Study Unit OC3 - Communication and the Naked Ape

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First published online 08:54 BST 19th April 2001, Copyright Derek J. Smith (Chartered Engineer). This version [2.0 - copyright] 09:00 BST 4th July 2018.


Unit Outcomes: This study unit looks at modern approaches to the study of instinct, and then searches for intrusions of instinctively generated behaviour into the rationality of our daily organisational lives. When you have completed it, you will be able to deploy with enhanced confidence and accuracy the specific skills and vocabulary listed below:

Specific Skills


1. To use selected vocabulary from the sciences of ethology and zoology.

animat; appeasement gesture; central pattern generator (CPG); chain reflex; dominance hierarchy; fixed action pattern (FAP); innate releasing mechanism (IRM); kinesis; releasing ceremony; sign stimulus; taxis; threat gesture

2. To review early attempts to apply ethological analyses to human behaviour.

body language; human zoo; kinesics; manwatching; naked ape; nonverbal communication (NVC); personal space; pinocchio science; primatology; proxemics; rhetorical devices; silent signalling; social skills

3. To analyse organisational pecking order, and apply an in-group / out-group analysis in an organisational context.

in-group vs out-group; limbic system; pecking order; social grooming; social order


Unit Structure

This unit contains three short lessons, each contributing to the overall unit outcomes, each with its own hyperlinked support material, and each with its own additional reading and tutorial task(s). Here is the learning sequence:

Lesson OC3.1: The Science of Ethology

Lesson OC3.2: Human Ethology

Lesson OC3.3: Social Order and Aggression

Where To Next?



Lesson OC3.1: The Science of Ethology

The scientific study of animal behaviour became popular in the late 19th Century, as part of a surge in interest in science in general. Here are some background readings you might find useful:

Romanes' views (eg. Romanes, 1886) were particularly controversial, because they freely attributed human qualities to lower animals. For example he remarks upon the "pride, sense of dignity, and self-respect" of dogs (p439), and includes an (admittedly second-hand) account of a pet boa-constrictor which moped when separated from its owners but which "sprang upon them with delight" on their return (p261). Most of Romanes' contemporaries set out to demonstrate the very opposite, namely that animals were frequently little more than biological robots executing biological computer programs (although they did not use those precise metaphors, because neither cybernetics nor computing had themselves yet been invented). Led by Lloyd Morgan, they tried to exclude anthropomorphism and teleology from their explanations.

Key Concepts - Anthropomorphism and Teleology: Anthropomorphism (literally man-form-ism) is an assertion of human characteristics in inanimate objects or subhuman species. Thus if you talk deeply and meaningfully to your canary or swear at your car when it fails to start, then you are elevating those objects to humanlike status. Similarly, if you conceive of animals as feeling human emotions such as love, regret, compassion, etc. A teleology is an assertion of voluntary prior purpose, as in "I'm studying for my exams" or "That fruit fly flew from A to B to get a drink." As a result, teleological explanations are frowned upon by science, (a) because prior purpose is usually not provable, and (b) because there is the suspicion that they are convenient oversimplifications. Animals do not mate in order to continue their blood line, for example, they just exist and respond when programmed to respond.

The greatest boost to Romanes' critics came from repeated demonstrations in the early 20th Century of how easy it was to catch nature out and make a fool of it. What people liked to think of as instincts often turned out to be very easy to fragment. Instincts are complexes of individually quite simple behaviours, which seem to be held together by little - if any - overriding control. When that control is left unimpaired, all the individual behavioural elements are discharged one by one and in the right order, and the "instinct" is fulfilled. On the other hand, when circumstances (or the investigator) interfere with this process, the natural chain of events is broken and the instinct fails. Here are some specific and highly illustrative examples of animal behaviour, all of which should help discourage teleological and anthropomorphic explanations:

·         Fabre (1911) took some caterpillars of a species whose "instincts" were to follow the silken path trailed out by their leader, and intervened manually to form them into a ring, whereupon the animals went round and round in circles for a solid week! Caterpillars, in other words, do not know much about their world. They just mechanically follow an inbuilt program.

·         Volkelt (1914) studied the hunting behaviour of funnel-web spiders. Normally, these spiders lie in wait for their prey at the end of a silken tube built into the centre of their web. When an insect becomes entangled in the web they dash out of the central funnel, kill it, and retrieve it into their lair. However, when a fly is put directly into the mouth of the funnel the spider adopts defensive rather than aggressive behaviour. Spiders, in other words, do not know much about flies. They, too, just mechanically follow an inbuilt program.

·         Barrows (1915) investigated what constituted the effective stimulus for prey attack in the web-spinning spider Epeira, and found it to be the web vibrations caused by the struggling captive. Upon sensing these vibrations the spider would - if not already there - make its way to the centre of the web, feel for which one of the "spokes" was vibrating most, and then make its way out to the prey. False vibrations were equally effective, provided the rate and amplitude were within appropriately lifelike limits. Attack behaviour was then delivered more or less regardless to what was found in the web, with a vibrating straw being bitten and wrapped up in silk. Olfactory, visual, and auditory cues were ineffective. Again, spiders do not seem to know much about flies. They, too, just mechanically follow an inbuilt program.

·         Hingston (1928) described the foraging behaviour of the dung-beetle. These insects work in pairs to shape a bolus of dung out of animal droppings, and then roll it to a storage site to bury it. If, upon their arrival at the dung, they are given a ready-made dung ball, they ignore it. Instinct has given them a complex program to execute and they are not free to take this particular short-cut, no matter how sensible it might seem. Moreover, if having once made the ball they have it taken away from them during the rolling phase, they will accept a replacement without question and carry on rolling it. However, if having had their original ball taken away from them they are instead put back upon the dung pile, they will not do the sensible thing and make another ball, choosing instead to keep looking around for the lost one. Again, they just do what their programming tells them to do.

[A more recent study by Melchers (1963) adds that if the silk is removed from a spider's silk glands it will nevertheless go through its normal 6400-movement web-spinning sequence even though nothing is actually being produced!]

The main explanatory concepts which emerged from half a century's worth of observational data such as these were as follows:


Glossary 1 - Early Animal Psychology (1886 - 1934)

Note: These entries are in alphabetic order, so you may have to read them through two or three times to get their full message.

Chain Reflexes: There is a limit to what can be accomplished with a simple reflex, so if an organism wants to be really clever it needs even more advanced types of behaviour; it needs a logically progressive sequence of behaviours. The term chain reflex was coined by Loeb (1890) to describe the concatenation (ie. chaining together) of simple reflex responses into these more complex pieces of behaviour. The successful completion of one reflex response provides the stimulus for another. Take, for example, the act of a toad darting out its tongue to catch a fly. The first link in the chain would be between vision and tongue protrusion, and the second would be between the resulting sensation on the tongue and the act of swallowing. Many instinctive behaviours are chains of stimuli and responses just like this, and frequently involve two or more participating organisms. Unfortunately, this sort of approach fails adequately to explain behaviours which show any form of variety. [Compare the concept of the releasing ceremony in Glossary 2.]

Innate: "Existing in a person (or organism) from birth" (O.E.D.). Some authors prefer to call unlearned behaviours "innate" rather than "instinctive", because of the problems with the concept of instinct (see next).

