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Monday, October 19, 2015

Partially Deceptive Signalling

I may have mentioned once or twice that Bow lies to me. What I haven't talked about as much are the partial lies, the half truths and those cryptic answers that just make me feel a little uneasy, knowing that something is up, but not knowing what exactly that is.

This morning there was some commotion outside. Bow suggested that I go out and check "You want me to go outside?" I asked him.

"תנסי לצאת" he qualified it. "Try to go outside." What does that mean? Why did he say "try"? Was he expecting that someone would stop me from going? Or that it would not be easy to leave? Or that unless I tried to go, I would never find out what might happen next? Did he have some trick up his sleeve?

So I went outside, hoping to see deer again, but it was only the neighbors' cattle grazing close to the fence line.

When I got back, it turned out that Bow had used the potty in my absence. He did so correctly, but since I was not there to help him wipe, it necessitated a little more cleanup. So in hindsight, I think Bow was signalling that it was okay for me to go, he would still be good, but things would not go as smoothly as I envisioned. And all that meaning was jammed into that one word "try".

Everybody is so interested in learning to communicate with animals, and to read their signals. There is this feeling that if only we understood each other better, something miraculous might happen. But very few take into account that since we cannot rely on anything a human being says to us, then we can't really expect "God's Truth" from other animals, either.

Take those deer on my land. They are sometimes seen in the woods.

I see the deer. The deer sees me. It stoops down to make sure I am really there, and then, absolutely certain of it, it leaves. And sometimes there is a whole group of them. They see me. I see them, somebody snorts, and they all turn around, flash their white tails at me and leave.

So the snorting is a signal that means "Hey, let's get out of here, we've been spotted!" -- right? Well, that was my naive interpretation of the signal, until I looked it up. It turns out that some experts believe the snort is not intended for the other deer at all. The snort could be an anti-predator signal, intended to tell me not to follow!

Snorting did not appear directed at conspecifics, and comparative data suggest that it signals that the predator has been detected. In contrast, foot-stamping was effective in alerting other deer to the observer's presence. Deer may have bounded to clear obstacles along their flight path. These preliminary data indicate that several aspects of anti-predator behavior in white-tailed deer may be pursuit-deterrent signals, and they therefore highlight the necessity of observing natural predators' reactions to signals given by deer in future studies. (Caro, Lombardo, Goldizen and Kelly,  Tail-Flagging and Other Anti-Predator Signals in white-tailed Deer.)

It is good to remember that not everything other animals do is directed at each other. Some of it may actually be directed at us. As such, we may be mistaking their attempt to speak our language for the whole sum total of theirs, which may be much more subtle and advanced and spoken in a pitch and at a rate that is too high for us to even take cognizance of.

I believe that some ethologists studying chimpanzees in the wild may have mistaken the chimps' cries intended for non-chimps to overhear as the sum total of all chimpanzee communication. It is for this reason that they believe chimpanzee vocalizations are extremely limited and do not carry much information.

But what sort of information would you direct at a predator, an outsider or an enemy, anyway? Wouldn't your chief purpose be to deceive him? And if you always lied, then what kind of deception would that be? How could that possibly work?

That's where this other paper comes in: Between cheap and costly signals: the evolution of partially honest communication
Beyond the empirical significance of our results, we have demonstrated an alternative evolutionary explanation for (partially) honest communication in situations of conflict of interest, which can range from parent–offspring interactions to mating advertisement to predator–prey interactions. Although this equilibrium had been previously observed [5,20], it was not known if this phenomena was an artefact of the particular games or if it represented a general phenomenon common to many different signalling interactions. In this paper, we show that this type of signalling is at least as evolutionarily plausible as that offered by the traditional costly signalling models and may fit better with the observed data on signal costs. In this respect, it may represent a superior theory to traditional handicap theory.
This is a novel concept for me, although in hindsight it sounds almost too simple. Lying and deception continue to pay off, but only if they are partial. Because no information could be conveyed unless you were honest at least part of the time, the optimal amount of deception would have to be only partial. This means that even the deer tell their predators the truth part of the time. Good to know!

Bow deciding what partial truth to tell me next


  1. Dear Bow - quit lying...or "lying by omission" or "partial lying" to your Mom! ;-)

    1. If only he would listen to you, Kathy!

  2. Years ago I heard about a toilet seat that would literally wash you off and then dry you. Too bad this manufacturer could not send you guys a free pottie for Bow with those features. It would be cool to know if it worked the way they claimed. It was a flushable toilet, but I think they could make a portable one, too.

    1. Hi, Julia. I have never heard of a product like that. I wonder how it works. I think it would take some getting used to, especially for Bow. But it is an interesting idea!