Category Archives: ethology

To "Lose the Plot"


So, here we are again, with 3 shooters (one, as I write this, “holed up but in talks” with the French police), for each of whom the media & the public are trying to arrive at a differential diagnosis: “mad” (in the British sense of the word, meaning: “crazy”) or “bad”? To cut to the chase, as usual, I think the more relevant distinction is between “mad/crazy” and “mad/angry.” But I digress.

Into this quagmire of Anglo-American failure(s) to communicate, I am tossing an old expression [to “go haywire,” from 1915] and a 21st Century one [to “lose the plot”]. Notice, if you will, my choice of the present participle, “tossing” [“used…to express present or continuing action or state of being” Webster’s New World Dictionary, 3rd edition]. When we say an individual “goes haywire,” or “loses the plot,” do we mean to say [pace Sir Bob Geldof] “the silicon chip inside her head gets switched to overload,” and stays in the Overload position? [Notice how cunningly Sir Bob, who knows his English grammar, for all he’s an Irishman, uses/used the ambiguous “gets”? Could be my least favorite tense, the historical present, or could be a recurrent thing that happens with this particular shooter’s brain every Monday, that her chip always gets switched. Nar’mean?] If you were born yesterday, you may not know that the song’s title, “I Don’t Like Mondays,” is the verbatim explanation that a real life school girl gave, for her shooting spree.

Americans who use the phrase, to “lose the plot,” mean [according to the Urban Dictionary], an individual got mad/angry about something and acted out aggressively. The Brits say “He’s lost the plot,” and mean that an individual has gone mad/crazy and is now acting erratically, posing a danger to self & others. Who knows if it’s “an on-going situation,” or it will clear up at sunrise?

Now, I shall use an animal metaphor [as I am always doing, not just this one time]. I was watching the steeplechase (hurdle jumping) racing from Cheltenham [UK] on HRtv the other morning, with my usual attitude of neutrality. “Let all riders & horses survive these grueling contests of attrition without major mishap,” I bid Poseiden. But, in two consecutive races [one for mares & one for male horses] several jockeys “came off” as they went over jumps. Unlike the Santa Anita flat races described in my last post, there were no outriders to wrangle the riderless horses. A few horses carried on jumping the fences, even though they had the option to avoid them and to “run on the flat” parallel to them, if they wanted to “stay with the herd” and cross the finish line. One mare seemed to “figure out” that she could make better time by going around the fences rather than over them; and she gave the front runner quite a challenge. If this had been a scene from a Disney-type movie [like Racing Stripes or Mary Poppins], it would have been easy to attribute the human motive to these riderless jumpers, that they “knew the mission and were going to see it through.” Even so, what was the “mission”? [What was the “plot”?] To jump every fence on the course, or to cross the finish line first? Which horses, then, had “lost the plot”? Or had they all “lost the plot,” when they kept on racing even though they had lost their riders? Cut them some slack, will ya? They’re horses. Herd animals. Born to run with their reference group.

What about these 3 shooters? [There may have been more by the time you read this. I am referring to the Staff Sgt. in Afghanistan, the vigilante in Florida, and the Algerian in France.] Each one of them has been described by those who “knew” them, as “not the sort of person to do such [aggressive] things.” Did they “lose the plot” and “go haywire,” or were they “wild” all along, but no one knew it? Well, folks, we all are. That’s the point of this blog. The specific “irritant” that “got up the nose” of each of these shooters [and led to their acts of aggression] may or may not ever be revealed to us; but it’s a salutary exercise to try to speculate about it. Human behavior is complex, but not inexplicable. To say that an individual “must have just snapped” or “gone haywire,” or [temporarily or permanently] “lost the plot,” is to explain nothing.

After all, these are human beings, not horses. Yet, even the actions of horses are complex [but not random, although we cannot always predict them]. The horse in this picture is one of the wild ones on the Outer Banks, photographed by my 90-something mother-in-law (something of a wild one, herself).

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Filed under aggression happens, attribution theory, ethology, semiotics

Born This Way?


This, from last Tuesday’s Washington Post: “Fido won’t sit? Blame his genes.” This slipshod article is loosely based on a study conducted at the Department of Ethology & the Department of Medical Chemistry at 2 separate universities in Budapest, Hungary, entitled “Polymorphism in the Tyrosine Hydroxylase (TH) Gene Is Associated with Activity-Impulsivity in German Shepherd Dogs.” Still paying attention?

For me, the most fascinating finding was that, regarding this herenow gene, there was great variance between different dog breeds. (Which wasn’t the point of the study at all, mind you. They were supposed to be focusing on within-breed differences. Seem to have gotten a little sidetracked, no?) “For example, the frequency of allele 2 is 31% in Groenandaels [Belgian Shepherds to you & me], 0.89% in German shepherds, and 0.73% in wolves.” Got wolf? Yes, I do, near as dammit.

