One of the most important aspects of learning to interpret body language is becoming mindful of the difference between what we can see and what we think about what we see. Using labels, constructs and mentalistic explanations; our own ideas about why the parrot is doing what it is doing, or even what the parrot is, can cause a lot of misunderstandings when we're trying to interpret behavior, if we're not careful. For one thing, it tends to lead to circular reasoning.
Is my parrot biting me because it's aggressive, or do I call it aggressive because it bites me?
(Idea/concept for this infographic comes from behaviorworks.org.)
What do we really mean when we say a parrot is happy, for example? As much as I would love it if we could, none of us will never know for sure what a parrot is thinking or feeling at any given moment. Even with other humans, we can never know what they are really experiencing. We can try to make inferences about what someone is thinking or feeling based on their facial expressions or behavior, but this isn't nearly as reliable as science has previously suggested. (See this paper for a review of this important subject.) People can of course tell us about their experience, but even then we need to interpret or filter that through our own. And we're the same species! It's really no wonder we get it wrong with other species too, especially considering we often can't ask them. This is why we need to be mindful when we use words like happy or sad to describe the inner lives of parrots. Even if we know beyond reasonable doubt that parrots and other animals do experience a range of different feelings, we can never actually know for sure what they are experiencing at any given moment, or how it feels to experience that as a parrot. And we certainly can't claim to know what they are thinking.
When we say an animal is happy or angry we usually base that conclusion on the animal's body language. This is a bit problematic if what we're trying to do is interpret body language; there's that circular reasoning again. Let's take a closer look at this using an example many people are familiar with; tailwagging in dogs.
2.2 ARE YOU SEEING IT OR THINKING IT?
We'll get back to parrots soon, promise!
A lot of people "know" that dogs wag their tail when they are happy. Likely, this idea comes from the observation that dogs wag their tails in many situations where it's very reasonable to assume they are having a pleasant experience; when we feed them treats, as they run up to greet familiar people, or as they play with their favourite toy. All are situations a particular dog might actively seek out; and it makes sense they would actively seek out situations that they find enjoyable. So far so good! However, I think this can become problematic because of at least four different reasons:
1. Confusing correlation with causation or sameness
2. Extrapolating too much
3. Conceptualizing and over-generalizing
4. Self-perpetuating biases
1. That we do something when we are feeling something doesn't mean that one causes the other, or that one equals the other. Dogs do wag their tails in situations where it's likely they are having positive experiences. However, the fact that tail wagging correlates (often occurs together) with situations where dogs are likely having a good time, does not mean that:
a) tail wagging is being caused by happyness
b) tailwagging = happiness
c) happyness can't happen without tail wagging, and vice versa
A behavior can correlate with a lot of other behaviors, physical responses and feelings. In fact, we see dogs wagging their tail in a lot of situations, some of which we would not expect a dog to find very pleasant; like right before a fight between two dogs erupt. Think about a person smiling or crying, for example. People can smile when they receive good news and they can cry when they've had a very unpleasant experience. However, people can also smile when they are uncomfortable, or cry when they are very pleasantly excited about something. People can also have the same experiences without smiling or crying.
2. If we feel very sure that something is a hard fact, it's easy to start extrapolating from that even when we shouldn't. If you "know" that dogs wag their tail when they're happy, and you then see a dog wagging it's tail, you might think that "since dogs wag their tails when they're happy, this dog must be happy."
Since we're already familiar with tail wagging and it's easy for us to recognize, we are more likely to see a tail wag and miss other cues that might be important, and end up interpreting what se see according to our pre-existing beliefs.
This is definitely something I have observed in parrot contexts as well, and something we will return to later in this resource.
3. Another issue is how easy it is to miss nuances. We might think of tail wagging as one concept that either is or isn't happening, but in reality it is a name for several behaviors that we think look similar enough to be categorized as the same thing. Tails can wag slowly or very fast, with big, wide strokes or small twitches, more to the left or more to the right. They can wag while held high or held low, and so on. The fact that we categorize a number of behaviors as the same thing because we think they look similar, doesn't necessarily mean that they always convey the same information. All hats are hats but a sombrero is still very different from a top hat, and they are used in different contexts. We will continue exploring the implications of this in part 3.
4.) A pit-fall when we try to figure out how an animal might be feeling by observing it's body language is that there aren't really any cheat sheets, we can't check or ask to see if we were right, so we need to rely on situational feedback. The problem with this is that us humans are really, really good at seeing and interpreting things based on what we want to be true and the pre-conceived ideas we have about the world: our biases. If we think the bird is growling at us because it's dominant, what could prove us wrong? Often, not much. Not because it's true, but because it's something that is difficult to disprove, especially if we're not looking for other possible explanations. Much in the same way that the existence of house gnomes stealing my socks is hard to disprove. It's equally hard to proove, of course, but since it's a preconceived notion of mine, I'm likely to interpret what I experience so that it fits in with my belief. The bird tried to bite me, more proof he's dominant. My new socks are already missing, must be those darn gnomes again...
This means it's very easy to end up in situations where we constantly confirm our own beliefs about what parrots are feeling or why they do things, even though there really wasn't any validity to them to begin with. This is likely a big part of how many old misconceptions about parrot behavior such as "height dominance" came to be. In other words: when we think we have a good explanation for a behavior, we interpret the behavior happening as "proof" of our explanation being right, when in reality, all we're actually doing is observing the behavior. The missing socks aren't proof of cleptomaniac house gnomes. They are just missing socks. In the same way; the fact that the parrot bites us when it's sitting up high and we reach for it isn't proof of height dominance - It's just proof that the bird bites me when it is high up and I am reaching for it, and that can (and does) have many other explanations.
Why does it even matter what we think about why birds do what they do?
It matters a lot because what we think about the motivations of others influences not just how we interpret their behavior but how we think about them as individuals, and how we respond to their behavior. If you think a parrot bites you because it hates you, or because it's just a mean bird™, that will likely influence you to respond differently than if you think the bird is biting you because it is scared or in pain. How we respond to body language effects the wellfare of the bird, how the parrot will behave in similar situations in the future, and in extension our own wellbeing and relationship with the bird in the long run. The importance of how we respond to body language is something we'll discuss in more detail in part 5. For now, let's settle for knowing that our interpretations of behavior directly influences not only what we see, but also how we respond to it, and that those responses can have tangible effects on the wellfare of both the parrot and ourselves.
Wikipedia compilation of cognitive biases: