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Clever Hans, the Horse Who Could Count

Clever HansA lot of good tales came out of Germany, in the 1800s. Let’s see, there was Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty and The Frog Prince. But not all of the great stories were fairy tales transcribed by The Brothers Grimm. One of my favorite stories to come out of Germany in that era, is the tale of Clever Hans. But what makes it all the more special is this: It’s not a fairy tale, it’s a true story! Fasten your seatbelts and lend an ear to one of my favorite horse stories . . . of all time!

Clever Who?

HansWilhelm Von Osten, who was, among other things, a high school mathematics teacher, owned a horse named Clever Hans, who was, among other things, an unusual breed called the Orlov Trotter. In the late 1800s, Wilhelm Von Osten was hard at work testing new mathematical theories and generally trying to be a man of science. He had a background in engineering, but spent a good deal of time studying phrenology, the pseudoscience that essentially believed that we could tell all kinds of things about intelligence and personality by measuring and studying the lumps and bumps of a human skull. Von Osten also bought his first horse, during that time, and named it Hans. Yeah, that horse part doesn’t seem to tie into the science part, but trust me, it does! Von Osten wasn’t just interested in human intelligence. He also pondered the intelligence of animals.

Von Osten, being a man of science and a math teacher, decided to experiment with Hans’ intelligence, and began tutoring Hans in mathematics. And Hans showed some aptitude! It was not long before Von Osten realized that he had more than an ordinary horse named Hans on his hands. He had a very “Clever Hans,” and he gave him that name, after a character in a Grimm’s fairy tale.

Clever HansClever Hans soon learned to count. He could use his hoof to tap out the numbers Von Osten would write on a blackboard. As a public school teacher who was probably accustomed to the blank stares of his students, that had to fill Von Osten’s heart with joy! He had a horse that could recognize numerals 1-9! So, Von Osten stepped up the program.

Before long, Von Osten was training Clever Hans to solve a variety of mathematical problems. He was convinced his horse could even understand square roots and fractions, which, to be honest, can still give me fits! Clever Hans was even said to be able to spell, read, tell time, and understand German, which is not the simplest of languages. He did all of this by tapping out the appropriate answer.

Taking the Show on the Road

Hans in a crowdWhat would you do if you were convinced you had the world’s most clever horse? You guessed it . . . Von Osten took his show on the road! Clever Hans began trotting around Germany, tapping out his answers and astounding audiences. The word spread. Crowds gathered. And Clever Hans just kept tapping away! Clever Hans could answer both written and oral questions. If he had been a child, he would have been tapping at a ninth grade level!

Of course, not everyone believed the horse was actually solving the problems. When the New York Times published a front-page story about Hans, people wanted verification. So, Germany’s board of education formed the Hans Commission to put Clever Hans to the test. The Hans Commission consisted of educators, a psychologist, a horse trainer, a couple of zoologists, and a circus manager who was thrown in for good measure. That was okie-dokie with Von Osten, who was, after all, a man of science. He had nothing to hide! In 1904, the horse was examined and found to be answering correctly approximately 89% of the time, with no trickery involved.

The Clever Hans Effect

HansThe Hans Commission then contacted psychologist Oskar Pfungst, who thought he could provide some insight into Clever Hans’ mad math skills. Pfungst erected a large tent to serve as a sort of isolation booth for his experiments. He compiled a long list of questions. He considered the variables. And, he began testing Clever Hans.

Clever Hans did amazingly well when Wilhelm Von Osten asked the questions. But, then again, he did amazingly well with other questioners. Then, Pfungst threw a monkey wrench into the works. He had the questioners stand farther away. Clever Hans’ ability to answer correctly decreased, although it was still a pretty impressive percentage for a horse.

Hans6Next, Pfungst wanted to see what would happen if the questioner didn’t know the answer to the questions in advance. What happened was that Clever Hans didn’t know the answers to the questions! His grade dropped from a B+ to a Z-! Pfungst studied what happened when the questioner knew the answer, but was hidden from Clever Hans when asking the question. Again, it was discovered that Hans went from Clever Hans to Remedial Hans. Poor Hans.

Pfungst changed the direction of his experiments. He began studying the questioners. What he learned was that the questioners’ breathing, facial expressions, and posture changed each time Clever Hans tapped his hoof. When Clever Hans tapped off the correct answer, the tension disappeared from each questioner’s face. When the questioner did not know the answer in advance, there was no tension.

Von OustenWhile this indicated that Clever Hans had no grasp of math (That’s okay, Hans. Neither do I!), it did show that Clever Hans was a whiz at reading non-verbal cues! Even when the questioners attempted to suppress their non-verbal cues, Clever Hans could still pick up on them.

Today, the term “Clever Hans Effect” is still used by psychologists to describe how a questioner’s intentional or unintentional non-verbal cues can influence a subject. It has led to the “double-blind method” of scientific experimentation, in which researchers and subjects are unaware of many of the details of an experiment until the results have been recorded.

Is a Horse a Horse, of Course of Course?

The Clever Hans EffectWilhelm Von Osten couldn’t accept that his horse wasn’t academically gifted. Remember, he never intended to mislead anyone and Clever Hans did appear to be performing math problems. At any rate, the story of Clever Hans is no fairy tale. The horse had game! And, I believe that any creature that could read non-verbal cues with the expertise of an FBI profiler is still mighty impressive.

You see, a horse is a horse, of course, of course, and no one can talk to a horse of course. That is, of course, unless the horse is the famous Clever Hans. (May the writers of the “Mister Ed” theme song forgive me, but that slight alteration of the original lyrics seemed apropos!)

Happy Trails, y’all!
Anita Lequoia

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