Leadership Lessons from the Story of Clever Hans

I’ve had several dogs in my life, but Toto is easily the smartest. That doesn’t mean that she’s smart like my grandson. She’s just smart for a dog. Everybody knows that animals aren’t as smart as people.

Well, not really everyone. In the 19th century, Wilhelm von Osten believed animals were as smart as people. He thought all they needed was training.

Von Osten spent a lot of time and energy trying to teach various animals, including a cat and a bear, how to do arithmetic. He failed. Undaunted, he tried teaching the same thing to his horse. That seemed to work.

In 1891, von Osten displayed his horse, now called “Clever Hans,” before the public. He claimed Hans could answer questions by tapping his hoof. Von Osten would write an arithmetic problem on the chalkboard and Hans would tap out the answer.

It amazed crowds. Hans’ fame spread around the world. In September 1904, the New York Times published a story on “Berlin’s Wonderful Horse.” The Times quoted several scientists, who endorsed Clever Hans and his math skills. One even said Hans had the arithmetical knowledge of a human 14-year-old.

There were still skeptics. Psychologist Carl Stumpf convened a group of experts to investigate. “The Hans Commission” included a veterinarian, a cavalry officer, a circus manager, the director of the Berlin Zoo, and other experts.

They were sure that von Osten was performing a sophisticated trick. When they couldn't figure it out, they concluded that Clever Hans was actually solving arithmetic problems.

The commission passed their findings to psychologist Oskar Pfundt. He noticed that the commission had tested Hans by asking to perform when his trainer, von Osten, was out of the room. But he also noticed that they didn’t test the horse when the horse was alone in the room.

So, Pfundt tested Hans by writing the problem on the chalkboard and leaving the room. Alas, in that situation, Hans was not so clever. Pfundt concluded that Hans wasn’t good at arithmetic, but he was great at reading subtle, unconscious body language cues from nearby humans.

Oskar Pfundt discovered that "people can unconsciously communicate information to others by subtle movements and that some animals can perceive these unconscious movements." Psychologists now call that "The Clever Hans Phenomenon." This is one of the first examples of studying nonverbal communication.

If you’re a leader, though, let’s reduce what we can take out of the Clever Hans story to three rules.

Clever Hans Rule #1 For Leaders:

The way you act can convey powerful messages to the people who work with you, even if you don’t intend to send those messages. Your team members observe you intently, looking for clues about how to act.

Clever Hans Rule #2 For Leaders:

Eminent experts can get it wrong. Investigate further if a "scientific" finding doesn't seem right to you. Try things out for yourself.

Clever Hans Rule #3 For Leaders:

Evidence has no power if you don’t accept it and act on it. Wilhelm von Osten still believed Clever Hans could do arithmetic, despite the scientific evidence. He kept on exhibiting Clever Hans and his magical mathematical feats to eager audiences, who kept showing up to see Clever Hans until von Osten died in 1909.