Instincts: An instinct is "an innate propensity in organised beings (esp. in the lower animals), varying with the species, and manifesting itself in acts which appear to be rational, but are performed without conscious design or intentional adaptation of means to ends. Also, the faculty supposed to be involved in this operation" (O.E.D.). They must also be complex, adaptive, and common to all members of a species. Upon analysis, however, the relationship between an instinctive motivation and the behaviours it provokes is far from straightforward. It is therefore scientifically dangerous to speak, say, of an instinct to reproduce. Instead, when we look at complex behaviours such as foraging, courtship, mating, nesting, and parenting, we are forced to treat these as somehow unrelated clusters of smaller units of behaviour. Which presents us with a serious - and as yet unresolved - contradiction: on the one hand such behaviour is complex enough to seem almost consciously purposeful, yet on the other hand it cannot be, for it is demonstrably fragile.

Kineses: (Sing. kinesis.) Kineses (pronounced "kine-ees-eez") are the simple, undirected (compare taxes below), and entirely automatic movements of simple organisms. Woodlice, for example, become more active as the humidity in their environment increases. Similarly, protozoa will escape from water which is too hot or too cold by repeatedly backing off and turning until they reach water of the desired temperature, or die in the attempt.

Kuhn's Classification: [See firstly taxes.] Kuhn (1929) formulated what has since become known as Kuhn's classification, which starts by dividing behaviour into phobotaxes (avoidance reactions) and topotaxes (approach reactions). The approach reactions can then be divided in turn into (a) tropotaxes, wherein the organism turns so that symmetrically placed sensory organs are equally stimulated, (b) telotaxes, wherein the organism turns towards the source of stimulation, (c) menotaxes, wherein the organism turns so that a certain distribution of stimulation is maintained, and (d) mnemotaxes, wherein the organism turns to a position (or series of positions) previously memorised as appropriate to the stimulus in question (eg. "homing" behaviour).

Orienting Reactions: Alternative name for taxes. So named because taxes do little more than direct an organism either towards or away from a particular stimulus.

Reflexes: A reflex is a wholly involuntary piece of behaviour which takes place because the nervous system is "wired up" in such a way that it cannot not take place. Reflexes are responsible for many automatic behaviours, especially those which have a biological "safety" aspect to them, such as blinking, coughing, gagging, and rapid limb withdrawal from pain.

Taxes: (Sing. taxis.) Taxes (pronounced "tax-eez") are the simple, directed (unlike kineses), and entirely automatic locomotor orientation reactions of simple organisms. A winkle, for example, will move away from a light source and upwards against gravity (except when upside down when it moves instead towards the light source). Similarly, a fruit fly will orient itself towards the wind-borne fermentation products - the alcohols, etc. - of decaying fruit: it will simply fly upwind whenever it smells a drink, and that - given the nature of the world - is all it needs to do. Many species find mates the same way, by flying upwind whenever they detect the airborne sex hormones (pheromones) of distant potential partners. It all looks very purposeful to the casual observer, but the behaviours are actually just orienting responses. Depending upon the energy source involved, taxes can be classed as phototaxes (light-driven), geotaxes (gravity-driven), chemotaxes (chemical-driven), rheotaxes (current-flow driven), etc. [See also Kuhn's classification.]

Thinking and Problem Solving: This is the application of higher cognitive functions (such as intelligence, insight, creativity, and problem solving) to the problems of behaviour. This is where an organism's abilities start to move beyond the merely instinctual, and into the realms of the rational. There is much debate, however, (a) as to what rationality actually is, and (b) how much of it you will find even in the self-proclaimed rational minds of humans, let alone in subhuman species.

Tropisms: This term was coined by Loeb (1888, 1890) to describe the wholly involuntary behaviour of organisms lacking a nervous system. Just as plants can turn towards the sun using non-nervous mechanisms, so, too, is much simple animal behaviour unwilled. It just happens. To be classified as a tropism, the relationship between the stimulus and the response must be rigid and resulting directly from the action of some external energy source. Tropisms can be subcategorised by energy type and direction of response as follows: Geotropisms: positive - turn towards the pull of gravity; negative - turn away from the pull of gravity, Heliotropisms (or phototropisms): positive: turn towards the light; negative - turn away from the light, Thermotropisms: positive: turn towards heat; negative - turn away from heat, and Rheotropisms: positive: turn upstream (in air or water); negative - turn downstream. In animals with nervous systems, this type of behaviour is provided by reflexes.

 To summarise the situation so far .....

So in fact an organism which is capable of taxes is actually beginning to get quite "clever". For example, the entire life of a tick requires only three reflexes and one taxis. Thus:

"A tick may stay clinging to a twig, perhaps for months, until exposed to a low concentration of butyric acid, a component of the smell of a mammal, released from skin glands. It then drops, falling on to the mammal, attaches itself to the mammal's skin, and gorges itself with blood. When fully fed, it may have a strong tendency to climb upwards when on vertical surfaces, but this would be largely due to the fact that its body is swollen with blood behind the region of the legs, so that the mechanical force of gravity will keep the tick's body oriented in an upward direction." (Walker, 1987:20.) [At this point students might find it very informative to glance at the sort of behaviours robot termites can achieve, working to only one or two rules - click here.]

Further theoretical advances were made in the mid-20th Century by a new school known as the ethologists. The defining characteristic of this new approach was that it set out to study animals in their natural conditions, and its founders were an Austrian named Konrad Lorenz and a Dutchman named Niko Tinbergen. Ethology's key rule is that you must observe, thus:

".....the observation of all there is to be observed in the behaviour of a species must go before the quest for explanation." (Lorenz, 1950:233; emphasis original.)

Lorenz and Tinbergen's first joint paper, describing the egg-retrieving behaviour of the grey lag goose, was published in 1938, but the school was not really free to flourish until after World War II. The breakthrough came with a 1949 symposium on animal behaviour held by the Society for Experimental Biology, and with the publication of The Study of Instinct (Tinbergen, 1951) and King Solomon's Ring (Lorenz, 1952). The area was subsequently developed by such workers as Hinde, Thorpe, Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and Scott, and has also helped to shape the "popular zoology" of the likes of Desmond Morris and David Attenborough.

Ethologists have studied the behaviour of many species, most famously geese, gulls, fish [for the story of the three-spined stickleback, click here], and mammals [for the story of the confused polecat, click here]. In then interpreting their observations, the ethologists took the earlier concept of the chain reflex, and improved upon it, keeping the sequentiality of behaviour but pointing out just how complex the underlying mechanisms probably were. Thus:

"What formerly was very simply conceived of as 'an instinct' is shown by the advance of analysis to be a very complex mechanism of very distinct and very different constituents, such as endogenous automatisms, releasing mechanisms, taxes, kineses, and, maybe, quite a number of further as yet unrecognised particulate functions" (Lorenz, 1950:261).

Indeed, perhaps the ethologists' most enduring contribution to psychology has been the vocabulary they introduced. Lorenz's use of the term "releasing mechanism" (above) is particularly valuable, because it emphasises the observable fact that each link in an instinctive chain of behaviours seems to have its own effective stimulus, provided in some way by the satisfactory completion of the immediately preceding piece of behaviour, and often involving more than one participant. 

Key Vocabulary: The usual name for the "releasing", or "effective", stimulus in an innate stimulus-response pairing is sign stimulus. This term was popularised by Tinbergen (1951), but actually attributed by him to Russell (1943). It is synonymous with the term releaser previously introduced by Lorenz (1937). The response to the sign stimulus - ie. the specific attack manoeuvre, etc. - is called a fixed action pattern (FAP), and the ritual by which sign stimuli and FAPs interact and cross-stimulate each other (much along the lines of the chain reflex described above) is called a releasing ceremony.

