are really good at, is expressing emotional states.
Alan: 03:51 I see. I’ve already added a communication element that I wouldn’t have if I [crosstalk 00:03:55] pointing.
Mike: 03:57 You’ve added a referential element, but it’s really just an expression of emotions. And in chimps, when one of them screams, what it naturally does is you look at the screamer. It brings attention to the screamer. But what pointing does is it directs attention outside of the two of us to some external referent, and that’s different than just me expressing my emotions and hoping you’ll do something.
Alan: 04:25 So, are we the only animals that you know of that point?
Mike: 04:31 That point naturally for one another in their natural-
Alan: 04:34 Or is there some you can train to point, I guess?
Mike: 04:36 Yes, and chimps actually will point for humans sometimes to get them food or something like that. It’s not exactly like a human point, and they extend the index finger the way that we do. But they stick out a whole hand, hanging in the cage or something like that, to get food. But they don’t point for one another, and that’s really an interesting part of it, is that they assume that we have cooperative motives, and that we’ll try to help them get whatever they want. But if they do that for another chimp, it’s not going to [crosstalk 00:05:06].
Alan: 05:06 The other chimp just looks at their finger.
Mike: 05:08 Exactly.
Alan: 05:09 But what about dogs that point at birds, or … Are they-
Mike: 05:14 Yes, that’s a very special case. They are bred by humans to do this, and dogs do communicate with humans in quite sophisticated ways. Whenever I talk about this kind of thing, someone will always bring up the sophisticated things their dogs are doing with them. But essential point, from an evolutionary point of view, is that the dogs aren’t doing it with one another.
Alan: 05:39 And we’ve sort of artificially, in a way, helped them develop these attributes that are useful to us by the way we bred them, right?
Mike: 05:50 Absolutely, domestication is about training them to be cooperative. They come from wolves, and the wolves that were the origin of dogs, they would have hung around villages. And any of them that bit the kids or whatever, they would be killed and eaten, or chased away. And the ones that were nice, and calm, and cooperative, they would have hung around. So in fact, we bred them to be cooperative with us, and to trust us. And so, they have some special communicative abilities in interaction with humans, but these are not natural dog or wolf communicative activities.
Alan: 06:25 And my understanding of the latest version of how wolves became domesticated and became dogs, was that they didn’t so much in the beginning hang around people, they hung around the trash heaps of people where they could find food. So is that your understanding?
Mike: 06:42 But both, trash heaps are associated with humans. So, yes, that-
Alan: 06:46 I see what you mean. That’s … Yes. No, I was thinking that we weren’t really picked out by the wolves as humans, as animals they could relate to. Probably, we just happened to be by our trash.
Mike: 07:07 They picked us out.
Alan: 07:08 Yes. How does this apply? There was a very interesting thing I read that you wrote, that for us, developing the ability to communicate, which so fascinates us on this series of conversations, for us humans, the things that make us most human you say, are constructed during the first years of a child’s life. That it’s not a … Do I have it right, that you’re saying it’s not so much how we come in through our evolutionary heritage, as how we’re trained into this in the early years?
Mike: 07:48 Well, it’s both. The evolutionary heritage expresses itself during child development. So the hereditary elements of human development are a baseline or a structure in which the learning happens. So, we are both evolved to be especially cooperative, and to use this kind of communication to facilitate and coordinate our cooperation, and the specially culturally created things like conventional languages, we have to actually learn those, but I don’t think we learn pointing, for example.
I think young children just naturally point to get other people’s attention. And we have studies where you try to train children to point at an earlier age than they normally would, and it doesn’t do anything. So I tend to think of that as more natural. And then the conventional linguistic communication as cultural and learned.
Alan: 08:44 Do the children, unlike the chimps you mentioned, do the children point for one another’s benefit, or do they mainly relate to adults?
Mike: 08:56 Well, that’s an interesting question. It is mainly for adults, because early on we are in the natural state. Little children are in their mother’s care and nursing until about three years of age. So they’re mainly communicating to coordinate with mom for their basic subsistence, and other learning, and all that sort of thing. And after about age three, then they really start using it with their peers also.
Alan: 35:19 I was interested in the idea that the adult is the … I get the impression from reading about your work, that the adult that the child refers to, responds to the pointing, or responds to the shared experience, is more important than that same signal. Say, pointing coming from another child about the same age, is that true?
Mike: 35:58 Yes, that’s true. Humans are cultural creatures, and we are dependent on adults to take care of us. And so, the children really have a … Yes, they have a stake in communicating with the adult in a way that with their peers they don’t initially. But they will later, of course, by the time they’re in school their peers are as important or more important than their parents.