Now, to the weakest link of the study: the operational definition of Activity-Impulsivity in dogs. First they modified the standard parents-kvetching-about-their-kids ADHD checklist to “apply” to owners-kvetching-about-their-dogs. No items from this questionnaire appeared in the article. Trust them, it had great inter-rater reliability. Swell. How about validity? What they call ADHD, I might call hypervigilance [which is what my wolflike German shepherd manifests, ja?]. Or, possibly, Separation Anxiety, which she also has.

Next they conducted a 4-task individual test for 104 dog & owner pairs, with a female experimenter present. (1)”Spontaneous activity.” Dog on leash with owner [not giving any commands] for 1 minute. [How many leg movements did the dog make?] (2)”Separation & play.” With owner “hiding” behind a nearby tree & dog tied to another tree, the experimenter tries to engage the dog in a game of tug-of-war. [How active was the dog?] (3)”Lying on the side.” Owner commands the dog to lie down, then has it lie on its side for 30 seconds. [Does the dog obey?] (4)”Approaching the owner.” While experimenter holds the dog on a leash, the owner “hides” behind a tree. Then the dog is let off the leash and given the command “Go!” back to the owner. Now, get a load of this! The more quickly the dog returns to its owner, the more “ADHD” it is! Seriously.

Who knew the Hungarians placed such a premium on taking your sweet time when summoned by “the boss”?

Ooh! So, would they then predict that wolves [with an even lower frequency of the TH gene] would return to their pack leader even faster than our dog Lili? [Which I would have thought had survival value…] Wolves must be “ADHD” as all getout.

Notice that nowhere in the study was “Sitting on command” assessed.

May I suggest that you henceforth take the “Science News” section of the WaPo with a grain of salt? As they sing in Porgy & Bess, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

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Filed under ethology, murky research, sharks and jets

Why the long face?

Chances are, if you are a horse or a human at an equestrian barn, that hang-dog look means you have just suffered a humiliation.

The other day my San Francisco daughter (who has been riding horses since she was 7, including, in better times, our magnificent 18hh Hanoverian, Owen) called to say, “Well, good. I finally met the Barn Bitch.” She had decided to reallocate her discretionary income, from hanging with 20-somethings at Frisco watering holes, to hanging with a 20-something horse in Oakland, name of Zachary. (Which is also her boss’ name, innit?) Until that day, everyone she had met at the barn had been helpful and welcoming.

I, too, began riding at the age of 7; and have never, in more than a dozen different barns, in the US and Europe, failed to encounter at least one trainer stuck in a permanent state of rage. There is also always at least one horse in a permanent Bad Mood. In the UK, where horses are not exotic, and mingle freely with motorists and pedestrians, such a “known kicker and/or biter” is likely to have a red ribbon tied to its tail. If only the Barn Bitch came with such a warning label!

Let’s do a bit of ethology, to try to figure out why “There’s (at least) one in every crowd.” Horses, it must be understood, are both pack animals and prey animals. In the wild, survival depends on being “well in” with the herd, whose members can better fend off predators. Yet, when forage is scarce, survival depends on being of high enough status to get first dibs on the food. Battles for supremacy involve biting and kicking; and size does not always matter. (Even a fierce little dog can growl a horse away from food which is of no nutritional value to the terrier, itself. Hence, the English expression, “to act like a dog in the manger.”) Indeed, at riding barns, it is most often a small mare or even a pony who wears the red ribbon.

And so, to the psychology of the Barn Bitch. It is rarely the owner of the establishment who snarls (at potential customers). It may not even be the head trainer, whose alpha status allows first pick of horses, tack, and students, making it more likely that they will win the on-going zero-sum-game, into which all human/horse endeavors [not just show events, or races, but even lessons] morph. It is the “Not Quites,” the Wannabe trainers, who are left with the nags, the old tack and the less promising students, who suffer humiliation, which they pass along, like the Old Maid card, usually to unsuspecting newcomers.

Once you know who should be wearing a red ribbon, it’s easier to put out your own subtext message, loud & clear: “I’m not your enemy, but I’m not your victim.” Now, jump out of the manger, and let my horse eat. An old hand at such scenarios, my daughter held her ground; and the erstwhile Barn Bitch morphed into a lap dog.

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Filed under aggression happens, ethology, power subtext, zero-sum-gaming

"I have a bone to pick with you."


Like most idioms in your first language, the meaning of this one seems obvious: “You and I have a score to settle.” But why does it mean that? Why a zero-sum-game power-struggle vibe, rather than, “Oh, look! I’ve brought a bone that we can share, cuz I’m an altruistic mammal.” [See this week’s NYTimes Science section, for a heart-warming University of Chicago study of (relatively) “free” rats liberating caged rats, even if they did not then get to enjoy the newly-freed rats’ company. They even saved and shared their chocolates with their less fortunate brethren, like something out of a Festive Seasonal Disney flick.]

