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Do elephants <i>really</i> never forget? The truth about proverbs

Ever wondered if the grass really is greener? Or if beauty always must be in the eye of the beholder? The psychologist Geoff Rolls explains which everyday phrases contain real pearls of wisdom &ndash; and which are just a load of the proverbial

Monday 12 November 2007 01:00 GMT

An elephant never forgets

Every one of us would like to have a better memory, but would it really be advantageous to have a memory like an elephant? Does an elephant really have a good memory?

Elephants certainly have large brains, which may increase their memory capacity and aid their complex patterns of communication. It is not easy to measure with precision the memory span of an elephant; many working elephants can learn and remember a large number of commands. They also appear to recognise many humans, as well as individuals of their own species – even when separated from them for decades.

In the wild, herds of elephants tend to follow similar paths over the years, suggesting that memories are passed down through the generations. It is said that elephant herds have specific burial places and that they help their sick and infirm to return there to die. Elephant remains are often found in groups near water sources; however, this may be simply because malnourished elephants seek water in the hope of improving their condition. Elderly elephants gravitate towards the same water sources when their teeth become worn, as water plants are softer to eat, and many die there near the remains of others. So herds may remember the locations of water sources, but not primarily because of any elephant remains that may be there.

Some elephants have better memories than others. In 2001, a research team led by Karen McComb studied 21 elephant families over a seven-year period in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. They found that the matriarchs leading the herds develop strong "social" memories that enable them to distinguish friends from foes by smell and by contact calls; the older the matriarch, the better her skills. The research confirmed that the better a matriarch is at recognising friends, the more time other family members have to feed and breed in safety and the more calves they produce.

So do elephants have better memories than other animals? One animal whose memory might rival that of the elephant is the Clark's nutcracker bird of the high mountain regions of the American West, which hoards food for the winter. In the autumn, each bird stashes away up to 100,000 pine seeds in thousands of different caches, with only five to 10 seeds in each to minimise squirrel theft. The hiding places are dotted around an area of 20km2. Some six months later, the bird finds all these stockpiles, even if the sites are a metre deep in snow.

I think we can agree that elephants – particularly the matriarchs – do have good memories. Whether they deserve their status as the memory experts of the animal kingdom is doubtful: they have a serious rival in Clark's nutcracker bird. The word "birdbrain", implying limited intelligence, may not be such an insult after all.

If your memory continues to let you down, console yourself with the fact that it may not be advantageous to have a brilliant memory to the exclusion of other thought processes. Rest assured that forgetting is an essential part of life; those that can't forget may suffer from as many problems as those that can't remember. Unfortunately, though, you may not remember that.

Like father, like son

Why is it that sons turn out like their fathers – and daughters like their mothers, since a complementary proverb exists for them? According to social learning theory, it is because they learn through imitation and observation. Sons copy their fathers' behaviour and receive "reinforcers" if they are successful. Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura showed that children are far more likely to copy behaviour that is seen as appropriate for their gender: boys receive reinforcers when they show independence, self-reliance and emotional control; girls are reinforced for dependence, nurturance and emotional expression. The "like father, like son" saying may also be explained by family systems theory, where a child's talent is viewed as his or her adaptation to the wider family's interactions. Family influence comes not only from relatives but also from factors such as birth order, age of parents, labelling and gender; their combined effect is a child who ends up following in a parent's footsteps.

A study compared fathers' and sons' earnings when they were both aged 40 and discovered a strong positive relationship between the two. This was particularly true for very high and very low wage earners and it was most marked in the United States. Incidentally, although some Americans pride themselves as living in an open "meritocracy", family influence remains strong in the States, and there have already been two pairs of father-and-son presidents (John and John Quincy Adams and George and George W Bush). So desperate were these fathers for their sons to be like them that they even gave them the same first names.

