Listening In

Social learning is an occupation that takes up a great deal of our time, at least for the non-hermits amongst us. The direct approach is generally favored and we have the formalities of meeting and greeting learned at an early age. But this amounts to a small part of our actual social learning. We expend a great deal of our efforts in eavesdropping.

In a social learning context, eavesdropping is an okay practice. It doesn’t refer to being nosey and listening into a private conversation, whether for your or your government’s delectation. It refers to observing and listening in a social context, and many species make assessments of individuals on this basis. Love, or hate, at first sight is down to how we perceive the sights and sounds of an individual. Portrait painters, writers and those merciless ad-men make a living out of eavesdropping in the psychology sense.

It was interesting to note that this month’s issue of the journal, Animal Behaviour, has two papers on the subject. The first one that caught my attention was on how the ranking of dominance in us guys was dependent on eavesdropping (1). The subjects, and remember that we are all subjects in this world-wide psychological experiment, ranked guys as being higher up the dominance tree after seeing them being aggressive with someone else. The more aggressive, the more dominant. No surprises there, as we have all let the pushy or the bully get away with it at one time or another. The surprise for me was that the perception of the trustworthiness of the more aggressive characters was not affected by the observation of aggressive behavior. Amazing, but I guess many people like “strong leaders!”

Less disturbing, was the paper on how our doggy-friends eavesdrop on us when we are with the chattering classes around our dinner tables. A set of carefully controlled experiments were carried out to see if the dogs could rank our food sharing potential, and whether it was on the basis of gestures or conversation going around the table. Again a surprise result for me. It was the vocal cues that were being followed. Now, I know many of you out there will tell me that “he understands every word I say,” but beware, he might understand more than you would like him to.

  1. B.C. Jones, L.M. DeBruine, A.C. Little, C.D. Watkins, & D.R. Fienberg, Animal Behaviour, 81, 1203, (2011).
  2. S.Marshall-Pescini, C. Passelacqua, A. Ferrario, P. Valsecchi, & E. Prato-Previde, Animal Behaviour, 81, 1177, (2011).

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