My extensive collection of Word & Phrase Origin books shed no light on the (bone) subject, so I ventured into [onto?] the web, where I found a site (Usingenglish.com) intended for the wising up of those for whom English is a second language. Mint, nar’mean? They don’t bother with derivations, just plug & chug [“This means that. Just memorize it, already.”] definitions. Other sites attempting to explain whence cometh the bone-to-pick-with-you idiom get all vague and say “Dating from the 15th or 16th century. Referring to two dogs fighting over a bone. See bone of contention.”

So, what? Before the 1400s, English dogs behaved with ratlike altruism and shared their bones? I should cocoa! [Try finding the derivation of that idiom, I dare ya. I’ve been looking ever since I first heard it used in Ealing Studios comedies, in the (19)60s.] Then came the reign of the Tudors, and the Great Bone Panic. [I just made that up. Use of the Poetic speech function.]

And thus, to the bone I have to pick with the NYTimes science reporter, Sindya N. Bhanoo. As with most attributions of species-wide behavioral traits [including the sweetie-sharing rats of Chicago], there is the danger of extrapolating beyond the data. I suspect, for instance, that the “altruism” of the lab rats [which was found more consistently in the females, incidentally] is another manifestation of the Oxytocin effect, in which In-group members are tended & defended, whereas Out-group members [street rats, for instance], would receive short shrift.

Likewise, the Tudor dogs who were observed [proverbially] contending over bones may have been those indolent little hand-fed ones who hung around Hampton Court Palace [not the noble Big Dogs who went out with the hunting parties, and could forage bones galore out in the woods].

Alas, the thoroughly modern Lili is only allowed stage prop Nylabones, which she nevertheless seems to value highly, since she usually tries to pick [gnaw] two of them at once.

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Filed under attribution theory, ethology, murky research, zero-sum-gaming

"Just looking for some touch."


That’s a canny wee lad, yon man fro’ Nazareth. Meaning, of course, Dan McCafferty, the legendary frontman of that Scottish rock band which took its name from the first line of the song “The Weight” by that Canadian rock band, The Band: “Pulled into Nazareth, was feelin’ ’bout halfpast dead.” D’ye ken? [By which they (The Band) meant, of course, the little town in the LeHigh Valley of Pennsylvania, not far from the towns of Emmaus and Bethlehem.] Dearie me! How Metalingual this post is turning out to be!

What the brilliant Mr. McCafferty did, while singing his live cover of the ZZ Top song, “Tush,” was to replace that arcane and confusing word [Dusty Hill pronounces it to rhyme with “hush”; yet he seems to be “looking for” the shortened form of the Yiddish word “tochus,” which rhymes with “push.”] with the universally understood and desired, by man, woman, and beast, “touch.” Download the lyrics from Hair of the Dog, Live to see what I mean.

Now, let us segue back to 14th Century France and the [slyly political] poem by Gervais du Bus, Roman de Fauvel, in which all the rich but not-so-powerful people seek to ingratiate themselves with a self-important brown horse [in some translations, a donkey] named “Fauvel,” by stroking [currying] his coat. Thus, in France, a “curryfavel” came to mean a flatterer. By 1530, the idiom had crossed the Channel, cut loose the brown horse part of the metaphor, and become the compound verb, “to curry favour.” They have disagreed about much, but both the French and English have long known that the way to gain favour with a horse is to stroke its fur in the direction in which it lies flat [from the Old French correire, “to put in order”].

Conversely, the idiom, “to rub (a person or animal) up the wrong way” means “to be annoying.”

Still, why all the idiomatic hostility towards currying? Why is it considered a duplicitous thing to do? Perhaps because [look it up, skeptics] stroking a mammal’s fur (hair) produces oxytocin [Get this!] in both parties: the groomed and the groomer. This, theoretically, fosters trust, which [if the “groomer” is a sexual predator and the “groomed” is a vulnerable individual] is not only manipulative, it’s against the law [in many places].

With that caveat, now you know how to get “that warm, fuzzy feeling,” without ordering dodgy nasal sprays claiming to contain oxytocin [“the love hormone”] online. Pet your pet. Brush the hair of the dog. Curry a brown horse. [Here are Dusk the mare & our younger daughter, when she was just a canny wee lass.] Or [with their permission] stroke or brush the hair of someone who is already in your circle of trust. Pace the Broadway musical Hair, this is unlikely to bring about World Peace; but it may strengthen the impulse to “tend and defend” those within your own reference group.

Remember, “we’re all looking for some touch,” but not from a stranger on the subway.