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Do sons turn out like their fathers in terms of their sexuality? What happens when a son is brought up in the absence of a father? Researchers in Belgium compared children who had been brought up by heterosexual couples with those brought up by lesbian couples. No differences were found between the two groups with regard to the psychological wellbeing or sexuality of the child. Research suggests that love and stability are the key factors in a child's upbringing, not the gender or sexuality of the parents.

So in what ways do sons resemble their fathers? Generally, research has shown that the closer the genetic relationship between two people, the stronger the relationship between their intelligence quotient (IQ) scores. To what extent may this be the case with fathers and sons? This question is tricky to answer, since people who are genetically related also tend to share similar environments and thus the two influences are difficult to disentangle. However, one way of investigating the question is to focus on adopted children. Where a correlation of 1.0 would indicate that all fathers and sons have identical IQ scores, a researcher found an average correlation of 0.48 between adopted children and their biological parents – and 0.19 between adopted children and their adoptive parents. This suggests that children's intelligence levels are more closely related to their biological parents.

The personality and attitude of fathers also seems to be reflected in their sons, but to a lesser extent; here, the father-son links seem less marked than the mother-daughter links, perhaps reflecting the differences between male and female relationships.

Too many studies have confirmed the "like father, like son" finding with regard to criminality for it to be ignored. However, the results do not suggest that a father's wayward behaviour inevitably determines his son's future behaviour; many boys brought up in the most depressing parental circumstances do not become like their fathers. It is likely that other environmental factors play a significant part – for example, family size, socioeconomic status and family income.

If a father smokes, it's much more likely that his son will too, though the link was less marked when the child reached adulthood. No similar link was found between the smoking habits of mothers and daughters. Drug use by fathers has also been found to be related to drug use by their adolescent sons.

In fact, the influence of parents compared to that of peers is believed to be stronger than we might assume. In a study of university students, their drinking behaviour over the first two years was most dependent on parental influence, and peer influence became more important thereafter (Standing and Nicholson, 1989).

Given the results of all this research, it seems important that you choose your parents carefully. Select a father who is healthy, wealthy and wise, and it's likely that you will end up much the same.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

These days, many relationships have to endure separation: employers often expect their staff to travel long distances and few of us are able to find local jobs. Separation can be a worry, however, since long-distance relationships are notoriously difficult to maintain. Can we take comfort from the proverb "Absence makes the heart grow fonder", or is it more a case of "Out of sight, out of mind"?

The outlook appears to be mixed. Absence can make the heart grow fonder if the separation is short and the relationship strong and deep. "Absence diminishes mediocre passions and increases great ones, as the wind blows out candles and fans fires", wrote François Rochefoucauld (1613-80). So before you agree on time away from your partner, decide whether your relationship is a candle or a fire.

Don't risk extinguishing it by living apart for an extended period of time. Instead of absence making the heart grow fonder, you may risk the heart going yonder.

Research has shown that communication by phone, email and video conferencing is less effective than face-to-face communication; visual contact is vital and misunderstandings may arise without it. However, if weekday communication in your relationship consists of a nightly 10-minute phone call, it's not all bad news. Couples who experience separation are more likely to discuss their relationship and their plans for the future than couples who spend all their time together. Long-distance communication also enables partners to present themselves to one another in the best possible light. This "idealisation" of your partner isn't so easy when you see them daily, sprawled untidily on the settee.

The proverb "Absence makes the heart grow fonder" is certainly true for men with regard to interest in sex. In 1999, a study of 2,000 heterosexual men found that the longer a man's absence from his partner, the keener his sexual desire for her. This was the case whether or not the couple had sex when last they were together, indicating that a man's increased desire does not arise from sexual frustration but is a genuine product of the length of the separation.

This fact has its origins in the phenomenon of "sperm competition", as observed in birds, insects and non-human primates. It occurs when there's a chance that the sperm of two or more males might compete in the reproductive tract of a partner. The "absence" time is the period when the male cannot be sure that the female hasn't been having sex with others, which would reduce his chance of reproductive success. Hence a man's ardour after a period of absence.

