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The Zookeeper Perspective

Læsetid: 7 minutter

The Zookeeper Perspective

By:
Jonas Bjørneskjold
cand.psych, 1st lieutenant
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Our species is the most culturally and socially complex and diverse species on the planet. Decoding this diverse complexity, as best as we can, is critical in behavioural architecture. Yes. But It is often most effective – and consistent – to target evolved traits and instincts with behavioural solutions. We call that taking the Zookeeper Perspective. Here’s why and how to be a zookeeper when trying to implement behaviour change.

Table of Contents

The Mismatch Hypothesis

One of the main explanatory premises of modern behavioural science, is that there is a mismatch between the current environment that we humans have to navigate, and that which our abilities, propensities and instincts have adapted for through evolution. In other words, we are sometimes maladapted for what we encounter. In evolutionary medicine and evolutionary biologi this is often referred to as the Mismatch Hypothesis. In the Western World, the constant availability of high-energy caloric density foods, coupled with ever-increasing effort-reducing designs in our physical environment (escalators, cars, automatic this and automatic that), and our generally sedentary lifestyles constitute an unholy trinity. This unholy trinity is entirely based in our adaptive instincts. Instincts for seeking low-effort, high-reward options, for high-energy calorie dense foodstuffs and for not wasting energy. We all descend from forefathers who were exceptionally adept at foraging cost-effectively. Paradoxically, it has also led us, in the West, to now mainly die from preventable, lifestyle diseases primarily caused by the unholy trinity1)Di Cesare, M., Bentham, J., Stevens, G. A., Zhou, B., Danaei, G., Lu, Y., et al. (2016). Trends in adult body-mass index in 200 countries from 1975 to 2014: A pooled analysis of 1698 population-based measurement studies with 19.2 million partici- pants. The Lancet, 387 (10026), 1377–1396.2)https://ourworldindata.org/what-does-the-world-die-from3)Ng, M., Fleming, T., Robinson, M., Thomson, B., & Graetz, N. (2014). Global, regional and national prevalence of overweight and obesity in children and adults 1980- 2013: A systematic analysis. The Lancet, 384(9945), 766–781.. Many now curse their ‘bad genes’ due to their forefathers having been selected (i.e. survived long enough to sire children and thus propagate their gene variations) due to genetic variations that allowed them to, a small but evolutionary significant degree, be better at storing excess energy as fat. Across a number of disciplines, the mismatch hypothesis, has become a topic in the past decade4)Lieberman, D. (2014). The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease. Vintage Books. The hypothesis states that many of the ailments which we humans are forced to tackle, are caused by a mismatch between our evolved traits and our current habitat.

"Humans unlike tigers, are very opinionated eaters"

Stepping Outside to Look Inside

There is a constant debate raging, both in the health sciences and in the mainstream, about what humans should eat, how we should live and, what is healthy and what is not. One could argue that  in many ways it has gotten to the point where the layman, at the very least, is unable to navigate the waters of healthy and unhealthy behaviour. One reason the waters are so muddy, is because culture, social pressures and ideology constantly complicates even the scientific discussion. Humans, unlike tigers, are very opiniated eaters.

So, feeding a tiger is much simpler than feeding a human, not because tigers are necessarily less complex biological organisms – but because humans are culturally and socially complex organisms. Therefore, a zookeeper wanting to optimize a tiger’s health would simply consider what macro- and micronutrient needs a tiger has, how active said tiger is and how the food preferences of that particular tiger might vary from the average tiger. The same goes for optimizing the physical habitat of the tiger, usually including various forms of enrichment (e.g. putting specific scent patterns into the tiger pen, for the tiger to investigate and get sensory stimulation from) or the social life of the tiger. There is no lifestyle disease epidemic amongst tigers in captivity. Whether tigers, and other animals, in captivity are actually more healthy and better off in captivity is a contentious topic. There are certainly arguments to be made, especially in the case of mammals (and even more so for primates and other highly intelligent and social animals) for captivity and confinement to small spaces itself being traumatic. But zoos around the world have been making a lot of headway the past decades in enrichment, illusions and animal well fare – much of which is best understood as behavioural designs and chiefly informed by ethology.

"(...) a human zookeeper is unconstrained by tiger ideology and tiger culture, but mindful of scientific evidence on the social reality of tigers."

Zookeepers will draw on practical experimentation with individual tigers, knowledge sharing between zoos who keep tigers, as well as scientific studies on tigers both in captivity and in the wild. A zookeeper’s perspective on tigers is that of someone outside looking inside. That is, a human zookeeper is unconstrained by tiger ideology and tiger culture, but mindful of scientific evidence on the social reality of tigers.

Ethology, Biological Antropology And the Blessing of Limitations

Ethology is the study of animal behaviour. As a scientific discipline, it has always had strong ties to the various forms of behavioural psychology through history. Biological antropology, in turn, is the study of humans, extinct hominids (primarily other species of the Homo genus than Homo sapiens) and other primates. The latter is a relatively new discipline (made up of both old and new subdisciplines), but the place where most modern inputs relevant for behavioural science and understanding human behaviour has been coming from. Since behaviorism generally fell out of favour in psychology and became to be considered too reductionist, the study of non-human primates and the evolutionary based commonalities between them and us, has become somewhat of a goldilocks zone for insight that are broadly accepted to be relevant for understanding humans as well.

