Rob Quinlan (C611417@MIZZOU1.MISSOURI.EDU)
Tue, 29 Nov 1994 19:43:54 CST

B.Blackwell raises an interesting question about intelligibility across
species. I have a couple scattered thoughts on this topic I thought I'd

It seems to me that intelligibility is sort of a matter of predictability. I.e
., those behaviors we consider intelligible are those that are predictable.
Like Mike Lieber I thought of dogs when I read Blackwell's posting. We've
had our dog for about three years now and at this point I think Gertie the dog
and my behavior are mutually intelligible. As Lieber kind of suggests, this
relationship is based on experience and a schedule of reinforcement (reciprocit
y?) that makes it predictable. For example, Gertie doesn't understand very much
English, but she does know the sound of a few phrases. My wife and I, by
accident, got in the habit of asking Gertie if she was hungry before we fed her
each day. As we aren't particularly organized people, Gert got fed at various
times throughout the day depending on when we thought to do it. Anyway, quite
by accident we conditioned Gert to lick her lips when we asked her if she was
hungry so it appears that she says "yes" by licking her chops. I guess that
this is a sort of conditioned response indicating a state of arousal; further,
she seems to do it in response to other questions she knows like, "Wanna
go out?" She doesn't lick her chops if she's already been fed or if she's
resting comfortably on the couch. I know this sounds a little weird, but
given Pavlov and all I think it's reasonable.

I think in humans we see social relationships based on a similar principle
of reinforcement. In fact, some psychologists these days are talking about the
introversion-extroversion dimension of personality in terms of sensitivity
to social rewards. I think they even call it the "positive social reward
system" rather than introversion-extroversion dimension. My point is that
intelligibility, and predictability are based the experience two individuals
have with each other in terms of the "schedule" and pattern of reinforcement
they have with each other. Thus, the degree another organism is intelligible
is a matter of the experience and reinforcement one has with that organism. For
example, Gertie's behavior at any time is intelligible to me, because of our
shared experience. In fact, her behavior is often more intelligible than the
behavior of many of the intro anthro students whose papers I grade. Still,
there is at least one other consideration in intelligibility.

Obviously, people have different personalities. That is, they "score"
differently on various dimensions of temperament. Therefore, the intelligibili
ty of another person may well be a matter of her/his/per temperament relative
to that of the observer. Also, how quickly and easily that person
becomes intelligible depends on the temperaments of the observer and observed.
For example, my wife and I have been doing fieldwork in a little Caribbean
village and wanted to try out some direct observation methods. In this example
we wanted to try individual focal follows to get time allocation data. We
found that the method worked just fine for some individuals, but was a complete
failure with others. The problem was that some people were much more sensitive
to social rewards and were unable to carry on as though we weren't there. Thus,
they were unintelligible using that method.

Further, it seems to me much of fieldwork/ethnography is a matter of making the
lives of others intelligible. These lives become intelligible through
the establishment of positive reinforcement (reciprocity/rapport) with certain

I guess I've gone on long enough. I hope none of this was too stupid, and
sorry for the length.

Rob Quinlan