"We now know that animals can acquire very precise information from an otherwise imprecise signal by incorporating information from the context in which the signal is given." (Seyfarth & Cheney, 2017)


Body language, just like any other behavior, never just happens out of thin air. Doing the right thing at the right time is crucial to the survival of any organism on this planet. Have you ever tried eating without food being present, for example?
As social creatures, others are also part of our context, as we will explore more in part five. As a kid, I learned pretty quickly that just after being scolded for doing something I apparently wasn't supposed to be doing maybe wasn't the right time to ask for a new toy. We learn what behavior - in what context - are the most likely to get us what we want or need, or to get away from what we don't want.

As you might recall me mentioning in secton 2.2: unlike what previous research seemed to show, people can not "read feelings" very well by looking at someone's facial expression alone. We also need the information we get by looking at the rest of the person's body language, and crucially, the context we are seeing them in. (See for example this commentary by Martinez, 2019 and Barett et al, 2019.) Body language that looks extremely similar might be displayed in very different contexts. This is why we can't correctly interpret it without also paying attention to what is going on in the environment.

Just like human communication needs context to be interpreted properly, so does the behavior of other animals. When I yell "Fire!" what does that mean? Am I scared, happy, focused? How should you respond? By looking for the fire, running away or smiling and applauding? That depends on if I am an actor in a play, if we're out camping in cold weather or if I yell it in your face after waking you up in the middle of the night. Context is everything.

“You are approaching an intersection and you see a yellow light. Does that light convey any information to you? I hope you answered yes. Now what is your response? You could stomp on the accelerator and try to beat the red light. Or you could step on the brake pedal and stop the car. Or you could look around, and if the streets are empty, you could keep going without accelerating and hope that you will be OK. Did the light influence your behavior? I would say yes. Did you have only one response to a yellow light, regardless of the circumstances? Maybe, but most likely no.” - Con Slobodchikoff (Chasing Doctor Doolittle, 2012)

In the rest of part three, we will be exploring how behavior is influenced by the context a parrot is in, and practice the crucial skill of observing how body language changes as a response to what is happening in the environment the bird is in.

Barrett et al. (2019) Emotional Expressions Reconsidered: Challenges to Inferring Emotion From Human Facial Movements.
Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 20(1); 1–68.

Martinez A. M. (2019) Context may reveal how you feel

PNAS, 116 (15); 7169-7171

Seyfarth & Cheney (2017) The origin of meaning in animal communication

Animal behavior, 127; 339-346