Here is some more of that vocabulary. Study it carefully, for these are the concepts we will shortly be applying to human behaviour in organisations:


Glossary 2 - Modern Animal Psychology (1938 - Present)

Note: These entries are in alphabetic order, so you may have to read them through two or three times to get their full message.

Alpha (Fe)male: The animal at the top of a dominance hierarchy.

Animats: During the 1990s, there arose a lot of interest in what we might describe as "comparative robotics". Many cognitive science departments began experimenting with small robots, known generically as "animats", in which simple behavioural strategies could be programmed. Some remarkably lifelike "behaviours" have resulted. It follows that it may well become easier to understand a biological instinct once we are able to program an animat to behave in the same way, and one of the research teams (under Pattie Maes of MIT) has already identified two major barriers to achieving this. These are (a) selecting actions from a repertoire, and (b) allowing that repertoire to be improved by learning - precisely the same problems, note, that comparative psychology has been wrestling with for so many years! 

Appeasement Gestures: [See firstly threat gesture.] The partner to the threat gesture is what is known as the appeasement gesture. This is a sign of submission, and can be readily illustrated by the social order behaviour of carnivores. In wolves and wild dogs, for example, displays of aggression towards conspecifics are regular and easy to provoke (try taking a bone away from your pet dog). And yet this aggression results in very little actual bodily harm and very few deaths. This anomaly is explained by the operation of appeasement displays. Canines threaten by baring their fangs and erecting their ears, but if the target of that threat is happy to concede defeat it can readily defuse the situation and prevent further attack. All it needs to do is lay its own ears back and turn its head away to hide its own fangs and present instead the (vulnerable) nape of its neck. Other common submission behaviours include crouching, slinking, turning away, dropping the tail, bobbing the upper body, patting, hugging, and grooming. An appeasement gesture is thus a sign stimulus produced by one animal in response to a sign stimulus from a conspecific, and designed to signal acceptance of that conspecific's dominance. [See more detailed discussion in Lesson 3.]

Central Pattern Generator (CPG): There has been increasing interest since the 1980s as to how instinctive behaviour is encoded within the nervous system, and the explanation of choice is that there are innate neuronal circuits specific to the fixed action patterns in a given species' behavioural repertoire. These are called central pattern generators (CPGs). The term is "generally taken to mean a centrally located system capable of generating, in the absence of input from peripheral receptors, a rhythmic motor pattern similar to that occurring in the normal animal" (Pearson, 1985:307).

Displacement Activities: A displacement activity is a behaviour which is generated by external circumstances, but which is not appropriate to it. The concept of displacement activities was introduced by early ethologists, given its name by Armstrong (1947), and popularised by Tinbergen (1951, 1952), and the phenomenon can show itself in two superficially different ways, namely thwartings and intrusions. Either way, the suspicion is that some form of undischarged drive energy reaches such a level that in the absence of an appropriate goal object something else will trigger one or more of the usual fixed action patterns. Displacement activities are common in birds and fishes, and suggestions of them can also seen in higher animals, including humans. They are a sign of an underlying general arousal of autonomic systems, and may be thought of as indicating some level of competition between the central programs responsible for instinctive behaviours. Above all, they indicate that the relationship between a behaviour and its releaser is not as rigid as might have been thought.

Dominance Hierarchy: A dominance hierarchy is the seniority ranking of the individual animals in a socially organised species. Such hierarchies are typical of carnivore packs, primate troops and tribes, and ungulate herds, and are enforced by prolonged competition for mating and feeding resources. They are established and maintained by the use of threat gestures by those wishing to assert dominance, and by submission gestures by those about to give it up. The animal at the top of the hierarchy is known as the alpha (fe)male

Drive: Behaviour is frequently a function of the internal hormonal state of the organism. The sign stimuli which operate during stickleback courting, for example, are only effective when the animals are in their breeding condition. At other times of year, they are ineffective. The concept of "internal hormonal state" and "drive" are therefore closely related, even though the former is a biochemical fact and the latter merely a convenient hypothetical construct. Lorenz saw drive as being like the water level building up in a reservoir until the time comes for it to be released or discharged by consummatory behaviour. As a specific physical need increases (for water, food, sex, etc.) so too does a readiness to execute the appropriate type(s) of behaviour (drinking, eating, copulating, etc.). This period is characterised by increasingly frequent intention movements and vacuum activities. Satisfactory consummation of the behaviour leads to reduction in the physical need, discharge of the "reservoir", and discontinuation of the behaviour.

Fixed Action Pattern (FAP): A fixed action pattern is the output element of one of the sequence of stimulus-response pairings making up a releasing ceremony. It is common to insist that a piece of behaviour meets the following criteria before it can be classed as an FAP:

  • initially unlearned
  • species specific
  • stereotyped
  • too extensive in time to be a reflex
  • ballistic - ie. once launched into action, it cannot be stopped part way through (so you cannot have half a sneeze, for example, or half a blink, or half an orgasm, etc.)
  • fully "fed forward" - ie. it runs without feedback (remember Melchers' spider)

In the final analysis, the necessary muscle contractions must result in some way from the activation of a central pattern generator (or hierarchy thereof) somewhere in the nervous system. 

Imprinting: Imprinting is the instinctive attachment of a newly born animal to the adult it first encounters. It is an area in which some challenging observations have been made over the years. Spalding (1873) was the first to note that 2- or 3-day chicks would readily start to follow a moving object regardless of that object's true biological appropriacy. The phenomenon was termed "imprinting" by Oskar Heinroth (1911), and "exposure learning" by Sluckin (1964). And again it is an instinct which can easily be fooled. Without food reinforcement, for example, birds will imprint upon balls, cardboard boxes, matchboxes, etc., and in one of the most famous ethological studies of all Lorenz (1937) clearly demonstrated how newly hatched grey lag geese would "adopt" him as their "mother", provided only that he was the thing they saw first upon emerging from the egg.

Innate Releasing Mechanism (IRM): The IRM (or the angeborene auslösendes Schema in Lorenz's native German) was the term Lorenz (1937) used to describe the sort of central stimulus filtering observed in instinctive behaviour. The concept implies a central motivational state [see drive], IRMs to detect the appropriate sign stimuli, and the ability then to activate central pattern generators to deliver the corresponding fixed action patterns. All of these elements have to be mutually adapted if the combination is to be biologically adaptive.

Intention Movement: An intention movement (Intentionsbewegung) is a premature attempt at a fully consummatory piece of behaviour. Such movements occur during the build-up of a particular drive, and indicate what Lorenz calls the "mood" of an animal. In his words, they are ".....nothing but a slight hint of a certain innate behaviour pattern, as will occur whenever action-specific excitation only reaches a very low level of intensity" (Lorenz, 1950:242). [For further discussion, click here.]

Intrusions: A type of displacement activity [compare thwartings]. This is where an element of behaviour "B" suddenly crops up in the middle of behaviour "A". Manning (1967) gives the example of momentary ground pecking (feeding) behaviour during a fight between two cockerels. Similarly, an incubating tern will make a few brief preening movements just before it flies off to escape an intruder.

Killing Bite: This is the name given to animals' stock-in-trade hunting bites. In polecats it is to the nape of the victim's neck, and in big cats it is to the windpipe. The behaviour itself is a potent mixture of innate and learned skills. [For fuller detail, click here]

Pecking Order: Another name for dominance hierarchy. (Applicable strictly only to birds, but loosely to any species, including humans.) [See more detailed discussion in Lesson 3.]