Alan: 36:24 So do you think they get that innately, or do they find out in some kind of trial and error process that they’re not getting very reliable information from another two-year-old?
Mike: 36:35 Yes, I think probably a little bit of both. They recognize that, “That guy is as incompetent as I am,” when they see another little toddler going around, toddling around. But they also get some experience on that as well.
Alan: 36:51 And they’re able to classify the other person. It’s not just this two-year-old, but they put less stock in what any two-year-old tells them, as opposed to the adult.
Mike: 37:06 Yes.
Alan: 37:06 And that sounds like pretty much any adult. Although, maybe a parent with the advantage of bonding has an edge over a stranger.
Mike: 37:13 Well, we even have a little experiment where … In that study that I mentioned before, about where somebody points to where the food is hidden, and little two-year-old children will believe an adult and respond to the adult much more than they will to another two-year-old.

Alan: 09:24 And is there a difference between how they relate in terms of pointing and communicating? Is there a difference between how they do that with their moms or their dads, and the way they do it with other adults? You have a research assistant come in and test them on pointing, are they as responsive as they’d be to a mother?
Mike: 09:46 Yes. In a general way, yes. All other things being equal, but what you have with your parents, is you have a lot of shared experience that can be drawn on to interpret someone’s point. So if the child walks into the laboratory and points to a picture of a dog on the wall, the experimenter might not know why he’s pointing to the picture of the dog. But the parent might say, “Yes, that looks just like our dog at home.”
So the pointing draws on shared experience, and so, they’re going to be able to communicate more richly with people they have more shared experience with. In a laboratory setting, we create the shared experiences. We play some game or something, and then they can point about that.
Alan: 10:29 A lot of what grows out of the pointing experience, which is a shared experience, a lot of what grows out of it seems to me to be helping. It seems to be at the center of that. In a way, my pointing out to you an unusual thing is … I remember us walking down the street in Leipzig on Scientific American Frontiers, and you were explaining pointing to me. I think I became aware for the first time that when you pointed at something, and I looked at the thing and not at your finger, that you and I were in contact in a way we hadn’t been before. And that seems to be tied to helping somehow.
Mike: 11:23 It is. We can point … I’ve said it this way, that even a point where I’m trying to get you to do something for me, it’s … I’m asking, I’m requesting help. So I point to … If the child points to an object they want … You say, “Well, that’s not helping,” but I’m asking for help. And then when I point out something, like just a bird flew past and I just point, then I am being helpful to you. And I’m saying, “I think you are going to find that interesting or important.” And I think in the case where it’s chimpanzees, we’ve done studies with them and their interpretation of human pointing, and they’re not ready for somebody to point out something to them for their benefit. And so, they don’t really get it, because of that very basic assumption that the other person’s trying to help me and be cooperative.
Alan: 12:18 I assume you can train a chimp to respond to a point.
Mike: 12:25 Let me give you an example. So if Chimpanzees naturally follow gaze direction, so if they came into a room and you looked and pointed over to the side, they would see some food, they would go get it. And you would say, “They’re interpreting the pointing.” But what they’re doing [inaudible 00:12:39] basically is following your gaze direction and seeing the food, and then responding.
Alan: 12:44 So it’s more important to them where you’re looking than where you’re pointing? They don’t-
Mike: 12:49 Yes. Yes, I think so.
Alan: 12:49 They disregard the point, and we interpret it as regarding the point, because the point is meaningful to us.
Mike: 12:55 It’s for me. The point is for me. When we’re interpreting and you’re pointing for me. I say, “That’s meant for me.” That’s an attentional act toward me, and I’m supposed to do something with it. And so, now, if you just transform the situation slightly, where now the chimpanzee knows that there’s food in one of two opaque buckets, and you point and look towards the bucket, they don’t get it. And they don’t get it because … And children get it at 12 months of age, before they’re even linguistic. The children get it because they’re saying, “Why does he think that, that bucket over there is interesting for me? Relevant or important for me?” And so, they go check it out.
The chimp, they say, “Food, food, where’s the food? Okay, bucket.” They look over at the bucket, “Boring. Food, food, food, where’s the food?” We make the very simple inference, that if somebody directs our attention to the bucket, it must be relevant for what we’re doing, and they don’t make that simple inference.
Alan: 13:51 I think I misunderstood something. Are you saying that they noticed our gaze directed toward the bucket with food, and they use that information to choose the bucket with food, or they don’t even get anything at all out of the gaze?
Mike: 14:09 Both the children and the chimps have their gaze directed to the bucket, but the children infer, “It must be relevant for me searching for the toy or for the food.” And the chimps see the bucket, but they don’t make the inference, “Oh, he must want me to know where the food is.” They just think it’s disconnected.