Amazingly, this is reflected in his sperm count. The average count for a man who has spent 100 per cent of the time with his partner since last having sex is 350 million. This rises to 800 million when he has only seen her for 5 per cent of that time, regardless of the length of time since they last had sex.

Absence may also make the heart grow fonder for long-lost loves. Passionate relationships that began at or around the age of 17 can, when rekindled many years later, be undiminished by the length of the separation. In fact, first love may be a time-bomb that is waiting to explode. Research by Nancy Kalish involving 2,000 long-lost and reunited loves found a 72 per cent "stay together" rate. Only 1.5 per cent of the resulting marriages failed.

These statistics are attributable in part to specific features of the adolescent brain, which has heightened amounts of the hormones testosterone and progesterone – both implicated in sexual intensity levels. These hormones set the stage for a once-in-a-lifetime sexual relationship that is not easily quashed by years of separation.

Another reason for the intensity of recovered long-lost relationships is "frustration attraction". First loves are often disapproved of by parents and/or peers and these threats to the relationship can increase the feelings of longing. Passionate love generates dopamine-producing neurons that persist and motivate people to seek out the object of their first love and it is now very easy to locate him or her simply by typing a name into Google. However, resurrecting the past in this way may be a dangerous game: the flames, once rekindled, may be difficult to extinguish.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Humanity has been debating the principles of aesthetics, or "good taste", for thousands of years now, but beauty still defies objective measurement. The philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) questioned whether something can possess an objective property that makes it beautiful, only to conclude that, although everyone accepts that beauty exists, no one has ever agreed on the precise criteria by which it may be judged.

The Ancient Greeks, however, believed that facial beauty had specific characteristics. Plato wrote of the "golden proportion", according to which the width of the face should be two-thirds of its length – preferably accompanied by a nose no longer than the distance between the eyes. If Plato's hypothesis rings true, you may wish to take a ruler on your next date.

Symmetry has been proved to be inherently attractive to the human eye. So a face does not necessarily seem beautiful because of its proportions, as Plato suggested, but because of the similarity between its left and right sides. Babies spend more time looking at symmetrical faces than at asymmetrical faces. Faces that are "averaged" to create a photographic composite, and thus hide any asymmetries, are rated by adults as far more attractive than individual pictures.

On the other hand, psychologists in Scotland have recently proposed that beauty may be in the eye of the "beer holder" rather than the beholder. In a study involving students in 2003, they tested whether members of the opposite sex were rated as more attractive after the consumption of alcohol: unsurprisingly, they were. Both men and women who had drunk a moderate amount of alcohol rated members of the opposite sex as 25 per cent more attractive than did a sober group. It was concluded that the so-called "beer goggles effect" is caused by alcohol stimulating the nucleus accumbens, which is the part of the brain used to assess facial attractiveness.

Although it seems unclear whether there is universal agreement on what constitutes beauty, there is certainly some agreement that facial symmetry is one important factor. In the meantime, if you look at your partner and you consider him or her beautiful (which, of course, you should), you can congratulate yourself with the thought that people generally end up with a partner of a similar level of attractiveness as themselves.

The grass is always greener

It is appropriate that green should play the leading role in this proverb about jealousy since this colour has long been associated with envy, "the green-eyed monster" (Shakespeare, Othello, Act III Scene 3).

As far as the way we perceive things is concerned, the proverb is unequivocally true. According to James Pomerantz (1983), the illusion that the more distant grass is greener is a consequence of optics. When you look at the grass under your feet, you view it at an angle that is more or less perpendicular to the ground below. This "desaturates" the green, making it less intense. Meanwhile, the more acute the angle at which you view your neighbour's lawn, the less of the brown ground you can see. Green therefore dominates your perceptual experience, and your neighbour's lawn does indeed appear greener than yours.

But proverbs aren't meant to be taken literally. This proverb makes a strong statement that signals dissatisfaction, envy and jealousy – and thereby acts as a universal warning against these emotions, which can be potentially harmful.

