Tag Archives: communication

How to talk to your dog – according to science

The Conversation

Juliane Kaminski, University of Portsmouth

Dogs are special. Every dog owner knows that. And most dog owners feel their dog understands every word they say and every move they make. Research over the last two decades shows dogs really can understand human communication in ways no other species can. But a new study confirms that if you want to train your new puppy, you should be speaking to it in a certain way to maximise the chances that it follows what you’re saying.

There is already quite a lot of research evidence showing that the way we communicate to dogs is different from the way we communicate to other humans. When we talk to dogs, we use what is called “dog directed speech”. This means we change the structure of our sentences, shortening and simplifying them. We also tend to speak with a higher pitch in our voices. We also do this when we are not sure we are understood or when talking to very young infants.

A new study has shown we use an even higher pitch when talking to puppies, and that this tactic really does help the animals to pay attention more. The research, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, showed that talking to puppies using dog-directed speech makes them react and attend more to their human instructor than regular speech.

To test this, the researchers use so-called “play back” experiments. They made recordings of humans repeating the phrase “Hi! Hello cutie! Who’s a good boy? Come here! Good boy! Yes! Come here sweetie pie! What a good boy!”. Each time, the speaker was asked to look at photos of either puppies, adult dogs, old dogs or at no photos. Analysing the recordings showed the volunteers did change how they spoke to different aged dogs.


The researchers then played the recordings back to several puppies and adult dogs and recorded the animals’ behaviour in response. They found the puppies responded more strongly to the recordings made while the speakers looked at pictures of dogs (the dog-directed speech).

The study didn’t find the same effect applied for adult dogs. But other studies that recorded dogs’ reactions to the human voice in live interactions, including work I have done, have suggested dog-directed speech can be useful for communicating with canines of any age.

Following the point

It’s also been proven (and most dog-owners will tell you) that we can communicate with dogs through physical gestures. From puppy age on, dogs respond to human gestures, such as pointing, in ways other species can not. The test is very simple. Place two identical cups covering small pieces of food in front of your dog, making sure it cannot see the food and doesn’t have any information about the contents of the cups. Now point to one of the two cups while establishing eye contact with your dog. Your dog will follow your gesture to the cup you pointed to and explore the cup, expecting to find something underneath.

This is because your dog understands that your action is an attempt to communicate. This is fascinating because not even human’s closest living relatives, chimpanzees, seem to understand that humans communicate intent in this situation. Nor do wolves – dog’s closest living relatives – even if they are raised like dogs in a human environment.

This has led to the idea that dogs’ skills and behaviours in this area are actually adaptations to the human environment. That means living in close contact with humans for over 30,000 years has led dogs to evolve communication skills that are effectively equal to those of human children.

But there are significant differences in how dogs understand our communication and how children do. The theory is that dogs, unlike children, view human pointing as some kind of mild command, telling them where to go, rather than a way of transferring information. When you point for a child, on the other hand, they will think you are informing them about something.

This ability of dogs to recognise “spatial directives” would be the perfect adaptation to life with humans. For example, dogs have been used for thousands of years as a kind of “social tool” to help with herding and hunting, when they had to be guided over a great distance by gestural instructions. The latest research affirms the idea that not only have dogs developed an ability to recognise gestures but also a special sensitivity to the human voice that helps them identify when they need to respond to what’s being said.

The ConversationJuliane Kaminski, Senior lecturer in psychology, University of Portsmouth

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Why don’t people get it? Seven ways that communicating risk can fail

The Conversation

Rod Lamberts, Australian National University

Many public conversations we have about science-related issues involve communicating risks: describing them, comparing them and trying to inspire action to avoid or mitigate them.

Just think about the ongoing stream of news and commentary on health, alternative energy, food security and climate change.

Good risk communication points out where we are doing hazardous things. It helps us better navigate crises. It also allows us to pre-empt and avoid danger and destruction.

But poor risk communication does the opposite. It creates confusion, helplessness and, worst of all, pushes us to actively work against each other even when it’s against our best interests to do so.

So what’s happening when risk communications go wrong?

People are just irrational and illogical

If you’re science-informed – or at least science-positive – you might confuse being rational with using objective, science-based evidence.

To think rationally is to base your thinking in reason or logic. But a conclusion that’s logical doesn’t have to be true. You can link flawed, false or unsubstantiated premises to come up with a logical-but-scientifically-unsubstantiated answer.

For example, in Australia a few summers back there was increase in the number of news reports of sharks attacking humans. This lead to some dramatic shark baiting and culling. The logic behind this reaction was something like:

  1. there have been more reports of shark attacks this year than before
  2. more reports means more shark attacks are happening
  3. more shark attacks happening means the risk of shark attack has increased
  4. we need to take new measures to keep sharks away from places humans swim to protect us from this increased risk.

You can understand the reasoning here, but it’s likely to have been based on flawed premises. Like not realising that one shark attack was not systematically linked to another (for example, some happened on different sides of the country). People here saw connections between events that probability suggests were actually random.

Prove it’s safe or we’ll say no

If people are already nervous about – or actively against – a risky proposition, one reaction is to demand proof of safety. But safety is a relative term and risk calculation doesn’t work that way.

To demand proof of safety is to demand certainty, and such a demand is scientifically impossible. Uncertainty is at the heart of the scientific method. Or rather, qualifying and communicating degrees of uncertainty is.