Alan: 14:24 I see, so they’re not able to make use of the information that they’re taking in.
Mike: 14:27 That’s right. And you’re trying to tell them where the food is, but they just see the bucket when you look over there, and they don’t think it’s relevant to the food. The child sees the bucket and says, “Well, if he’s directing my attention to the bucket, if he’s pointing to the bucket, then he must want me to do something about it [crosstalk 00:14:44].”
Alan: 14:43 It sounds like there’s something underlying this connection, underlying the action of pointing and looking at the bucket that a child, even at the age of 12 months can make use of. There’s something going on that the child can make use of, and that makes the pointing significant, and the chimp doesn’t seem to have that. What is it? What’s underlying … It sounds like we’re part of a community before we even know it.
Mike: 15:12 Well, the term I’ve used I borrowed from the philosophers is shared intentionality, or “we” intentionality. That children understand that we are doing something, we are playing this game together. And so, we’re already connected, and then when you point for me, I want to know how that’s relevant to this thing we are doing together. And I assume you’re helping me in this activity that we are doing together.
Alan: 15:35 Are you saying that we come into the world with the sense of we, W-E, we-ness, rather than have to learn it, or what?
Mike: 15:43 Well, developmentally, it seems to come online about nine months of age. It’s not clear exactly how much learning is involved, but it’s a natural thing that all normally developing children do at about nine months of age. You can predict … I’ve had over the years all of my colleagues and students who had babies, and I just say, “Nine-month revolution, wait for the nine-month revolution.” And between nine and 12 months of age it’s like clockwork. They start pointing, and holding things up, and showing them, which chimps don’t do either. Just like picking up a toy and holding it up in the air and showing it, just to share attention to it.
Alan: 16:21 Yes, there is that wonderful, innocent, sweet thing where children want you to see what they have or what they’re doing.
Mike: 16:29 Exactly.
Alan: 16:30 Which is a basic interaction that seems to be universal, but what about kids who are brought up pretty much in isolation? Do they have that nine-month breakthrough too, or is it harder to get?
Mike: 16:47 Well, there are only very extreme cases where children are brought up in isolation, and they end up with all kinds of problems. But pretty much all children, even in situations that are not perfect, they still are going to be pointing between nine and 12 months of age. And what we have is some children who don’t really point in that way, and that’s children with Autism, children on the Autism spectrum, disorder. Who have a Autism spectrum disorder. Sometimes they point when they want things, but they don’t tend to point just to say, “Oh, isn’t that interesting? Here’s something you might be interested in.” They don’t do that kind of pointing. That’s really one of the key diagnostic features for trying to diagnose Autism spectrum disorder at a very early age.
So it has a strong biological basis, because Autism has a strong biological basis, it comes out at roughly the same time in development for all normal children. And so, there may be some learning involved, but it’s really coming a large part out of our evolutionary heritage.
Alan: 17:53 This makes me wonder if, not only language, but empathy is connected to this sense of we. The situation where we not only can point at things and have shared experience, but we can have an estimate of what’s going on in the person’s feelings.
Mike: 18:22 Yes.
Alan: 18:23 Do you see a connection there?
Mike: 18:25 Yes. And indeed, one of the ways that we connect with other people is by either doing things with them, or watching things with them. That’s if you have someone, some colleague that you only know a little bit, if you go to the museum and watch things with them, or you go to a movie, or you go to a ballgame, this is a bonding experience. And so, there is an emotional dimension to the process, which is that we become closer in that way. And if you think on a slightly higher level, you can almost define the kind of relationship you have with other people by what you share with them and what you want to share with them.
So something significant happens in your life, whatever, your dog dies or something. You would share that with your closest friends, but you wouldn’t necessarily share that with somebody that you just met in the subway or something. So what we share with people is … Almost defines the depth of our relationship.
Alan: 19:32 And tell me how you think it may be connected to the pointing. I just smell a connection, but I don’t hear it from you yet.
Mike: 19:42 Well, in adults, it’s often through language, and not so much about pointing. But now, if we scale back down to the infants, the infants aren’t capable of relating a complex experience linguistically. They’re just pointing to mom, “Oh, look at that clown over there jumping up and down. Isn’t that exciting?” And mom says, “Oh, yes, it’s exciting.” And they are having a shared experience that is deepening their emotional connection, and-
Alan: 20:10 Do you think somewhere in that is the ability of the kid to have a sense that, “Right now mom is sad.” Or, “Right now mom is angry, and that’s going to be have to be taken into account in the way I relate to her”?
Mike: 20:27 Absolutely, and when we’re sharing these things, it makes all of that much more salient. In theory, you could discern some emotions from a distance, and looking at people’s facial expression and seeing that they were crying and things. But when we’re actually sharing experience together, all of that is much more salient.
Alan: 20:52 I was talking with a few people about the distance we get when we try to communicate digitally, and how many people now feel that’s wanting. And another thing that the digital revolution has given us is more attention sometimes to our devices than to our children. Are we … And I realize I’m asking you to step outside your professional interest probably. But just personally, do you have the sense that we’re in danger of losing important elements that we need to have to bring up a generation that makes the best use of this shared experience you’re talking about, if our eyes are really on our screens and not on our kids?
Mike: 21:47 Yes, I think this is a little above my pay grade. I just don’t know. I’ve never used Facebook myself, so I don’t really have the experience of it. But people post their pictures of their kids, and post pictures of their vacation so that all their friends can see it, and their friends comment and stuff. That doesn’t seem to me inherently bad. It seems to me like they’re doing the same basic thing that they could in theory do in their neighborhood if they … Like in a previous era where people [crosstalk 00:22:20].
Alan: 22:20 We showed home movies-
Mike: 22:22 Exactly, and we were in the [crosstalk 00:22:23].
Alan: 22:23 … to friends who had trouble sleeping.
Mike: 22:26 Right. But it is true that there are … This is why this really needs scientific study, and it’s not my area, but I’ve experienced many times, as probably most people have, that people will say things on email that they would never say to your face. And they-
Alan: 22:41 Like what? What do you mean?
Mike: 22:42 I just mean that people will be more abrupt and nastier sometimes when they’re anonymous, or even when they’re on email. I had a colleague who was all the time ranting on email. And I told him or her that … To say it to the people’s face … And getting in trouble for being nasty on email. And I said, “Well, say it to their face, because the natural experience of looking at someone’s face tones it down a little bit, and you’re more careful about what you say.” So I do think that we need to study this form of communication more. And it’s beginning to happen now, but before we really understand what are the parts that preserve the human cooperative, communication, and sharing. And what are the parts that distort it in ways that work against what we’re trying to do.
Alan: 23:37 As you’ve studied these bases of communication, have you found yourself in your own personal life changing the way you communicate, or considering other aspects? Do you make use of this willingness of people to help, do you point more?
So, if shared experience is the basis of a relationship, could it go even further? Could it alter hostile relations among nations? I ask Michael about that… right after we come back from this short break.
This is C+V, and now back to my conversation with Michael Tomasello
Alan: 24:47 Well, it sounds so much at the heart of what you’ve been talking about in terms of your studies, this notion of a shared experience, and that pointing is really central to that.
Mike: 23:59 Well, good communicators always have what they share with the people they’re talking to, and what they don’t share. So if you’re going to tell somebody about what you do professionally, say, if it’s one of your colleagues where there’s … You have a lot of background shared knowledge about what it means to act on Broadway, and what it means to have director do X or Y, you talk in one way.
And if you’re talking a novice who knows nothing about acting or Broadway, then you would choose a different vocabulary. You would explain yourself more, you would fill in background. And so, all good communicators do that naturally. And I guess maybe I’m a little more aware of it because I realize the critical role it plays, but I don’t know if that helps me or not.
Alan: 25:02 That idea sounds to me like the ability to know your audience in a very acute way. Well, you were just describing knowing your audience. If I’m talking to somebody who knows my work, or you’re talking to somebody who’s experienced in your lab, you’ll have a different language.
Mike: 25:22 Absolutely.
Alan: 25:23 You’ll be very aware of what experiences you do share together, and you’ll change the way you talk as a result of that. That-
Mike: 25:31 But even some of the studies we’ve done with young children, is we give them different experiences with people. For example, we have a study where a child will play with a teddy bear with one experimenter, and then they’ll go in a different room and play with a toy duck with another experimenter. And then they enter a third room, and there are a duck and a teddy bear picture on the wall. And if they enter the room with the one where they’ve shared the teddy bear, they’ll point to the teddy bear, “Look, there’s the thing we played with,” you know what I mean?
And if they enter the room with adult with whom they shared the duck, they’ll point to the duck, “Look, there’s a picture of the duck we were playing with.” So they, already before they are using language in any meaningful, any sophisticated way, they are taking account of the different shared experience they have with different people.
Alan: 26:27 That’s sounds so important to me, and maybe I’m over emphasizing it, but-
Mike: 26:35 I don’t think you’re over emphasizing.
Alan: 26:38 But I think of the ways in which we cooperate with one another. There seem to be huge events that call on our cooperative spirit. Earthquakes, Tsunamis, sometimes hunger. And to me, most notably war, because of the irony involved. We sacrifice ourselves for one another in a war, with the purpose of doing away with the other people who we identify as our enemy. Now, that sounds an awful lot like we don’t share enough experiences with them, that we don’t see their duck on the wall, and we’re only cooperating with the people who shared the duck with us.