We are rarely happy with what we have. Psychologists describe a "greener grass" phenomenon whereby individuals constantly evaluate better alternatives for themselves and as a result are never satisfied with what they have. Perhaps this explains the familiar scenario of disillusioned Britons moving abroad, only to discover that the grass is actually greener here (probably because we have so much rain in Britain). Like Pomerantz in his study of optics, they may realise that the vision they had been focusing on is not, in reality, true to life. We are often our own sternest critics and may judge too harshly all that we are and all that we have. From our distant perspective, everything in someone else's garden is lovely and we cannot see the dusty soil of our neighbours' problems.

The proverb is often used in the study of relationships, and ever-increasing divorce rates may be attributable in part to the "greener grass" illusion. In this setting, too, the intense greenness of someone else's grass is often an illusion. Research (Kposowa, 2000) suggests that men who divorce have far more health problems than those who remain married, and that women who divorce experience a drop in income of about 30 per cent.

So what positive points can we derive from this proverb, which draws attention to such potentially destructive emotions? Although envy can destroy goodness, it can also be a source of motivation to try to achieve what our neighbour has achieved – and this could be something admirable, such as the ability to help and care for others, or the capacity for hard work. And there's no harm in wanting to be better. Freud, writing to Einstein, stated that "envy need not be something ugly. Envy can include admiration and is reconcilable with the friendliest feeling for the person envied." We envy most what we ourselves lack, and envy can help us to identify our needs.

Yet there is one strategy that may be healthier still: to look more closely at the grass that you are standing on now. Sometimes you may realise that it is actually greenest right under your feet. If it looks a bit jaded, get some fertiliser and work on it. While we are constantly on the lookout for something better, we often miss the value of who and where we are now. You can always comfort yourself with the thought that at least the grass you're standing on probably needs less mowing than the lush field on the other side of the fence.

First impressions count

Everyone knows the importance of making a good first impression – and the success of speed dating, where you chat to a prospective partner for three minutes before moving on to the next, is based on the assumption that this proverb is true. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink (2006), writes about "rapid thinking" that occurs in the blink of an eye. He suggests that first impressions formed in the first two seconds of an encounter are incredibly powerful and accurate and recommends that we pay more attention to our first impressions.

Our first impressions result from the evaluation of numerous clues. Factors that are thought to contribute to a good first impression include maintaining eye contact, smiling, showing appreciation of others, adopting appropriate levels of self-disclosure and maintaining fluency in conversation. A negative tone of voice, an unpleasant odour, untidy hair, weak handshake, stooped demeanour and creased clothes all contribute to an unfavourable overall impression that is far larger than the sum of its parts.

The saying "First impressions count" relates to the "primacy effect", which suggests that our first impressions of someone make a far greater impact on us than later information that contradicts them. In 1968, a researcher called Jones asked volunteers to watch a student take a 30-question test. Half the observers saw the student get the first 15 questions right and the remainder wrong; the other half saw the student get the first 15 questions wrong and the remainder right. When asked to estimate how many questions the student answered correctly, those who saw him answer the first 15 questions correctly (favourable first impression) estimated that he had answered 20 of the 30 questions correctly; those who saw the student answer the last 15 questions correctly estimated that he had scored 12 out of 30. The initial impression that the student was clever had the greater impact.

Some psychologists believe that it's neither first nor last impressions but "weighted averaging" that counts: we assimilate all the information we have about a person, and then produce an average. Negative information is given slightly more weight than positive information, and a negative first impression is slightly more difficult to change than a positive one.

As you weigh up all this research evidence, it's worth remembering three points. First, you need to remember that many factors play a part in the relative accuracy of a first impression. For example, those who are in a good mood when the encounter takes place are more likely to be accurate than those who are not.

Second, all the studies mentioned above used group averages. Groups appear to be accurate at judging first appearances but of course that doesn't mean that all individuals are equally good.

