Archive for Animal behavior

"The psychology of thinking discretely"

Andrew Gelman, "The psychology of thinking discretely", 10/20/2022:

Sander Greenland calls it “dichotomania,” I call it discrete thinking, and linguist Mark Liberman calls it “grouping-think” (link from Olaf Zimmermann).

All joking aside, this seems like an interesting question in cognitive psychology: Why do people slip so easily into binary thinking, even when summarizing data that don’t show any clustering at all:

It’s a puzzle. I mean, sure, we can come up with explanations such as the idea that continuous thinking requires a greater cognitive load, but it’s not just that, right? Even when people have all the time in the world, they’ll often inappropriately dichotomize. I guess it’s related to essentialism (what isn’t, right?), but that just pushes the question one step backward.

As Liberman puts it, the key fallacies are:

1. Thinking of distributions as points;
2. Inventing convenient but unreal taxonomic categories;
3. Forming stereotypes, especially via confirmation bias.

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Does "splooting" have an etymology?

In the summer of 1990, I spent a memorable five weeks at the outstanding summer institute on Indo-European linguistics and archeology held by DOALL (at least that's what we jokingly called it — the Department of Oriental and African Languages and Literatures) of the University of Texas (Austin).  The temperature was 106º or above for a whole month.  Indomitable / stubborn man that I am, I still insisted on going out for my daily runs. 

As I was jogging along, I would come upon squirrels doing something that stopped me in my tracks, namely, they were splayed out prostrate on the ground, their limbs spread-eagle in front and behind them.  Immobile, they would look at me pathetically, and I would sympathize with them.  Remember, they have thick fur that can keep them warm in the dead of winter.

I assumed that these poor squirrels were lying with their belly flat on the ground to absorb whatever coolness was there (conversely put, to dissipate their body heat).  At least that made some sort of sense to me.  I had no idea what to call that peculiar, prone posture.  Now I do.

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Cat got your tongue? Or do you have its?

[This is a guest post by Nathan Hopson]

If you’re Japanese, chances are it’s the latter.

Nekojita (猫舌 lit. “cat’s tongue”) is a phrase in Japanese most commonly used to describe people who can’t or don’t like to eat or drink hot things. The word means both the actual tongue itself and, by extension, a person with a cat’s tongue. In other words, it is a synecdoche.

The term is common in Japan, reflecting the fact that many people consider themselves to be/have cat tongues; in a 2018 survey of 10,000 Japanese of all ages, about half described themselves as nekojita. The results are summed up in the accompanying image, in which pink indicates those who answered yes to the question, “Are you nekojita?” As you can see, more than half of 10-49-year-olds consider themselves to have heat-sensitive tongues.

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Cat huffing and snorting in Japanese and Chinese

Full disclosure:  I'm not an expert on felines, except sort of for Hello Kitty.  I've owned a lot of dogs, but have never had a kitty kat since the time I was a little boy.  I have a poor understanding of their psychology and behavior, although I very much like to observe them, especially when they're sleeping or sunning themselves, and I love to hear them purr.  Occasionally it's fun to pet them, and I like it when they walk around my legs, twirling / wrapping their tail as they go.

Here's a reddit thread from last fall:

Posted by u/Curious_Cilantro, Oct. 1, 2021

[Chinese] xīmāo 吸猫 – to zone out and enjoy the company of a cat, as if it were a drug. Lit. “snort/suck cat”

Example: After work, I just want to relax at home and xīmāo 吸猫 (enjoy my cat’s company).

It’s a new phrase mostly used by young people. Since snorting drugs is xīdú 吸毒,and cats are so charismatic, appreciating their company is like snorting a drug that helps you relax.

A variation is yún xī māo 云吸猫 (cloud snort cat), which refers to browsing pictures and videos of cats online. A significant portion of reddit is dedicated to accommodating this activity.

[VHM:  Romanizations / Hanyu Pinyin added]

A screenshot of this has been making the rounds on Facebook, shared via the page "Cats on Cocaine" (CokedOutCats), appropriately enough.