In reality, we live in a world where we have to agree on what constitutes acceptable risk, because we simply can’t provide proof of safety. To use an example I’ve noted before, we can’t prove orange juice is 100% safe, yet it remains defiantly on our supermarket shelves.

Don’t worry, this formula will calm your fears

You may have seen this basic risk calculation formula:

Risk (or hazard) = (the probability of something happening) × (the consequences of it happening)

This works brilliantly for insurance assessors and lab managers, but it quickly falls over when you use it to explain risk in the big bad world.

Everyday reactions to how bad a risk seems are more often ruled by the formula (hazard) × (outrage), where “outrage” is fuelled by non-technical, socially-driven matters.

Basically, the more outraged (horrified, frightened) we are by the idea of something happening, the more likely we are to consider it unacceptable, regardless of how statistically unlikely it might be.

The shark attack examples serves here, too. The consequences of being attacked by a shark are outrageous, and this horror colours our ability to keep the technical likelihood of an attack in perspective. The emotional reality of our feelings of outrage eclipse technical, detached risk calculations.

Significant means useful

Everyone who’s worked with statistics knows that statistical significance can be a confusing idea. For example, one study looked at potential links between taking aspirin everyday and the likelihood of having a heart attack.

Among the 22,000 people in the study, those who took daily aspirin were less likely to have a heart attack than those who didn’t, and the result was statistically significant.

Sounds like something worth paying attention to, until you discover that the difference in the likelihood of having a heart attack between those who were taking aspirin every day and those who weren’t was less than 1%.

Significance ain’t always significant.

Surely everyone understands percentages

It’s easy to appreciate that complex statistics and formulae aren’t the best tools for communicating risk beyond science-literate experts. But perhaps simple numbers – such as percentages – could help remove some of the confusion when talking about risk?

We see percentages everywhere – from store discounts, to weather forecasts telling you how likely it is to rain. But percentages can easily confuse, or at least slow people down.

Take this simple investment decision example. If you were offered a choice between the following three opportunities, which would you take?

  1. have your bank balance raised by 50% and then cut by 50%
  2. have your bank balance cut by 50% and then raised by 50%
  3. have your bank balance remain where it is

You probably got this right. But perhaps you didn’t. Or perhaps it took you longer than you’d expected to think it through. Don’t feel bad. (The answer is at the end of this article.)

I have used this in the classroom, and even science-literate university students can get it wrong, especially if they are asked to decide quickly.

Now imagine if these basic percentages were all you had to make a real, life-or-death decision (while under duress).

Just a few simple numbers could be helpful, couldn’t they?

Well actually, not always. Research into a phenomenon known as anchoring and adjustment shows that the mere presence of numbers can affect how likely or common we estimate something might be.

In this study, people were asked one of the following two questions:

  1. how many headaches do you have a month: 0, 1, 2?
  2. how many headaches do you have a month: 5, 10, 15?

Estimates were higher for responses to the second question, simply because the numbers used in the question to prompt their estimates were higher.

At least the experts are evidence-based and rational

Well, not necessarily. It turns out experts can be just as prone to the influences of emotion and the nuances of language as we mere mortals.

In a classic study from 1982, participants were asked to imagine they had lung cancer and were told they would be given a choice of two therapies: radiation or surgery.

They were then informed either (a) that 32% of patients were dead one year after radiation, or (b) that 68% of patients were alive one year after radiation. After this they were asked to hypothetically choose a treatment option.

About 44% of the people who were told the survival statistic chose radiation, compared to only 18% of those who were told the death statistic, even though the percentages reflected the same story about surviving radiation treatment.

What’s most intriguing here is that these kinds of results were similar even when research participants were doctors.

So what can we do?

By now, science-prioritising, reason-loving, evidence-revering readers might be feeling dazed, even a little afraid.

If we humans, who rely on emotional reactions to assess risks, can be confused even by simple numbers, and are easily influenced by oddities of language, what hope is there for making serious progress when trying to talk about huge risky issues such as climate change?

First, don’t knock emotion-driven, instinct-based risk responses: they’re useful. If you’re surfing and you notice a large shadow lurking under your board, it might be better to assume it’s a shark and act accordingly.

Yes it was probably your board’s shadow, and yes you’ll feel stupid for screaming and bolting for land. But better to assume it was a shark and be wrong, than assume it was your shadow and be wrong.

But emotion-driven reactions to large, long-term risks are less useful. When assessing these risks, we should resist our gut reactions and try not to be immediately driven by how a risk feels.

We should step back and take a moment to assess our own responses, give ourselves time to respond in a way that incorporates where the evidence leads us. It’s easy to forget that it’s not just our audiences – be they friends or family, colleagues or clients – who are geared to respond to risks like a human: it’s us as well.

With a bit of breathing space, we can try and see how the tricks and traps of risk perception and communication might be influencing our own judgement.

Perhaps you’ve logically linked flawed premises, or have been overly influenced by a specific word or turn of phrase. It could be your statistical brain has been overwhelmed by outrage, or you tried to process some numbers a little too quickly.

If nothing else, at least be wary of shouting “Everyone’s gotta love apples!” if you’re trying to communicate with a room full of orange enthusiasts. Talking at cross-purposes or simply slamming opposing perspectives on a risk is probably the best way to destroy any risk communication effort – well before these other quirks of being human even get a chance to mess it up.

Answer: Assume you start with $100. Options 1 and 2 leave you with $75, option 3 leaves you with your original $100. Note that no option puts you in a better position.

The ConversationRod Lamberts, Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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