Researchers who are interested in the evolution of human behavior often compare our behaviors to those of chimpanzees, our closest living genetic relatives. Comparative studies such as these help us decide what makes humans so uniquely... well, human.
Click the title of this post ("Child v. Chimp") to access the link to a video of a learning experiment between a child and a chimpanzee. The gist of it is this: given an opaque puzzle box with a reward inside, both chimpanzees and children follow the directions of the demonstrator about how to open the box - even the instructions that have nothing to do with actually accessing the reward. However, when the box is transparent and it is obvious which actions need to be taken to get the reward and which ones don't, chimpanzees go straight for the reward and children continue to include the erroneous actions as well. The kids seem old enough and certainly bright enough to see that sliding the bars and tapping the box have nothing to do with getting a gummy bear - afterall even the chimp sees that - so Why does the chimp skip the BS and the child doesn't?
We talked about this video in one of my classes recently and the students came up with some interesting perspectives. Perhaps the child includes the erroneous gestures because he or she wants the approval of the experimenter, or is signaling that he or she defers to the experimenter's authority as a subordinate. Or perhaps going through the motions is not so much a sign of respect, but it may be an indication of higher level learning geared towards dealing with technology. Often we don't know how technology works, but we know we must go through a ritualized set of steps in order to get the result we want, even though it is not apparent what each of the steps is for. For example, I have no clue how my car works - but I do know that I need to insert a key into the ignition and turn it, and push the gas and break pedals if I want it to move. And I know that if I don't put gas and clean oil in it every once in a while it won't run either. There is nothing intuitive about using and maintaining a car, because you cannot see all of the moving parts and how they work together to produce motion. Using technology requires a type of learning that tacitly accepts not understanding the mechanism behind the action and result. Perhaps the child, who is probably used to using very advanced technologies and certainly doesn't understand them, is simply using the same mechanisms for learning about the puzzle box as he or she does to use the family computer.
This experiment may be evidence of the fact that humans have highly evolved, extremely complex, social interactions, and that children thus learn to navigate this social landscape using techniques such as deferral to authority. Or it may indicate our propensity to go through highly ritualized behaviors, perhaps as a by-product of our ability to use technology and all of its "unobservable" parts. There is something akin to supernatural belief about using technology. I don't know how my car works, but I do know that if I put x in I get y out, and I'm perfectly content with that. This suggests that humans may uniquely have a propensity towards supernatural beliefs as a result of the highly adaptive value of using technology. That's not to say that supernatural belief entirely or necessarily arose from using technology in human history, and it's also not to say that supernatural beliefs are false. (After all, that which cannot be detected by our natural sense, i.e. the supernatural, of course cannot be observed by science, which can rely only on the natural senses.) It merely suggests that humans' unique ability to use highly advanced technology may result in our propensity to utilize rituals that do not appear to have any practical meaning in completing tasks.