Reciprocal Altruism: There has recently been much study of altruistic (helping) behaviour in both man and animals. Hamilton (1964) was one of the first to point out that in evolutionary terms there was often a great deal of sense in non-selfish behaviour. Even if you were hungry it could make sense to share what little food you had. Cooperation, especially in the long run, was a winning strategy. This tendency (Morris, 1969, calls it the "cooperative urge") can be seen in many places. Goodall (1986) notes that when faced by predators monkeys will sacrifice their own life to save their infants, Morris (1969), in his analysis of the leadership behaviours of baboons, includes protection of the weak as one of the 10 essential roles, and Wilkinson (1983) has shown that vampire bats will share a blood meal if a kin bat has failed to feed. [For further examples, click here.]

Releaser (or "Releasing Stimulus"): Same thing as sign stimulus.

Releasing Ceremony: This is a logically related succession of separate stimulus-response exchanges, similar to the chain reflex described in Glossary 1. In Tinbergen's analysis of stickleback reproduction, for example, four releasing ceremonies are identified - (1) staking a territory, (2) nesting, (3) courting, and (4) hatching - with the transition from one to another being controlled by hormonal mechanisms [to refresh your memory, click here]. 

Sign Stimulus: A sign stimulus is the input element of one of the sequence of stimulus-response pairings making up a releasing ceremony. Sign stimuli are often regarded as relying for their detection on relatively central innate releasing mechanisms, but in fact can be accounted for by a range of input mechanisms, both peripheral and central. At the peripheral end of this spectrum of explanation, an environmental factor might be afforded sign stimulus status by nothing more than the selective sensitisation of the sensory organs. Thus a red-sensitive retina might explain the red sensitive behaviour of the territorial stickleback, and an elongated retina might explain an orientation sensitivity. We therefore repeat our earlier quotation from Lorenz:

"What formerly was very simply conceived of as 'an instinct' is shown by the advance of analysis to be a very complex mechanism of very distinct and very different constituents, such as endogenous automatisms, releasing mechanisms, taxes, kineses, and, maybe, quite a number of further as yet unrecognised particulate functions" (Lorenz, 1950:261).

This is why it is so important to follow Lloyd Morgan's canon, and always be on the look-out for the most parsimonious explanation of any single observation. Note also the curious phenomenon known as the supernormal stimulus.

Social Order: Many organisms, including some of the very simplest, live in colonies. However this factor in isolation does not imply any internal structure to those colonies. A handful of maggots, for example, is an amorphous wriggling mass in which no one maggot is any more important than, or doing anything differently to, any other. The same number of ants or bees, however would have an intricate structure of different jobs to do, and the same number of mammals would have an intricate web of kin and dominance relationships. This is known as social order, and serves to maintain an optimum environment for courtship and reproduction. [For more on chimpanzee social order click here, and for an introduction to robot social order click here.]

Supernormal Stimuli: Curiously enough, many sign stimulus investigations find that non-lifelike versions of a stimulus are actually more powerful releasers of the behaviour in question than are the corresponding naturally occurring stimuli. These are known as supernormal stimuli, and they provide yet another example of how instincts can be "fooled". In gulls, for example, egg-retrieval behaviour can easily be diverted from a real egg to a supernormal dummy; to a model which is literally "larger than life".

Threat Gesture: A sign stimulus produced by one animal towards a conspecific in an attempt to claim dominance over it, and thus right by seniority to food or mating opportunity. May be followed either by a appeasement gesture, in which case that right is confirmed, or by ritualised combat, in which case it is fought over. [See more detailed discussion in Lesson 3.]

Thwartings: A type of displacement activity [compare intrusions]. This is where the animal is physically prevented in engaging in a desired behaviour "A", but cannot prevent elements of behaviour "B" from occurring spontaneously. A thirsty dove, for example, will peck unnecessarily at the ground if it is prevented from getting to the water it is seeking. Similarly, Tinbergen (1952) describes how a male stickleback which has been courting an unreceptive female will suddenly break off, swim to the nesting site, and perform the characteristic egg-fanning movement of his fins which would otherwise not take place until well into the reproductive exchange.

Vacuum Activity: The concept of vacuum activity (Leerlaufreaktion) was introduced by Lorenz (1939) to describe the emergence of behaviour in the total absence of any related stimulus. Birds, for example, when deprived of suitable nesting material, will nevertheless go to the nesting box and perform all the movements of carrying and placing material even though they have nothing in their beaks. Again, the suspicion is that the drive has been dammed up beyond some threshold level, after which parts of the behavioural sequence trigger themselves spontaneously and in a disorganised way.


LESSON RATIONALE: And why does all this matter? Because humans are full of instincts (although they frequently do their best to hide them). Hence the next lesson .....


EXERCISES (AND STANDARD STUDY TIMES): Depending on how thoroughly you have been exploring the hyperlinks provided, it has probably taken you less than 30 minutes to read the foregoing text, and now you have to do some real work. Complete the following exercises, taking careful note of the expected study times:


Browse the Internet, starting with the keywords <Lorenz Tinbergen ethology>, but probing ever further afield as other potential keywords take your eye. Look to build up a small e-folio of useful general commentary, recent research, and up-and-coming new theories (advertisements for forthcoming conferences are very useful in this respect). Study this information carefully, and you will suddenly find yourself as good at, if not better than, the experts in your organisation. Specialist reference archives are particularly valuable so note their location carefully. [No formal time limit.]

Submitting Exercises for Assessment and Feedback (Fee-Paying Clients Only): Simply e-mail your answer(s) for full tutorial feedback. State each conclusion clearly, and briefly explain how you arrived at it. You may do this one exercise at a time, or all at once. Additional questions may then be asked, and additional tasks given as required. [Submit an Exercise] Please cooperate with this student-tutor exchange, because it will eventually form the basis of your individual student progress record. Do not proceed to Lesson OC3.2 until all the tutorial tasks are completed and signed off.


Lesson OC3.2: Human Ethology

Recommended Reading: "The Naked Ape" Morris, D. (1994)

To see an abstract, or to order this book, click here.

[book9 thumbnail not yet installed]


So what about humans? Is our behaviour, too, simply a function of hormonally induced drive states and involuntary releasing ceremonies? Are we - despite all our lofty pretensions - just rather large "animats", or are we - and this is one of the most far-reaching questions facing modern science - rational beings with minds of our own? We begin this line of investigation by looking briefly at the "popular science" of body language. This is an often over-marketed cousin of academic comparative psychology, and it attempts to identify fragments of silent signalling - or nonverbal communication - in our daily lives. Here are the main points on the timeline:

·         Charles Darwin ("The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals", 1872/1999). This was the first formal attempt to trace humankind's biological inheritance, and listed a range of emotional states - anxiety, joy, etc. - where both facial and postural behaviours were "innate or inherited" (p348) and "the same throughout the world" (p355).

·         Franz Boas (various, 1888-1944). Boas was the anthropologist who popularised the use of photography as a research tool. He began this work with still photography in 1894 and then moved on to movie film in the 1930s, focusing on the use of dance and gesture as methods of communication.

·         Margaret Mead ("Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis", 1942, as second author to Gregory Bateson; "Coming of Age in Samoa", 1953). Mead was one of Boas's students, and from 1925 conducted lengthy anthropological studies of Pacific islanders. She concluded that in many respects Darwin had overstated the case for emotional behaviours being the same throughout the world. There were commonalities, true, but the final presentation of a given emotion was more the result of cultural and environmental differences. 