Third, the rapport and similarities between the appraiser and the appraisee will affect the accuracy of a first impression – for example, research has shown that people from similar cultures tend to interpret nonverbal cues more successfully than people from very different cultures.

Most of the evidence supports the maxim that first impressions count. The somewhat terrifying exception that proves the rule is the infamous US serial killer Ted Bundy, who, it was claimed, made a favourable first impression on all his victims; the US public also found it hard to reconcile his appearance with that of a serial killer. So at your next speed dating session, trust to your first impressions – but don't forget Ted Bundy.

It's not what you know but who you know

The word nepotism comes from the Latin nepos, meaning "nephew". It's thought it was first used in the Middle Ages when Catholic popes had illegitimate sons whom they called "nephews" – and to whom they granted special privileges.

Some researchers suggest that nepotism is instinctive and a form of kin selection that is seen elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Even worker ants (Formica fusca), often held up as paragons of socialism, have been shown to favour their own kin when rearing young in colonies that have several queens.

Research suggests that informal personal contacts are often the main channel through which people find out about and secure jobs. This "social connectedness" may be more important than talent or knowledge in the employment market, particularly when employers are looking to fill highly paid positions. However, it is not the bonds between close friends or family members that are the most important in this area; it is weaker ties, involving less frequent contact, that are of prime significance.

The fact that children sometimes follow the professions of their parents is not solely due to name nepotism. Parents, friends and acquaintances are key agents in "socialisation", which is the process whereby individuals learn the behaviours that society expects of them. Therefore, well-connected parents may influence career choices as much as career chances.

The "old boy" network is another form of nepotism and one that is sometimes considered to exert undue influence in the UK; this usually refers to the links between people who have attended the same private school. Its equivalent in China, guanxi (meaning "network of influence"), does not necessarily refer to links through school but describes deep relationships and extremely influential connections at a personal level. Many Western companies are finding to their cost that the ability to participate in social networks is an essential requirement for doing business in China.

If connections are sometimes so important in life, is there any way we can measure how well-connected we are? The psychologist Stanley Milgram (1967) investigated the topic of social connectedness, and helped popularise the idea of "six degrees of separation". This is the idea that anyone in the world can be connected to any other person through a chain of contacts that involves no more than four intermediaries. Milgram tested this by randomly requesting 300 Americans to deliver a postcard to a named person in Massachusetts by sending it only to people they knew on a first-name basis, who they thought might know the target personally or would pass it on to someone else who did; 80 per cent of the cards were delivered in four or fewer steps. Milgram identified a "funnelling" effect, whereby certain people seemed particularly well connected and were "stars" at passing on cards. This study was repeated more recently using email forwarding, with the result that, on average, six intermediaries were required for the emails to reach their target – so inspiring the phrase "six degrees of separation".

This theory has now passed into the popular imagination, helped by a book (by Duncan Watts, 2003), a play (by John Guare, 1990) and a film adaptation of the play (directed by Fred Schepisi, 1993), and by a trivia game called "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon", which requires players to connect any film actor to Kevin Bacon in as few links as possible.

In some ways, the "small world phenomenon" is heartening, since it means that we are all only a few steps away from each other. Next time you meet someone on holiday who hails from a place you once visited, ask them whether they know so-and-so. Don't worry if you don't know the right people yet – you're only a maximum of four contacts away from knowing them all. So work on every contact, particularly those who are not connected by birth or marriage – and also remember that what you know is still of greater importance than who you know.

Practice makes perfect

If there's one thing that annoys me more than watching the England football team fail miserably yet again in a vital penalty shoot-out, it's listening to them afterwards saying that there's no point in practising. They claim that you can't recreate the pressure of a match in a training session and that penalty shoot-outs are "a lottery". Taking that to its logical conclusion, why practise at all?

Other sportspeople have a completely different philosophy. For example, golfers are rarely seen off the practice range. They know that the more they practise, the better they will be. As Gary Player once said: "The more I practise, the luckier I become" – and he became one of the most successful international golfers ever.