Mike: 27:29 Well, the dark side of cooperation as it were, is that in human evolution, as we are evolving to share experience and communicate and cooperate with our group mates, at the same time, because we don’t share experience with the out-group people, those guys across the river over there, we don’t really know about them. They dress funny, they talk funny, they eat disgusting foods. They’re not us.
And so, we huddle together, and we all depend on one another, and we help one another. But the out-group, we’re not so sure about, and this is the dark side of the evolution of human cooperation. Because now, we’re in a world, ever since agriculture and cities starting 10,000 years ago, we’re in a different world now. And this tendency to cooperate with in-group, and to be mistrustful of out-group is … Very likely could be our downfall.
Alan: 28:24 Now that we’ve got the tools to do the most extreme things in response to our warlike impulses. We really can hurt ourselves in serious way.
Mike: 28:36 So in human evolution, I would say there are two main ways that people feel solidarity for one another. The first is by doing things together and having shared experiences, and that’s most basic, and that’s what human infants are already doing. And secondly, later in human evolution we began forming cultures, and we were living in larger groups where we had people that we’d never met before, but they’re still one of us because they talk like us, and they dress like us, and they have the same religion, and they eat the same things. And so, they’re what are sometimes called in-group strangers, but they’re still in-group, they’re still one of us.
And if we’re ever in a war, they’re going to be on my team. And so, that’s based on similarity. Similarity of behavior and actions. So doing things together and sharing experience is one thing, and being similar is another. And this cultural antipathies that we sometimes see are based on they aren’t like us. They don’t talk like us, they worship some weird something that we don’t recognize. And so, based on their lack of similarity to us. But I think if we had more shared experiences, those of us who interact with people from different cultures more often, then you see our commonality much more clearly.
Alan: 29:50 Yes, there have been some interesting attempts over the decades to do something about that. Cultural visits by dance groups, and orchestras, and that kind of thing.
Mike: 30:02 Yes, exactly.
Alan: 30:03 From countries that we were at the time regarding as either our enemies, or at least people we didn’t trust. And the exchange … Foreign students exchange programs.
Mike: 30:17 Exactly.
Alan: 30:18 But they haven’t … Maybe they’ve avoided worse interactions than we’ve experienced, but they certainly haven’t solved the problem. And the other attempts are those notable attempts, like in figuring out that the disagreements and the warfare between northern Ireland and all of the parties involved in that. The effort to find what was common among them, the similarities, the commonalities, those things were very helpful in resolving those issues.
Mike: 30:59 Yes. But I think you’ll find on something where cooperation is really most intense, take a sports team. Or in your case, if you’re going to put on a play or a Broadway show or something. And you’re doing it for weeks, or in the case of sports team maybe a year, or two years. And those people that you’re cooperating with and working with, and trying to achieve a common goal with, you form a personal relationship of a type that I think goes beneath the cultural differences. But those are not easy experiences for the average everyday person to have with a person from a very foreign culture. And especially if you don’t [crosstalk 00:31:42].
Alan: 31:42 The internet was supposed to make that easier to do and bring us closer together. But one of the things it’s done that has been somewhat destructive, is that it’s brought together people who live under the same symbolic flag, even though they’re strangers.
Mike: 31:59 Something that strikes me as being important, is when I was growing up, and that would be more or less the same time you were growing up, we all got our news from one of three sources. We got it from Walter Cronkite, or we got it from Huntley and Brinkley, or we got it from whoever the third one was, ABC, and BCNC, and CBS. And so, everybody had the shared experiences when President Kennedy was shot. We all saw the same TV images, we all sat around our TVs and saw the same thing. And the new talked about our common experience of this thing that happened away from us.
But now, everybody gets their news from a different place, and people read the local news less. Again, when I was growing up, and when you were growing up, there would be the newspaper of the town you were in. And they would have the local news, and everybody would know the things that happened in town because they read the local news, the same local newspaper. Now, we don’t watch the same news shows, and we don’t get the same local newspaper. And so, our experience of these things happening in the country and in other countries are coming from different sources, filtered through different voices. And I think this is something that erodes common experience. The kind of common experience that leads to a feeling of solidarity with your country mates.
Alan: 33:22 This reminds me of a study I read about of yours. And I wonder if it’s related. The idea that … I think you questioned how children believe in things that aren’t true. Do I have that right?
Mike: 33:45 Well, how they understand somebody having false beliefs. How they understand other people, yes.
Alan: 33:50 Is this related to what we were just talking about?