The 1972 ("Revised") Efron System of Gestural Classification

"Ideational" Gestures: Gestures referring to the thought process itself

Speech Markers (also known as beats or baton signals: gestures to emphasise stress, new item markers, chunkings and groupings)

Ideographs (gestures sketching in space a logical train of thought or paralleling abstract thinking; includes metaphoric gestures, where the content consists of the story structure itself)

"Referential" Gestures: Gestures referring to the external world


Iconic (gestures of shape, spatial relationship, or action)

Pantomimic (gestures miming the role of the referent)


Deictic (pointings)

Symbolic (also known as emblems: gestures with a very precise but actually quite arbitrary meaning. Eg. the "Vee-sign" and similar insults)

From Feldman and Rimé (1991:248; after Efron (1941, 1972), but incorporating McNeill (1992:189).

The Intimate Distance: For lovers and family, the personal space is about 6-18 inches.

The Personal Distance: For close friends, the personal space is about 18-48 inches.

The Social Distance: For more general relationships, the personal space is about 4-12 feet.

The Public Distance: For public speaking, the personal space is 12 feet or more.

Whether actively interacting, or as strangers momentarily sharing a location, people position themselves at a psychologically comfortable distance from each other, and it is acutely stressful if these rules of interaction are broken. Hall (1959) named the science of personal space proxemics. Breaking the rules of personal space is one of the three major symptoms of poor social skills (the other two being poor conversational turn-taking and egocentrism). It is also one of the commonest areas of misunderstanding in intercultural interaction (see below). [For more specifically on proxemics, click here.]

·         Desmond Morris ("The Naked Ape", 1967; "The Human Zoo", 1969). Following Darwin's lead, Morris's two best-sellers looked for the biological roots of human behaviours in such areas as social grouping, dominance and status, mate selection, sexual fetishisms, and aggression. [To see Morris's website, click here.] Morris has also helped popularise the analysis of coverbal gesture, although as already noted the science is better credited formally to David Efron. Cassell (in press) reviews the recent academic literature in this area.

·         Albert Mehrabian ("Tactics of Social Influence", 1970; "Silent Messages", 1971; "Nonverbal Communication", 1972). It was Mehrabian who estimated (in Mehrabian, 1971) that visual communication accounted for 55% of information transmission in a given conversation, nonverbal auditory (eg. intonation) for 38%, and formal verbal content for a mere 7%, and who popularised (in Mehrabian, 1972) the term nonverbal communication (NVC).

·         Michael Watson ("Proxemic Behaviour: A Cross-Cultural Study", 1970). Continuing the anthropological tradition, Watson investigated cultural differences in proxemics, and found that some cultures - eg. Arab, Latin American, French, Italian, and Turkish - were "contact cultures" whereas others - eg. Germany, England, Norway, Japan, Southeast Asia, India, Pakistan, and the United States - were "noncontact cultures". This showed in daily conversation, where a CC interaction would be much more at ease with closer physical proximity, more body contact, and longer periods of mutual gaze than an NN interaction, and where NC interactions are typically uncomfortable and strained. Watson's work helped to usher in a whole series of books about how people brought up in differing NVC environments can communicate without constantly embarrassing themselves (and others) with faux pas. Hall, Chia, and Wang (1996) have recently produced evidence that the emotions of affection, anticipation, disgust, contempt, and acceptance are among the harder ones to interpret cross-culturally. There are many good sources of advice on this subject on the Internet, including Kevin Bucknall's notes on Chinese business etiquette and Seligman (1999).

·         Ray Birdwhistell ("Kinesics and context. Essays on body motion communication", 1970). Birdwhistell was another anthropologist, who in 1954 coined the term kinesics to describe the moving as opposed to the static aspects of NVC. After a long programme of cross-cultural observation, he concluded that emotional expression was predominantly culturally transmitted. [However, in the editorial to his 1999 edition of Darwin (1872/1999), Paul Ekman describes in some detail why we should regard this conclusion as academically unsafe.]

·         Julius Fast ("Body Language", 1971). Fast was one of the first to exploit the commercial potential of the earlier academic studies. "Body Language" was a pop-psychological best seller, because it analysed the NVC of sexual attraction. Here we have the issue of how men and women signal their interest in the opposite sex. Do we follow simple courtship rules like sticklebacks, for example, or are our choices more consciously determined? Many eye contact and postural signals have been identified.

·         Displacement Activity: You can see suspicions of displacement activity in such human activities as whistling, ear pulling, nose scratching, lip licking, hand rubbing, cigarette lighting, key jangling, beard stroking, eating and drinking, hair twiddling, and shrugging to relieve tension. Such behaviours are particularly easy to observe in people dining alone, for this is normally a group behaviour in humans.

·         Sport: Desmond Morris ("The Soccer Tribe", 1981) has speculated at length about a possible relationship between our history as hunters and our liking for competitive sport. Why, for example, is it possible so instantly and accurately to interpret the head-clasp of conceding a point and the air-punch of scoring one? Similarly, Greer (1983) and Clayman (1993) have studied the effects of spectator booing on team advantage.

·         Commercial Skills: Here we have the issue of whether it is possible to increase the effectiveness of a commercial salesforce by explicit training in NVC. Training regimes under this heading will usually be directed at developing and then exploiting the psychological bond between the salesperson and the potential customer. Other areas of commercial life where NVC has a part to play are in the sciences of effective leadership, customer relationship management, and corporate loyalty. These are so important that entire lessons are devoted them later in this programme.

·         Career Development: A recent survey by the confidence consultant Ros Taylor has highlighted the importance of confidence in getting ahead. Being pushy, ambitious, arrogant, and - above all - assertive, are far better predictors of success than ability to do the job (The Daily Mail, 5th April 2001). [For further details, see Taylor (2000).]

·         Lie Detection (informally, "Pinocchio Science"): Here we have the issue of how people can reveal dishonesty by involuntary facial and postural signs (that is to say, by behavioural indicators rather than by the physiological indicators utilised in the polygraph lie detector).

·         Assault (Including Rape): There is a school of thought which holds that at least some physical assaults, including rapes, result from the victim somehow over-signalling submissiveness. Thus a "mild-mannered" "nerd" might attract (or, more precisely, not divert) more aggression than a "regular guy", and a behaviourally naive female might look an easier target than a worldly wise one. Murzynski and Degelman (1996) have shown, for example, that even such simply factors as fluency of movement can affect the perception of vulnerability. [For a more detailed review, see Binder (1999).]

·         What Makes a Baby Attractive: Sternglantz, Gray, and Murakami (1977) showed undergraduates a variety of baby-face line drawings in which chin size, eye width, eye height, and iris size were varied systematically. They found that "cute" facial features were reliably preferred, that there was little difference between male and female preferences, and that what made for "cuteness" was a balance between chin and forehead, and large eyes with medium-sized irises. The authors note that one of the possible functions of cuteness is to defuse adult male aggression, even to the extent that infants who are deficient in the relevant dimensions might thereby be predisposed to battered child syndrome.

