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Clever Hans

25 Jun 2020
Hans The Horse

By the time he was four years old, Hans could divide, multiply, calculate square roots, spell words, read, give the time and date, differentiate between musical tones and name colours. He was clearly a genius. He was also a horse.

Hans was owned by Wilhelm von Osten and by 1891 the wonder horse was wowing audiences all over Germany. His popularity was so great that the government appointed a committee to test him. 

They consisted of experts on equine intelligence, a vet, the director of a zoo, a psychologist, a horseman and a number of teachers. Their conclusion was a bombshell: no tricks were involved. Whoever asked him a question, Hans could answer by tapping his foot.

Puzzled, they extended the tests. Hans answered correctly with or without an audience or von Osten being present. But when the human asking the question didn’t know the answer, Hans didn’t either. Was he a mind reader? Then came the clincher: if the questioner knew the answer but asked it from behind a curtain, Hans was stumped.

The conclusion? Hans was watching his questioners, who unconsciously made small head movements when it was time to tap. Hans was no wonder horse, it was concluded. Matter settled.

Dusting off the case in a new book, Animal Languages: The secret conversations of the natural world, animal philisopher Eva Meijer points out that Hans’ real genius was the ability to read miniscule changes in human body language and facial movement – far beyond that of humans. She says it raises all kinds of questions about animal intelligence and empathatic communication.

Empathy is all about mirror neurons in the brain that recreate the emotional state of another creature to feel where they’re at. It’s the mark of sentience. Elephants have them, so do dolphins, dogs, parrots and crows, for a start. Hans clearly had a good few.

Von Osten continued to give Clever Hans shows throughout Germany, never charging admission. After he died in 1909, Hans was acquired by several owners. After 1916, there is no record of him and his fate remains unknown. He lives on as a pehenomenon in experimental psychology known as the Clever Hans Effect.

The takeaway message: Never think you can lie to your dog or deceive your cat. They’re watching you more closely than you realise.

About the Author:


Dr Don Pinnock is an investigative journalist and photographer who, some time back, realised he knew little about the natural world. So he set out to discover it. This took him to five continents – including Antarctica – and resulted in five books on natural history and hundreds of articles. The Last Elephants, published this year with Colin Bell, is his 18th book.

His other books include:

Gang Town, which won the City Press Tafelberg Non-Fiction award,
Writing Left, a biography of the journalist Ruth First.
Voices of liberation
The Brotherhoods,
Gangs, Rituals & Rites of passage
Rainmaker, a novel shortlisted for the 2009 European Union Literary Award.
Natural Selections,
African Journeys,
Just add dust,
Loveletters to Africa,
Blue Ice: Travels in Antarctica,
The Woman who Lived in a Tree and Other Perfect Strangers.
Wild as it Gets,
He has degrees in criminology, political science and African history and is a former editor of Getaway travel magazine.

He was one of the primary drafters of the White Paper that became the Child Justice Act, a trustee of the Chrysalis Academy for high-risk youths, a board member of Wilderness Foundation Africa, a member of the Conservation Action Trust and was the facilitator of the Western Cape Government’s gang strategy roadmap.

His day job is as environmental investigative journalist.