Mike: 33:56 Well, only in the sense that I believe that this, the idea of having a shared experience, is what gives you the idea of people having a different experience of the same thing. This is the sort of shared intentionality interpretation. That if you look out one window of the building, and I look out a different one, we’re just having different experiences. But if I hold up a coffee cup, you see one side of it, and I see the other. So we’re sharing experience to the coffee cup, but each of us has our own perspective. And so, I think this simultaneous sharing experience and sharing intention, but being aware that the other person has a slightly different perspective on it than yourself, they go together. The sharing and the differentiation.
And if chimps, if they don’t really share experience in that way, then they’re just going to see, “He sees something different from me,” or whatever. But not like a different perspective on the same thing. And understanding a false belief is the idea that, “I know the way the world is, or at least I think I do, and you have a false belief about it. So I can see that you have a different perspective than I do, and that is the accurate one.” I think that’s a further development of this same ability of sharing.
Alan: 35:19 I was interested in the idea that the adult is the … I get the impression from reading about your work, that the adult that the child refers to, responds to the pointing, or responds to the shared experience, is more important than that same signal. Say, pointing coming from another child about the same age, is that true?
Mike: 35:58 Yes, that’s true. Humans are cultural creatures, and we are dependent on adults to take care of us. And so, the children really have a … Yes, they have a stake in communicating with the adult in a way that with their peers they don’t initially. But they will later, of course, by the time they’re in school their peers are as important or more important than their parents.
Alan: 36:24 So do you think they get that innately, or do they find out in some kind of trial and error process that they’re not getting very reliable information from another two-year-old?
Mike: 36:35 Yes, I think probably a little bit of both. They recognize that, “That guy is as incompetent as I am,” when they see another little toddler going around, toddling around. But they also get some experience on that as well.
Alan: 36:51 And they’re able to classify the other person. It’s not just this two-year-old, but they put less stock in what any two-year-old tells them, as opposed to the adult.
Mike: 37:06 Yes.
Alan: 37:06 And that sounds like pretty much any adult. Although, maybe a parent with the advantage of bonding has an edge over a stranger.
Mike: 37:13 Well, we even have a little experiment where … In that study that I mentioned before, about where somebody points to where the food is hidden, and little two-year-old children will believe an adult and respond to the adult much more than they will to another two-year-old.
Alan: 37:29 Are there things we can learn about communicating, about relating to one another that we ought to pay attention to, to have better relating, better communicating? Things we can learn from your work, do you think?
Mike: 37:47 I guess I would just emphasize, more than anything else, the context. That language is like floating on the surface of our relating, and it’s trying to direct the relating a certain way, and all that. But it really depends on our shared experiences, our different perspectives, and our sense of we as we cooperate together or not, as the case may be. And I guess that’s what I would emphasize more than anything. For example, in school settings I would be an advocate for more of a peer cooperative kind of learning experiences, which a lot of schools are doing now.
Alan: 38:36 What does that mean?
Mike: 38:37 That means that the teacher is setting up problems, then groups of children are then working on, rather than the isolated child at his or her desk working away.
Alan: 38:48 And how does that make use of your research?
Mike: 38:52 Because the more you share experience with people, and the more you do things together with people toward a common goal, the feeling of teamwork that, “We did this together,” is a very strong bonding experience. And so, again, there’s a fair amount of this in schools already. And it depends on the school, but if we could get that going across the cultural lines that are in our schools, and the socioeconomic lines that are in our schools, we might get … Start building a foundation for a little more understanding across these categories that otherwise might divide us.
Alan: 39:33 I guess it depends, for it to work at its best level, on a teacher overseeing the interaction or making sure the interaction is really taking place. I remember with my own children, and in my own life, when one of … As a student I would be asked to collaborate with another student on a project, to make diorama or something like that. As soon as it became clear to me that the other kid really knew how to do it, and I really didn’t know how to do it, the other kid did it. And I just had my name on it, but that didn’t mean that I was learning much about the project. Maybe I was learning about cooperating, because a good way to cooperate is to get the best out of the other person that you possibly can.
Mike: 40:28 Well, and another thing is when you reason about things. So one of the things that some people have done, is given these kind of, whether moral dilemmas or certain … That we’re supposed to come to a consensus about, “What should we do in this kind of situation? Let’s have a group discussion.” Because when you engage another person in reasoning and discussion, it’s a fundamentally cooperative enterprise because both of you are essentially saying that, “We are both ready to go with whatever the best reasons are, whatever the best outcome we can come to from the point of view of the evidence and the logic involved.” Or at least some of us are, maybe not everyone, but-
Alan: 41:14 Well, reason, like a lot of other things, like a lot of other tools can be used to hoodwink you, or to lead you down a path that’s not really in your best interest, that doesn’t conform with the truth necessarily.