·         Autism and Eye Gaze: Both Hutt and Ounsted (1966) and Tinbergen and Tinbergen (1972) have analysed the syndrome of early infantile autism (Kanner's autism) in terms of deficiencies in eye contact behaviour. Hutt and Ounsted studied eight autistic children between three and six years old, and observed that when wanting to be picked up by their carer they kept their faces averted. Tinbergen and Tinbergen (1972) discussed the implications of Hutt and Ounsted's work, in the light of the child-stranger interaction of normal children. Again, they looked especially at the phenomenon of gaze aversion. In normal children two main response patterns were noted. One was an immediately positive response of eye contact and smiling. The other was a blank expression, aimed slightly past the adult's eyes. If pressed at this juncture, the negatively responding child would then close its eyes for several seconds, and, upon reopening them, either switch immediately to a positive response or else intensify the negative one. Even in normals, therefore, a sufficiently stressful encounter can provoke withdrawal behaviour: normal children are "very keen to establish a social bond", but are prevented from doing so by "negative tendencies" (p27). In autists, however, the negative tendencies somehow get the upper hand.

·         Stuttering and Eye Gaze: Similarly, there have been attempts to trace stuttering back to deficient eye contact behaviours. Lasalle and Conture (1991) found that eye contact was significantly more frequent between young (mean 57.0 months) boy stutterers and their mothers during stuttering than for normals during fluency, and they suggested that this might be due to two behaviours on the part of the mother. Firstly, a mother would look to monitor her child's speech production, and secondly she would look to inform him that he still had her attention. They warn, therefore, that too much eye contact might be just as bad as too little.

·         Facial Imitation: Field, Woodson, Greenberg, and Cohen (1982) studied the ability of 36-hour infants to imitate the facial expression of their mothers, and found not only that adult facial expressions could be differentiated (a presumption based upon the observation that they produced different amounts of eye fixation), but that the equivalent infantile imitations also followed more often than by chance. Thus the most common cause of an infantile widened lips was a happy adult face, while the most common cause of a pout was a sad adult face, and the most common cause of a wide open mouth was a surprised adult face. [For a detailed discussion of facial imitation, click here.]

·         Smiling: Darwin himself (op. cit.) noted the ability of the human infant's smile to elicit protective behaviour from adult carers. Freedman (1964) reviewed work on the smiling responses of sighted, blind, deaf, and blind-deaf human infants. In normals, a speaking moving face is the most effective elicitor of smiling, and the peak response period is between three and six months. In blind infants, there are differences but these only tend to occur after several years, and can be attributed to the lack of opportunity to imitate visually. The main early difference was that the smiles of blind infants are fleeting and "reflex-like". All impaired infants start to smile to social stimulation at about the same age as normals, "which indicates that no single sensory channel is the exclusive releaser of smiling" (op. cit., p182).

·         Facial Emotion: Ekman, Friesen, and Ellsworth (1972) review the evidence for cross-cultural universals in the ability to recognise facial emotion. They studied the emotional judgements of observers from 14 widely different cultures, and found "conclusive" evidence for at least some universals. Happiness, fear, surprise, anger, disgust, and sadness are particularly highly correlated. They stress, however, that this is not final proof of innate neural "programs", because common learning experience alone would be a sufficient explanation. Rinn (1991) is an excellent source on the neuropsychology of facial expressions, if interested, including those activated by fixed actions patterns. [To experiment with some build-it-yourself cartoon faces click here.]

·         Laughter: Jason Rutter, of the University of Salford, has studied the interaction between performers and their audiences during the delivery of humour. He sees laughter as being invited by the speaker from his audience in much the same way that pauses signal turn-taking in conventional conversation. [For some positively fascinating examples, click here.]

·         The Eyes: Guthrie (1970) points out that only in humans are the whites of the eyes (the sclera) visible. In all other mammals only the pupil and iris can readily be seen. This is because the sclera play an important role in communication. "We have an uncanny ability," he says, "to determine the exact position of an individual's stare even though he is on the other side of the room - merely from judging the symmetrical alignment of a round pattern (iris) on a spherical one (eyeball). Exposure of the white sclera aids considerably in that ability. [The sclera] allow the transmission of fairly precise signals from the eyes." (pp268-269.) [For more recent reviews of this area, click here.]

·         Drama, Public Speaking, and Political Oratory: There are a number of quite diverse aspects to this area of study. Bougehold (1999), for example, has studied the use of postural and gestural coverbals in Greek literature, and concludes that many rather obscure texts were written primarily for public performance and make little sense without knowledge of the body language used during that performance. Canada's Opera Atelier website takes this further, giving explicit stage directions to performers wishing to convey particular emotions to their audiences without using words [for examples, click here]. Similarly, Peter Bull of the University of York has shown that politicians rely heavily on gesturally-assisted rhetorical devices. In one paper (Bull, 1990), he studied videoed party political speeches and found that most gestures either coincided exactly with a vocal stress point or emphasised it in some direct way.

All in all, the formal science of human ethology and the popular science of body language have uncovered many fascinating issues, even if the academic jury is still awaiting conclusive evidence on many of them. But the award for the most sustained research programme of all goes without doubt to the work of Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Honorary Director of the Ludwig-Boltzmann Institute for Urban Ethology in Vienna. As a young man, Professor Eibl-Eibesfeldt studied under Konrad Lorenz himself, and began his academic career researching animal behaviour [to see the polecat story again, click here]. He then used the skills he had acquired to make a hard science out of human ethology. His achievements are summarised in a private subscription library of video and audio cameos sponsored by the Max Planck Society and the University of Munich. [To see Eibl-Eibesfeldt's homepage click here, and for more on the study resource proper click here.]


LESSON RATIONALE: And why does all this matter? Because there is a growing recognition that both personal and commercial success (not to mention the future of the entire human race) depends upon our being in touch with, and therefore being able to manage, our animal inheritance. Hence the next lesson .....


EXERCISES (AND STANDARD STUDY TIMES): Depending on how thoroughly you have been exploring the hyperlinks provided, it has probably taken you less than 30 minutes to read the foregoing text, and now you have to do some real work. Complete the following exercises, taking careful note of the expected study times:


Browse the Internet, starting with the keywords <gesture language> and <social skill>, but probing ever further afield as other potential keywords take your eye. Look to build up a small e-folio of useful general commentary, recent research, and up-and-coming new theories (advertisements for forthcoming conferences are very useful in this respect). Study this information carefully, and you will suddenly find yourself as good at, if not better than, the experts in your organisation. Specialist reference archives are particularly valuable so note their location carefully. [No formal time limit.]


Access the facial expression site at [click here], and set the parameters to print off the expression of your boss (a) when angry, and (b) when pleased. [1 hour.]


Discretely observe the behaviour at a busy commercial service point (eg. cash machine or check-out). What displacement behaviours can be identified when someone is beaten to the queue, and do these behaviours differ with age, ethnicity, or gender? [2 hours.]


Discretely observe the behaviour at a restaurant table or in a cafeteria queue. What vacuum activities or intention movements can be identified when someone is getting hungry but is not yet able to start eating, and do these behaviours differ with age, ethnicity or gender? [2 hours.]


In small groups, take it in turns to playact the behaviour by which you would signal silent apologies to a senior male speaker upon being late to enter his presentation. Repeat for a junior male speaker, and both senior and junior female speakers. [1 hour.]


In small groups, take it in turns to playact the behaviour by which you would signal that you need to leave an important meeting to answer a call of nature. Would it make a difference if opposite sex colleagues were present? [1 hour.]


In small groups, take it in turns to playact the behaviour by which you would signal that you are in a hurry and would like to bring a conversation with a senior male to a close. Repeat for a junior male, and both senior and junior females. [1 hour.]


[If circumstances permit] Discretely observe a new arrival in an organisation for evidence of imprinting. [2 hours.]