Of course, golf is a much more static game than football. The ball is mostly stationary and you are aiming at a static target (as in a penalty shoot-out). Golfers strive for consistency – a swing that is perfect every time.

However, researchers at Stanford University believe that humans and other primates are not hard-wired to perform exactly the same movements consistently. When the researchers compared neural and muscle activity, they found that there were subtle variations each time – and they suggest an evolutionary reason for this. Our ancestors may have developed brains with a capacity for improvisation in order to help them cope with the numerous novel situations that they encountered while hunting. This flexibility makes evolutionary sense but does not help us to accomplish tasks which are best conducted in exactly the same way each time. In these cases, practice will never make perfect, although when you watch Tiger Woods you wonder...

What sort of practice helps us to acquire new skills? It's no coincidence that top sports performers also have the best coaches – the right kind of practice or coaching is essential. Learning a skill badly can lead to problems later, and it is much more difficult to "unlearn" a well-practised but poorly acquired skill than it is to learn it correctly in the first place.

This is clearly seen in any office where you see people struggling with two-fingered typing. Changing a well-practised motor skill often involves taking a step backwards before any improvement is seen.

The presence or absence of spectators evaluating your performance can also affect the performance of a task, no matter how many hours of practice you have put in. An audience can provide a positive stimulus that helps us to perform a well-practised or an easy task even better. However, when the task is not so well-practised, or is more difficult, it may be unnerving to have others watching – and this may have a detrimental effect on performance. The audience effect seems to exaggerate the dominant response, so if you tend to do well the audience will help you to do better, but if you tend to make mistakes the audience will make errors even more likely. This "social facilitation" effect explains why highly skilled sportspeople often perform best at big events, whereas the less expert performers perform poorly on important occasions.

Practice will never make perfect – in football, golf, reading or anything else. After all, nobody's perfect. However, if you practise well, your performance will improve. Will someone please tell the England football team this before the next World Cup?

Too many cooks spoil the broth

There can only be one boss in the kitchen of an autocratic chef like Gordon Ramsay. If too many people add ingredients, comments and expletives, confusion will reign and the quality of the food will suffer. However, the good sense of this proverb applies not only to the kitchen: when too many people become involved in all sorts of endeavours their individual efforts may be counterproductive.

The problems probably lie in the way people reach agreement on a course of action. Psychologists believe that it is possible to predict a final group decision based on the initial views held by the members. There are four social decision-making schemes that determine the group decision. The first of these is the "majority wins" rule, which states simply that most people will opt for whatever position is supported initially by the majority. Discussion merely serves to strengthen the group majority view.

The second decision-making scheme is the "truth wins" rule, which indicates that the correct decision will be made because during the discussion people will come to recognise the strength of that particular argument.

The third scheme is the "two-thirds majority" rule, as is often used by juries; it requires a majority, but not a unanimous decision. One-third of the group may beg to differ, but they have to accept the majority decision. Some groups seem to favour a fourth scheme, the "first shift" rule, where many group members will stick to the first shift of opinion shown by group members.

If you know which set of rules the members of a particular group tend to adopt, then it is possible to predict the outcome of a meeting. Of course, there are numerous other factors that can play a part, including: the level of expertise each member brings to the discussion (informational social influence), the extent to which certain group members are respected and liked (normative social influence) and the nature of the task. Generally speaking, the "majority wins" rule is most often employed where the task is to make a judgement, whereas the "truth wins" rule is most frequently used with intellectual tasks, where there is a "correct" answer.

Yes, it's true – too many cooks are likely to spoil the broth unless they can agree on a method for reaching a consensus. With a judgemental task like making soup, the best strategy might be to adopt the "two-thirds" majority rule. Or it might be a lot less hassle to simply ask Gordon.

This is an edited extract from Taking the Proverbial by Geoff Rolls (£8.99), published by Chambers. To order a copy (free P&P), call Independent Books Direct on 0870 079 8897, or visit

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