Mike: 41:26 That’s true, but like the … and we can use communication, and we can use pointing and language to lie and deceive as well. But that’s a secondary function, and it actually is parasitic on the cooperative one. If nobody trusted anybody, then lying would never work. The lying works because people are generally … Believe other people because they’re generally trustworthy. And so, with reasoning I would say the same thing, is that if you’re in a situation where we’re cooperating to get the right answer, so we need to come up with the best answer to get the goal that we want to get. Then we don’t have any reason to lie or deceive, though lying and deceiving comes in situations where our interests are different, and I’m trying to get something out of you that you wouldn’t otherwise do.
So again, I think that … You were talking about the teacher structuring the situation, the teacher structures the situation so that you have collaborative goals, and it’s in both of your interest to come up with the best solution regardless of whose idea it is or whatever.
Alan: 42:31 And as you were saying that just now, you used the word trust, which seems to me to be really important as an element of good communication. If I see you as the person who wears the hat that I know people wear who are always lying to me, or I see a cut on your clothing or hair cut, which was very exaggerated in the ’60s when half of the country wore very long hair, and half of the country had crew-cuts, and you knew what their opinion was about war by looking at them. Or at least you thought you did. If trust is eroded by the signs that we belong to the other, that we are the other, it sounds like it’s a subversion of the very thing we’ve been talking about from the beginning of, I point at something that I think is significant, and you look at it, and you try to figure out what the significance is and follow up on that in a collaborative way with me. And if I don’t trust you, I’m not even going to pay much attention to your point.
Mike: 43:43 That’s absolutely true. The basis, though, is that we trust people with whom we’re working toward a common goal that benefits both of us, number one. And then, number two, as we get up to the level of a culture, we trust the people that share our way of life and that have our general values and goals. And again, as I say, the dark side of cooperation is that people who are not part of our community, that share our values and goals we’re just not sure about. Some of the research, that’s not my research, but some of the research with young children seems to show that the basics of that is an in-group favoritism. That I favor my group, and I trust my group, but not necessarily a negative toward the out-group. Just, I don’t really know about them. I’m not unsure about them. Maybe I trust them a little less because I don’t know them, but maybe I’m just favoring my group.
So again, we’re back to the dark side of cooperation, which is, it does depend on trust, and I trust people with whom I have shared experience, with whom I have shared values with, whom I can communicate in a straightforward way. And the people that speak a different language, and worship a different … In a different religion and so forth, I’m just not sure if I share values and ways of life with them.
Alan: 45:04 Well, I got to say, I trust you. You sound very reasonable to me, and I love hearing that the practical things that I spend a lot of my life on lately, helping to improve communication, are based in things that you’ve really been finding the sources of. Which I find immensely interesting, and again, the growth of the sense of community that may begin with pointing at something, or is … That’s at the early stage of that growth of community. That is in itself the birth of communication and birth of, as you say, the sense of we.
Mike: 45:56 Yes. Again, I would stress that the sense of we, forms the background and infrastructure for, “We are communicating,” which gives the significance to the pointing gesture, and which sets up the trust that you’re trying to tell me something that’s being interesting or important to me. And so, it’s the shared intentionality, the we-ness that is the really most basic, and that is the evolutionarily primary, and [inaudible 00:46:28] and developmentally in children primary.
And we are naturally cooperative, but we’re naturally cooperative with those that we share things with. And when the people that we don’t share things with, if we’re going to end up being cooperative with them in the ways that we all would like, we’re going to have to work on that, we’re going to have to find new ways to make that happen.
Alan: 46:52 And the funny thing is, we share so much that we ignore the commonality of just being human. Having children, eating, sleeping, we share things with one another that we don’t share with any other living things to such a great extent.
Mike: 47:15 Well, just exposure is already, I think, already helpful because you see the things you share with those people. All my anthropologist friends, and I’ve had some experiences myself. But when you go to cultures that are very different from ours, that are almost hunter/gatherer cultures, very on the land and whatever. No technology, and no literacy, and all of that. For me, the thing that always strikes me the most is how similar we all are. You would think that us coming from computers and all of that stuff, that it would be completely different, but it’s not. You sit around the fire and you talk, and you communicate as you can. And we’re all humans, and the more experience you have, the more I think you see that commonality.
And as I’ve read some of the surveys on people’s attitude toward immigration, one of the things that seems to be coming about, is the people who are most afraid of immigration, or the people who have least experience with recent immigrants, and the people from more cosmopolitan and multicultural parts of the country are more positive about it. So I think experience in every way we can get it leads to more perception of commonalities, and possibly to share experiences. And that’s something that we should try to facilitate if we can.
