Sunday, September 14, 2014

An Anecdote to Accompany our Assessment of Anthropomorphism

By: Elise Gilchrist

This blog is written as a follow-up to a piece I wrote recently about anthropomorphism and whether or not it is negative to anthropomorphize in the scientific world (

I was at a press conference recently with Dr. Plotnik, the founder of Think Elephants International. We were at an event in Bangkok and a small conference had been set up to give the journalists some background information about elephants. There were three ‘elephant experts’ available, each at their own table. The journalists essentially had the opportunity to speed date each of the experts by sitting with them and asking questions for a brief period of fifteen minutes before being shuffled on to the next speaker. The panel of experts was made up of Dr. Plotnik, to discuss elephant cognition and conservation, John Roberts, the head of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation to discuss captive elephant management, and Tony Nevin, an elephant osteopath to talk about elephant physiology and health.
I was shadowing Dr. Plotnik at the press conference, something I always find beneficial because he has a way of talking about our organization and discussing the research in a way that is scientific but also relatable. That was not what I found most interesting, however. Dr. Plotnik, because he was speaking to three different groups for a short amount of time, wanted to get across the same information in each round, but because this was not a rehearsed speech, there were slight variations each time in how he presented the work. He described the elephant cognition research to each group and I noticed something interesting when he talked about the study on cooperation. For one of the groups he noted, “The elephant had to learn to stand and hold the rope without pulling, waiting for its partner to walk over.” The reporters were intrigued and asked more questions about the implications of the work. We moved on to the next group, but this time when describing the same study, Dr. Plotnik said, “The elephant had to learn to stand and hold the rope without pulling, waiting for its friend to walk over.” Instantly the group reacted with smiles, laughs and questions. It was a palpable emotional response from the group. I believe this might have been due to the phrasing he used, and specifically attributing our anthropocentric notion of friendship to the elephants engaging in the task.

Dr. Plotnik speaking at a different event. This was at the International Primatological Society's Conference in Hanoi, Vitenam.

There are certainly other factors that may be at play in this one instance. For example, it is highly likely that the groups we were talking to were comprised of different human personalities that were predisposed to react differently to the information. It is also conceivable that it was something else in the way Dr. Plotnik presented the information. Regardless, there was one specific difference between the two speeches, the only one I picked up on, and it was the slight variance in wording. It was a difference that made the study relatable to human behavior.
I have also witnessed this effect as a result of information I was presenting about elephants. Here at Think Elephants International, we interact quite a bit with guests at the Anantara Golden Triangle Resort and Spa. A part of what we do is teach guests about all things elephant. During one of these experiences I was describing the social structure of wild Asian elephants. At first I used the term “matriarch” and described her important role as ‘the oldest living female.’ This did not get much of a response from the family I was talking to. Time to try another tactic. I tried again and this time described the family group of all related females, with the oldest living female as the leader, sort of like a grandmother taking care of her daughters and granddaughters. Instantly they understood and were maybe able to relate their family life to elephant family life.

Again these are merely anecdotes, but they do potentially offer a trend. Maybe as scientists talking to the general public, we should be less worried about giving information as it’s presented in a peer-reviewed journal or textbook and instead try to find ways to talk about science so it is comprehendible and even relatable to our audience. The more ways we can find to better communicate science and conservation messages, the better equipped we will be as a global community to make decisions about our world. If used with careful consideration, maybe anthropomorphism is a tool that can be utilized do just that.

1 comment:

  1. Totally agree! "Politically correct" lingo shouldn't be necessary if a better understanding can be presented to a specific audience.