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How a porcupine talks

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Quarantine Cats

Some forms of religious observance have increased during our time of social distancing, especially this one:

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Canine backtalk

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Corgi fighting words

Viral video of two corgis exchanging angry barks:

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Orca emits speech-like sound; reporters go insane

Published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B you will find (provided you have the necessary institutional credentials or library membership) a paper entitled "Imitation of novel conspecific and human speech sounds in the killer whale (Orcinus orca), by José Z. Abramson, Maria Victoria Hernández-Lloreda, Lino García, Fernando Colmenares, Francisco Aboitiz, and Josep Call. The paper is about the conditions under which killer whales can be induced to use their blowholes to imitate sounds that they hear. And it will not be a huge surprise to Language Log readers that the world's newspapers immediately lost their minds. The Daily Mail, a scurrilous Conservative-oriented English tabloid, on its very successful soft-porn-laden website, used the headline "Orca on the blower: Killer whale learns to talk." Hundreds of largely plagiarized stories are springing up around the world under similar headlines (don't make me try to list them). They can do this because when the topic is language, you don't have to maintain any pretense of seriousness. You can just make stuff up. Nobody (other than maybe Language Log) is going to call you on it.

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Zebra finch self-tutoring

Sometimes a new experimental result suggests a very different way of interpreting older results. On a visit a couple of days ago to Ofer Tchernichovski's lab at Hunter College, I encountered a striking example of this effect.

The background is the experimental literature on zebra finch song learning. If one of these birds is raised in acoustic and social isolation, it never learns to sing a species-typical song, but rather continues to produce "proto-song", which is a sort of songbird equivalent of grunts and groans. In contrast, with a relatively brief exposure to an example of adult song during a "critical period" early in life, a bird will (later on) learn to sing properly, in fact imitating the tutor's song quite closely. Crucially, species-typical zebra finch song is made up of discrete "syllables" arranged in regular "motifs", whereas proto-song is relatively diffuse and non-categorical at all time scales.

A decade ago, I reported on some fascinating work from Ofer's lab showing that species-typical song can emerge over a few generations in a colony raised in acoustic isolation, never encountering any external adult models ("Creole birdsong?" 5/9/2008).

Now a newer experiment (Olga Fehér et al., "Statistical learning in songbirds: from self-tutoring to song culture", Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 2016) adds a result that makes us think differently about the earlier work.

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Asses and asterisks

When The Sun, a famously prurient UK tabloid newspaper, chose the headlines for its coverage of the Taylor Swift case in Denver, the editors made a curious choice. They used asterisk masking on the American English word ass ("buttocks area"), printing it as "a**" as if it would be unthinkably offensive for the readers to also see the "ss" (unless it were in a reference to a stupid person, or to the animal on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem, where the same letter sequence would be fine). But they did not do the same to the familiar British English 3-letter synonym bum (which has only the meaning "buttocks area" and never means "hobo" in British).

British English has a descendant of the same Old English root as ass, but it is spelled arse, and is pronounced [ɑːs] rather than [æːs]. British arse is considered just as coarse as American ass, but The Sun has printed it thousands of times (try the Google search: {arse site:www.thesun.co.uk}). Quoting ass couldn't possibly be judged gratuitous, as it was uttered in court many times during the legal proceedings being reported.

What this says to me is that the idea of asterisk masking for taboo words is an incoherent mess even in the practice of those who favor it.

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Grunt, set, and match

"Who'll win at Wimbledon? Just listen to the pitch of the grunts", University of Sussex press release 7/4/2017:

Never mind counting aces and killer shots. If you want to predict the outcome of a tennis match, pay attention to the players’ grunts.

As Wimbledon prepares for another year of the on-court cacophony from the likes of Rafael Nadal and Victoria Azarenka, a new study has revealed that grunts produced by players during tennis matches they lost were higher in voice pitch than during the matches they won.

What’s more, psychologists at the University of Sussex found that players displayed differences in their grunt pitch long before the scoreboard made it clear whether they would win or lose.

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On whether prairie dogs can talk

Ferris Jabr recently published in the New York Times Magazine an interesting article about the field research of Con Slobodchikoff, professor emeritus of biology at Northern Arizona University, on prairie dog alarm calls. The article title is "Can Prairie Dogs Talk?"

It is an interesting question. People who have read my earlier posts on animal communication have been pressing me to say something about my reaction to it. In this post I will do that. I will not be able to cover all the implications and ramifications of the question, of course; for one interesting discussion that has already appeared in the blogosphere, see this piece by Edmund Blair Bolles. But I will try to be careful and scholarly, and in an unusual departure (disappointingly, perhaps, to those who relished my bitterly sarcastic remarks on cow naming behavior), I will attempt to be courteous. Nonetheless, I will provide a clear and explicit answer to Jabr's question.

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