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Filed under ethology, power subtext, reference group

"Softly, softly…"


“…catchee monkey,” goes a proverb so old that its origin is anybody’s guess. Early 20th Century Britons assumed it came from somewhere in Asia [China or India, somewhere with free range monkeys, don’t you know]. It means, “You are more likely to catch a fugitive (thought or creature) by guile, than by charging at it directly, all guns blazing.”

My absolutely fave UK telly show in the early 60s was Z Cars, a cop show, wherein the Baddies were pursued by pairs of what are now called “gavvers” in unmarked Ford Zephyrs [whence the show’s name]. Car chases took a back seat to good character acting, some of it undoubtedly improvised, since the shows were broadcast live. By 1966, our heroes had been promoted to detective status, and appeared in a new show, Softly, Softly. All subsequent cat & mouse, “I’ll trick the truth out of you, Clever Clogs,” police procedural shows owe a debt to these 2 series.

One of these, The Bill, ran from the 80s right up until this year, when its producers decided (gasp!) that the story lines were becoming repetitive and predictable! Give over! That’s part of what we all loved about it. In its first decade there was a dour young Scottish detective who, in every episode, to signify that the villain was now ready to “cough” (confess), intoned, “In your own time…”

Which is the point of this post. “Ticking bomb” scenario or not, centuries of clinical experience and modern neuroscience agree: “You can’t hurry truth. You just have to wait.” Remember how Ronald Reagan excused his filmography of grade-B movies: “The studio had us on a tight schedule. They could have it good, or they could have it Tuesday.” Same thing when it comes to actionable intel. We can, by word or deed, exhort the (putative) Bad Guy to “Spit it out!” and get a quick (possibly false) confession; or we can “go all round Robin Hood’s barn” and catch him up in his own tangled web of lies.

The same choice of strategies applies to our own attempts to recover a fugitive thought. No matter how vital a piece of information may be, if we “rack” our brains for it [as in “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”], we redirect blood away from the hippocampus [the site of memory & problem-solving] to the amygdala [site of “OMG!”]. In academic settings, this is called “brain freeze,” or “an attack of stupid.” Like coaxing a skittish monkey [or dog] across a rickety footbridge to our side, we are likely to get better results with a “softly, softly” approach. Like the Scottish detective, we might try acting less humiliatingly desperate to get our uncooperative brain to “cough” the crucial but elusive intel, and instead intone, “In your own time…”

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Filed under ethology, limbic system

"Wild horses…"


What? “…couldn’t drag me away” [Richards & Jagger, 1971]? Well, of course they couldn’t, or more accurately, wouldn’t, you City Slickers, cuz they is wild, innit? They neither bear weight on their backs, nor pull it via harness. Their theme song is, “I’ll Never Be Your Beast of Burden” [Richards & Jagger, 1978]. What they will do, if you intrude into their established territory, however, is charge you and possibly trample you.

Which is not to say that they run amok, or obey no Code of Conduct, according to the equine ethologists who study them, particularly the band of 250 [wild horses, not ethologists] who live on Cumberland Island, Georgia. The observers note that the horses tend to organize themselves into Family Groups [a stud, his mares, and their offspring], who rotate through the various grazing venues on the island: meadows, marshes, woods, and beach dunes. An anthropomorphic explanation of this nomadic behavior might be that the families are altruistically sharing the nutritional wealth of the island with their equine brethren. There are two flies in that Utopian ointment, though. One is, well, flies. Inland, where the grass is lush and plentiful, the horses are tormented by flesh-eating flies; whereas on the shore, where the sparse, tough dune grass grows, the constant sea breeze blows the flies away. So perhaps [as Harris opined in Cows, Pigs, Wars & Witches] local geography shapes what is considered to be The Right Thing to Do. [In this case, to keep hoofing it, to the next ambivalent stand-off between eating well and being “eaten alive.”]

Also, as in most human cultures, there is an Out Group, who are forcibly excluded from the Happy Families scenario: bands of Bachelor Horses. The observers offer an illustrative vignette, in which a bold Bachelor Horse put just one hoof onto the territory of a Family Group, which was marked by what is euphemistically called a Stud Pile [of dung], and was immediately charged by the stallion and “shown off the property.” Insert your own current human example of such behavior here. It is not clear [Is it ever?] how the hapless members of the Out Group drew the short straw. What is inspiring is that, every so often, a pariah horse bravely challenges the authority of the humiliating and/or fearsome studs.

Speaking of inspiring, this photo of two Bachelor Horses was taken by my [90-ish] mother-in-law, who trudged 10 miles down the beach to find them, yet [uncharacteristically, for her] heeded the warnings of the island guides, to keep a respectful distance away from her subjects, lest they “pass on the pain” and trample her. Having got what she came for, she trudged the 10 miles back to rejoin the Band of Ecotourists, of whom she & my father-in-law were the oldest by several decades, though not made to feel like members of an Out Group, for all that.

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Filed under ethology, power subtext, zero-sum-gaming