The human is the only animal that…

Psychologist Daniel Gilbert on the unwritten vow taken by psychologists. From p3 of Stumbling on Happiness (ISBN 9780007183135).

Few people realise that psychologists also take a vow, promising that at some point in their professional lives they will publish a book, a chapter or at least an article that contains the sentence: ‘The human being is the only animal that…’ We are allowed to finish the sentence any way we like, but it has to start with those eight words.

Most of us wait to relatively late in our careers to fulfil this solemn obligation because we know that successive generations of psychologists will ignore all the other words that we managed to pack into a lifetime of well-intentioned scholarship and remember us mainly for how we finished The Sentence.

We also know that the worse we do, the better we will be remembered. For instance, those psychologists who finished The Sentence with ‘can use language’ were particularly well remembered when chimpanzees were taught to communicate with hand signs.

And when researchers discovered that chimps in the wild used sticks to extract tasty termites from their mounds (and to bash each other over the head now and again), the world suddenly remembered the full name and mailing address of every psychologist who ever finished The Sentence with the words ‘uses tools’.

So it is with good reason that most psychologists put off completing The Sentence for as long as they can, hoping that if they wait long enough, they might just die in time to avoid being publicly humiliated by a monkey.

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