Famously (and to an extent infamously), Harry Harlow – a prominent early ethologist – and his experimental studies on monkeys and attachment5)Harlow, H. F. (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist, 13(12), 673–6856)Harry F. Harlow and Margaret Kuenne Harlow
Scientific American
Vol. 207, No. 5 (November 1962), pp. 136-150
played a large role in informing modern developmental psychology, empirically disproving behaviourist and psycholanalytical concepts, and inspiring a general change in our perspective on the basic needs of human children. See the YouTube clip below7)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrNBEhzjg8I. Please note, that such research would not be ethically possible to perform today, and that it vastly increased the affection shown human children in the Western World since it proved that physical affection was good, and perhaps in fact necessary, for healthy psychological development.

In his prominent and highly recommendable 2017 book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst8)Sapolsky, R. (2017). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Penguin Press, the neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky presents one of the best accounts of how and why an evolutionary bounded, neurobiological understanding of the human species is critically important. Sapolsky spend the majority of his academic career during field observation on primates, mostly baboons. In ‘Behave’ Sapolsky presents the impact of biology and neuroendocrine processes on human behaviour, such as the effect of social hierarchies and dominance structures on behavioural propensities. The most striking factor, however, is the level-headed sharpness of Sapolsky’s work. See this9)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNnIGh9g6fA line of lectures from Stanford University with Robert Sapolsky, to get his sharp and entertaining take on biological antropology (note: these videos are 1 hour long each and are filmed in actual lectures with students).

"(...) asking humans what they want, think, or why they did the things that they did, is sometimes as much a way to collect confabulations as truths"

The zookeeper is unconstrained by tiger culture and ideology, he is unable to communicate with the tiger, and in many ways, he is in fact blessed by being limited to observable facts about tigers. Although there are of course things we will likely never come to understand about tigers, which are trivial to find out about humans. It is also difficult to observe certain facts, that are trivial to find out about humans – because we can simply ask them to tell us things. A tiger cannot easily communicate that it’s irritable behaviour is caused by abdominal pains.  But if there is one thing we know from psychology and behavioural architecture, it is that asking humans what they want, think, or why they did the things that they did, is sometimes as much a way to collect confabulations as truths.

Researches using non-human primates as their research subjects, like Harry Harlow and Robert Sapolsky, are similarly limited. They are also limited to observable facts. Their research subjects are socially much more complex than tigers, especially when those research subjects are our closest ancestors; hominids (e.g. gorillas or chimpanzees), who are highly intelligent and highly social, to the point of it being relevant to invoke the term of ‘culture’. Hominids, also called Great Apes, have also repeatedly been shown to be capable of learning sign language, although with as much mastery as a toddler. So, we have in fact at times communicated with apes. But that we, again, are unable to use questionnaires to understand apes and in that we primarily rely on behavioural observations and biological evidence, we are blessed in not having to second-guess our subjects and thus we can be more objective.

The Zookeeper Perspective and Its Three Layers

We use the zookeeper perspective as a practical tool. Not to disregard the complexity of culture, social structures and human psychology. But to temporarily strip away complexity and noise, to instead look at more basic structures first. This not only allows for greater clarity and a layered approach, without losing resolution as layers are added, but also allows for identifying basic structures which are in some instances much more effective intervention targets, and doing so as early as possible.

We call the first layer the tiger layer, the second the ape layer – the first and second together making up the complete zookeeper perspective – and the third the human layer.

The tiger layer involves considering biology, basic needs, the limitations of sensory input and our physical bodies – the simple, observable facts. When adding the ape layer, we also begin to consider emotion, cognition, heuristics and other adapted traits that are often considered ‘human’ – but which are largely unconscious processes. We are still only considering what can be observed and psychological factors that are common amongst not only among all humans, but also to a large degree other primates. We are still not relying on people’s own explanations for their behaviour, or – generally – individual preferences.

As we add the human layer, we begin to consider the relevance of individual differences, culture (e.g. cultural norms or corporate culture), ideology, religion and communication. Note that we only consider actual words, signs and language-based interventions at this level. Especially in the realm of physical designs or user interfaces, a physical space or virtual interface that intuitively drives the desired behaviour is generally much more effective – and elegant.

References   [ + ]

1. Di Cesare, M., Bentham, J., Stevens, G. A., Zhou, B., Danaei, G., Lu, Y., et al. (2016). Trends in adult body-mass index in 200 countries from 1975 to 2014: A pooled analysis of 1698 population-based measurement studies with 19.2 million partici- pants. The Lancet, 387 (10026), 1377–1396.
2. https://ourworldindata.org/what-does-the-world-die-from
3. Ng, M., Fleming, T., Robinson, M., Thomson, B., & Graetz, N. (2014). Global, regional and national prevalence of overweight and obesity in children and adults 1980- 2013: A systematic analysis. The Lancet, 384(9945), 766–781.
4. Lieberman, D. (2014). The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease. Vintage Books
5. Harlow, H. F. (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist, 13(12), 673–685
6. Harry F. Harlow and Margaret Kuenne Harlow
Scientific American
Vol. 207, No. 5 (November 1962), pp. 136-150
7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrNBEhzjg8I
8. Sapolsky, R. (2017). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Penguin Press
9. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNnIGh9g6fA

Effort and Behaviour #1: The Proximity Effect

Læsetid: 8 minutter In the first part of our series on effort in behavioural science, I tackle the proximity effect. It is a secret weapon of retailers, often going under the radar because it utilises the simple fact that we’d rather expend less effort on getting to things closer to us than expend more effort on things further away.

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