[If circumstances permit] While a same-sex colleague is away from his/her desk, start working at it yourself. Carefully note your colleague's reactions when s/he returns. Repeat for an opposite-sex colleague, noting any gender differences in response. [1 hours.]


[COMMERCIALLY IMPORTANT] Discretely observe your organisation's customer facing operations (eg. lobby, helpdesk, or point of sale). What fears and uncertainties can you detect in a person approaching for the first time? [2 hours.] CONTINUED ...........


[COMMERCIALLY IMPORTANT] ..... How are those potential new customers then made welcome? (That is to say, how are their fears and uncertainties dispelled?) Or are they ignored, and a potentially major sales opportunity lost? [2 hours.]

Submitting Exercises for Assessment and Feedback (Fee-Paying Clients Only): Simply e-mail your answer(s) for full tutorial feedback. State each conclusion clearly, and briefly explain how you arrived at it. You may do this one exercise at a time, or all at once. Additional questions may then be asked, and additional tasks given as required. [Submit an Exercise] Please cooperate with this student-tutor exchange, because it will eventually form the basis of your individual student progress record. Do not proceed to Lesson OC3.3 until all the tutorial tasks are completed and signed off.


Lesson OC3.3: Social Order and Aggression 

Recommended Reading: "Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language" Dunbar, R. (1997)

To see an abstract, or to order this book, click here

[Dunbar jacket]


In Lesson 2, we saw that many ethological concepts and terms can profitably be applied to human behaviour as well as to animal behaviour. However, we deliberately deferred our main discussion of social order and aggression until now, because the linked topics of dominance, threat, and submission are important enough to warrant a lesson on their own.

The entry level concept here is that of the pecking order, an idea which derives from an analysis of the social behaviour of chickens by the Norwegian psychologist Schjelderup-Ebbe (1922). He noted that one hen literally ruled the roost, being at the top of a complex hierarchy (in German, Hackordnung) of who was "allowed" to peck whom. This sets up the sort of dominance hierarchy described in Lesson 1. Similar pecking orders exist (mutatis mutandis) in many mammal species, and are common, in particular, in carnivores and primates.

The problem with pecking orders, however, is that pecking, biting, and scratching can hurt. The beak, teeth, and claws are weapons, and if a species is to thrive it cannot allow too many potential reproducers to be killed unnecessarily. The pecking order therefore needs to be very closely policed to ensure that actual injury is rare, and the upshot is that animals are frequently "all mouth and no trousers": they shout (or charge, or butt, or lock antlers, or snarl, etc.), but are ready to back off if (a) appeased (whereupon they win), or (b) the rival shouts back louder (whereupon they lose).

Here is a brief review of the mechanisms by which the dominance hierarchy is maintained in humans:

·         Physical Challenge: This is usually consists of a rapid forward lunge, or an attempt, or feigned attempt, at striking or kicking.

·         Vocalisation: Dominance can also be asserted by screeching, screaming, and shouting. If delivered from a distance, this will often be accompanied by movements towards the object of attention, and if delivered face-to-face will be accompanied by a forward jaw thrust so as to deliberately violate the other person's personal space.

·         Eyes and Eyebrows: The eyes and eyebrows are extremely versatile organs of nonverbal communication, being able to deliver an intimidatory stare as well as signalling submission. Indeed, movements of the brow play a part in communicating many emotional messages. By and large a thick brow serves to give the underlying structure a more massive appearance. Guthrie (1970) also notes that human females 'make up' artificial eyebrows at a raised position of appeasement and attentiveness.

·         Lips and Teeth: These are used in two ways. In the angry face, the upper lip is drawn very tight to relatively low corners, and the jaw is slightly open and stiffened to display our rather puny canine teeth. In the fear face, on the other hand, the jaw is tightly clenched, the upper lip is a lot slacker, and the corners of the mouth are drawn up by tension in the cheek muscles. This serves to show more teeth. The fear face is believed by many to be the evolutionary forerunner of the smile.

·         Looming and Slumping: Many long animals threaten by turning broadside on (a behaviour often used to deter would-be predators as well), and emphasising one's height is regularly part of the threat display repertoire in ground-dwelling species. Riskind (1984) points to one interesting residue of such behaviours in humans. He asks (p479): "Why do many people seem to slump or shrink, almost as if they are hiding, when they face personal failures? Why do many seem to rise up and physically expand in height and size when they face personal gains or triumphs?" He found that slumping not only follows some sort of perceived setback, but that if it is artificially induced in a success situation it seriously erodes the person's perception of that success. Indeed, there are several height-lowering submission behaviours, such as bowing and cringing. Guthrie (op. cit.) even points to the way such height-related concepts can enter spoken language in such phrases as "your highness", "stuck-up", "feeling low", etc. Sheer physical size is also important in deciding whether to challenge a threat gesture or to submit to it. However, this is not true of the territorial defence challenges of sticklebacks (see Lesson 1). If a big stickleback strays into the territory of a small one, the small one will not hesitate in attempting to drive it off, and the big one will accept the signal and back away. The aggression in this case is more the assertion of "first come, first served" than of dominance, and there must therefore be quite significant genetic programming differences between stickleback threat displays and, say, wolf or baboon threat displays.

·         Scalp Hair (And Lack Thereof): Scalp hair can be erected into a threat crest in many species. This can be done bilaterally or medially. Grey and receding hair, on the other hand, is not a totally negative sign, in that it commands some authority by virtue of the maturity and wisdom which go with it.

·         The Beard and Chin: Prominent beards "arose as structures of aggression used by mature males to intimidate other mature males" (Guthrie, 1970:262). In many primates and a number of non-primates, "the chin and cheek whiskers increase the apparent mass of the lower face - the area important to animals that fight and communicates with their mouths" (ibid.). As a result, it is aggressive to jut out the chin, and submissive to drop it down towards the chest.

·         Social Grooming Theory: Inferiors in a social hierarchy often ingratiate themselves with their superiors by grooming them. They remain inferior, but they become preferred inferiors; seconds and thirds in command rather than out-and-out leaders. Robin Dunbar of Liverpool University has developed an interesting theory of how and why this behaviour has shaped not just modern human society, but the modern human brain as well (Dunbar, 1993). Noting that grooming behaviour went on far longer than was strictly necessary for the removal of ticks and burrs, he hypothesised that it must be serving some greater purpose than mere mutual cleansing, specifically maintaining group coherence. He called this phenomenon social grooming. He then saw the entire process of human evolution as relying on three interacting and co-evolving factors, namely brain size, group size, and language. Language, he argued, was simply a more efficient form of social grooming than fur picking: true it required a bigger brain, but it enabled a larger, and therefore more globally competent, and therefore more successful, social group.

So much for vertical social order - the dominance hierarchy - but what about horizontal social order? What about family versus family, or tribe versus tribe, or nation versus nation, or race versus race? How is it - and this is perhaps the most urgent of all humanity's burning issues - if overt intraspecific aggression is so rare in nature, that humans keep killing each other by the million? No other group of animals is more ruthless in its aggression than adult humans, with Richardson (1960) estimating that in the period 1820-1945 there were at least 59 million war-related human deaths. As to why this should be, one common explanation is that humans have learned to kill at a distance, so that their aggression can no longer be moderated by any submission ritual. Human wars are rarely face-to-face affairs. Instead, they are concept-to-concept or emotion-to-emotion in minds often many thousands of miles apart. This is why a soldier can offer a cigarette to a prisoner whom he had been trying to kill only a few minutes previously. It is also why weapons of mass destruction delivered by pushing an anonymous "missile away" button have always posed such a threat.

