2.3 - WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?
In the study mentioned in the first section, another thing the researches noticed was that dog owners were more likely to use descriptions of the dogs’ feelings, intentions, and judgments when explaining their observations of the dogs. In other words, they weren't describing what they were seeing the dogs do, but rather what they thought was going on in the dogs head or why it was doing something. This is problematic for the reasons I've already mentioned earlier in part 2.2.
Two people can have completely different ideas about what a parrot is doing even though they're observing the exact same thing. These ideas are constructs - we "construct a story" in our minds about what is happening, but we're not actually describing what is happening. The first question to ask when interpreting body language, or really any behavior, is "ok, but what does it look like?" This enables us to think and talk about what an animal is doing in a meaningful way, rather than just talking about our thoughts about what is going on.
There is an excersize that I first picked up from Dr Friedman at behaviorworks.org that I often do together with my parrot behavior- and training students. I start by showing them a picture of a parrot. I then ask them to write down a description of what behavior they see, and to submit their answers independently from each other.
One person will see the picture and confidently state that they see a really happy bird. When I ask them how they know that, it's usually a matter of intuition. They can't really point to or describe exactly what makes them think the bird is happy, they just know it. Looking at the same image, another participant would say that the bird is angry. They can't say exactly why, either, but they are pretty sure they're right. The problem here is that two people can't be right at once when their claims are incompatible. At least one of them (or both of them) have to be wrong, despite both of them being sure they are right.
The reason they are both so sure is likely that they have had experiences with one or several birds showing similar body language in a certain situation. The first person might have seen a bird looking similar to the one in the picture when it was wrestling with a toy. The other person might have seen a parrot looking like that right before it delivered a bite. Just like for the people in the dog study, their past experiences gave them a false sense of knowing when they really didn't. Questioning our own intuition about animals is really difficult. It is also very important if we want to actually be right in our claims, not just feel like we are. If you can’t explain what you base your conclusion on, you are making it impossible to dispute it, and it's likely that you are deceiving yourself in to thinking that your hunch is equivalent to knowing.
Whenever you interpet something an animal does, you should always be able to describe the physical observations that you base your interpretation on. This involves:
a) the context: what environment is the bird in and what is going on?
b) what is the bird doing that we can directly hear, see or otherwise observe?
c) what happens after the behavior?
We will be focusing on a) and c) later in part 4. In the next few exercizes we'll be practicing the first crucial skill of observing as objectively as possible, and accurately describing body language. It's difficult to find out in what context a behavior occurs or what happens after if you don't know what behavior you're looking at.
As we go through the rest of this part, try to keep the boxes below in mind.
Photo by Owe Andersson, used with permission.
WHEN DESCRIBING BODY LANGUAGE:
Try using words that fit these descriptions:
Something a bird does, like flapping it's wings, blinking or chewing
Something you can see or hear directly.
If we can measure how often, how loud or fast the bird does something it's usually a safe bet.
Avoid using words that fit these descriptions:
Describes the bird rather than the behavior, such as "friendly" or "mean."
Something that attemps to explain behavior, but isn't directly observable or measurable; like dominance or revenge.
A description of what the bird might be thinking or feeling, like "She wants to..."