Alan: 48:43 That’s great. We’ve come to the end of our time, but I wonder if you’d be willing to take part in our seven quick questions that we end every show with. It’s seven quick questions basically related to communicating.
Mike: 48:57 Okay. [crosstalk 00:48:58].
Alan: 48:57 And you’re invited to give a quick answer.
Mike: 49:00 Okay.
Alan: 49:01 Okay, what do you wish you really understood?
Mike: 49:07 I wish I really understood cultural differences. I’m always afraid that I’m viewing it through my own cultural lens, and that I’m not really getting it. But I wish I could really see the different cultural points of view somehow more clearly.
Alan: 49:23 What do you wish other people understood about you?
Mike: 49:27 I’m drawing a blank.
Alan: 49:36 It’s so funny, every one of these questions causes somebody to draw a blank.
Mike: 49:41 I’m just plugging away and doing my best to try to figure out how things work. That’s all.
Alan: 49:48 The next question may have some relevance. What’s the strangest question anyone has ever asked you?
Mike: 49:56 Yes, that last one is pretty much up there.
Alan: 50:00 How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Mike: 50:03 Gosh, okay, that’s the new candidate for the strangest question.
Alan: 50:19 Do you try to stop a compulsive talker? Maybe you just enjoy the experience and commonality.
Mike: 50:24 Yes, just tune out. Just tune out and let them keep talking.
Alan: 50:28 Okay. Is there anyone for whom you just can’t feel empathy?
Mike: 50:36 Well, it’s interesting. My wife and I both study some of these kinds of things, and we both show … Like to think we’re empathetic toward all kinds of things, but a roach runs across the floor and I just stomp it. And she thinks I’m really turned off my empathy module there for that. Because she just, “How can you just stomp on a roach?” And I say, “I’ve been doing it my whole life. I grew up with roaches, and I’m doing it.” So I can’t quite get empathy for roaches.
Alan: 51:06 Okay. I was mainly talking about people, but I’ll take that answer. The next question is, how do you like to deliver bad news? In person, on the phone, or by carrier pigeon?
Mike: 51:22 Well, in person is always the best. In person-
Alan: 51:24 Yes, everybody says that. The question is, how do you like to do it?
Mike: 51:28 I like to do it in person because you can get the person’s reaction and respond to it, and yes, and empathize and be there as you need to be, and email just doesn’t do it.
Alan: 51:44 Right. Okay, last question. What, if anything, would make you end a friendship?
Mike: 51:53 Yes, I think that’s pretty straightforward. It’s a betrayal of trust. You put trust into people, and when people trust you, you have to live up to it. And if you don’t live up to it, then that’s going to cause serious damage. So I think that’s the prototype.
Alan: 52:11 Great. Michael, it’s been really interesting and fun to talk with you. It brings me back to the days we spent in Leipzig when I first met you a few years ago. And I’m so glad you’re doing your work, and thank you so much for talking with us about it today.
Mike: 52:26 Okay, thank you very much, Alan.
Alan: 52:28 Thank you, bye-bye.
Mike: 52:30 Bye.
Alan: 52:32 That was so nice, thanks so much [crosstalk 00:52:34].
Mike: 52:33 Thanks, Alan. You actually forgot the first time we met. We met when you did Primetime Primates at Yerkes.
Alan: 52:42 Oh, I did forget that. Yes.
Mike: 52:44 Yes, it’s significant for me, because my mother was always dubious about what I did for a living. Thought I was a perpetual student or something when I first got my job. And then she saw me on TV with you, and I was legitimate. From then on she thought what I did must be important. If Alan Alda thinks it’s interesting and important, then it must be.
Alan: 53:06 That’s great, thanks so much. Great talking with you today.
Mike: 53:09 All right. Thanks, Alan. Bye.

This has been Clear + Vivid, at least I hope so.

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Michael Tomasello is the principal investigator at the world renowned Tomasello Lab at Duke University.
Michael and the researchers at the Lab study what makes humans uniquely human! And they study how and why young children develop the social and cognitive skills that enable them to become cooperative and communicative adults. They also study how the presence and development of these skills differ between young human children and great apes like chimpanzees and bonobos.

Michael’s latest book “Becoming Human: A theory of Ontogeny” is available through Harvard University Press and offers a radical reconsideration of how we develop the qualities that make us human, based on Michael’s decades of cutting-edge experimental work when he was the head of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

You can find out more about Michael, his book, and current research at: sites.duke.edu/tomasellolabduke/

This episode was produced by Graham Chedd with help from our associate producer, Sarah Chase. Our sound engineer is Dan Dzula, our Tech Guru is Allison Coston, our publicist is Sarah Hill.

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Thanks for listening. Bye bye!