This is a promising and recurring theme. In small tribal groups [to see how Australian aborigines ritualise their disagreements, click here], man's aggression can be appropriately controlled, but the change away from that way of life has happened too quickly for the biological protections to co-evolve. In his 1969 book The Human Zoo, Morris gives us the concept of the "supertribe", that is to say, a social unit bigger than the stone age tribal unit, and sees the problem as going back into the neolithic period of civilisation, thus:

"By our standards the Sumerian cities were small, with populations ranging from 7000 to no more than 20000. Nevertheless, our simple tribesman had already come a long way. He had become a citizen, a super-tribesman, and the key difference was that in a super-tribe he no longer knew personally every member of his community. It was this change, the shift from the personal to the impersonal society, that was going to cause the human animal its greatest agonies in the millennia ahead. As a species we were not biologically equipped to cope with a mass of strangers masquerading as members of our tribe." (Morris, 1969:20; emphasis original.)

Dunbar's social grooming theory (see above) also has a lot to say on this. Dunbar plots group size against the ability to "service" the increasing number of relationships involved. Other things being equal, he calculated that a 200-person human group would have to devote 56.6% of its day to manual social grooming, just to maintain that workable group, and this would gravely curtail its ability to do all the other things - hunting, building, cooking, etc. - needing to be done. With language, however, the social grooming is done in seconds rather than minutes, with brief social greetings (eg. "hello-how-are-you") delivered more or less in passing.

So the problems only arise when civilisation moved man into groupings larger than he was used to, and more complex perhaps than he was (or still is) psychologically and behaviourally ready for. With civilisation comes the problem that you no longer know all your neighbours. Moreover, you get new rivalries between separate civilisations themselves. As a result, if you are "in-group" you are OK, but if you are "out-group" then you had better beware. In this way, all modern conflict can be reduced to this insufficiency of appeasement behaviour in the face of a very dangerous propensity for developing different belief systems. Zegans (1971) puts it this way: "The human thus appears unique among primates in that man will die for symbols and slaughter for abstractions while often ignoring the biological survival needs of his own people" (p359). Even the clothes on our backs have been held to be means of aggression and social order. Thus:

"All male costume tends to become a uniform, by which is meant not something which is worn by everyone, but something that can be worn only by certain people. Once any kind of civilisation has been established we find a whole system of uniforms. The King has a special dress, so has the Priest. In this sense, the dress of all men of a certain social rank is a uniform." (Laver, 1964:102.)

" wars or clashes between clans man often uses artificial supersymbols of threat, almost always modeled after the ancestral devices: the bearskin hat, warpaint, the war bonnet, plumes, brilliantly coloured attire, and very loud sounds." (Guthrie, 1970:297).

"The uniform [worn by offenders in a correctional institution] can reinforce group cohesion and provide a common identity and role perspective among those in uniform. As a potential consequence, however, it can also alienate non-uniformed staff ....." (Correctional Service of Canada, Report B-02, February 1989).

And Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1974) explains how teasing and mocking behaviour also has a distinct social purpose. "By teasing and mocking," he writes, "group homogeneity is enforced and an outlet for aggression provided. [] Mocking is done by imitating the patterns which provoked the hostility of the group and thus ridiculing it" (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1974:452). On a smaller scale, Charlie Chaplin, it seems, would mercilessly pantomime the idiosyncrasies of any ingénue who irritated him.

The whole of Study Unit OC4 [NOT YET AVAILABLE] will be devoted to the depths to which humans can descend in times of intergroup rivalry, out-and-out war, or even in the privacy of their own front room, that is to say, to the "darker side" of humanity; the time when things go wrong with the delicately balanced relationship between our minds and our animal selves.

LESSON RATIONALE: And why does all this matter? Because organisations are microcosms - societies in miniature. They have similar pecking orders, and similar affiliation and conflict groupings, and only if these natural tendencies are properly understood and allowed for will the overall organisation be healthy. We return to this issue in Unit OC4.

EXERCISES (AND STANDARD STUDY TIMES): Depending on how thoroughly you have been exploring the hyperlinks provided, it has probably taken you less than 30 minutes to read the foregoing text, and now you have to do some real work. Complete the following exercises, taking careful note of the expected study times:


Browse the Internet, starting with the keywords <social order dominance>, but probing ever further afield as other potential keywords take your eye. Look to build up a small e-folio of useful general commentary, recent research, and up-and-coming new theories (advertisements for forthcoming conferences are very useful in this respect). Study this information carefully, and you will suddenly find yourself as good at, if not better than, the experts in your organisation. Specialist reference archives are particularly valuable so note their location carefully. [No formal time limit.]


List as many characteristics of a dominant person as you can. Study the behaviour of a WWF (World Wrestling Federation) wrestler during the ritual pre-bout challenge. How many biological dominance signals can you identify, and how well are they being faked. [1 hour.]


Ask (a) a male friend, and (b) a female friend, to interact with you over a period of time wearing mirrored sunglasses. Record any experiences of discomfort. Ask (a) a male friend, and (b) a female friend, to stand proudly. Describe all postural and gestural displays, and record any sex differences which emerge. [2 hours.]


Estimate how many people you know (a) by sight, (b) by nodding acquaintance, (c) by name, (d) to talk to, but not as family or friends, and (e) family and friends. Dunbar says that (d) and (e) added together should be about 200. Is this right? [1 hour.]


Estimate how many people you would happily lend £100 to. Then identify five you would not feel safe lending money to, and state why not. [1 hour. Keep the identities of the distrusted five to yourself for legal reasons.]


[COMMERCIALLY IMPORTANT] Study the academic literature for introductory material on authoritarianism, paternalism, and dominance and deference in professional interaction. [2 hours.] What issues does this research raise, and what implications do these issues have for a healthy organisational communication? [5 hours. You may submit a short essay under the title "Does authoritarian management work?" if you prefer.]


[COMMERCIALLY IMPORTANT] Despite all the problems, pecking orders actually work (and have done for several hundred million years). Suggest how this deeply ingrained preference for clear hierarchical structures might legislate against the modern trend towards "leaner flatter" organisations and self-managing teams. [5 hours. You may submit a short essay under the title "Do employees need hierarchy?" if you prefer.]

Submitting Exercises for Assessment and Feedback (Fee-Paying Clients Only): Simply e-mail your answer(s) for full tutorial feedback. State each conclusion clearly, and briefly explain how you arrived at it. You may do this one exercise at a time, or all at once. Additional questions may then be asked, and additional tasks given as required. [Submit an Exercise] Please cooperate with this student-tutor exchange, because it will eventually form the basis of your individual student progress record. Do not proceed until all the tutorial tasks are completed and signed off.


So Where To Next?

If you got to this point by mistake, click to return as appropriate:

Back to Top

Otherwise, congratulations!! You have reached the end of Unit OC3 of the ORGANISATIONAL COMMUNICATION programme.



Beaty, D. (1969). The Human Factor in Aircraft Accidents. London: Secker and Warburg.

Birdwhistell, R. (1970). Kinesics and Context: Essays on Body Motion Communication. Philadephia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Bougehold, A.L. (1999). When a Gesture was Expected: A Selection of Examples from Archaic and Classical Greek Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Cannon, W.B. (1927). The thalamic theory of emotion. American Journal of Psychology, 39:115-124.

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