Lose the scent

There are so many different ways to study behavior that it’s mind boggling.  Have you had your mind boggled lately?  It’s not fun!  And if you are the student of behavior, the last thing you want to do is boggle the mind of who you are studying.

One of the biggest problems about studying behavior is that it involves, well, ourselves.  Behavior is anything a living thing does in its environment.  If it so happens that another living thing is part of that environment, so be it.  That means if you want to understand a mouse running a maze, and you want to watch it during the experiment, you are part of that mouse’s environment.

Why is this a problem?  Let’s pretend you discover something wonderful.  You go to the world and proclaim your findings.  People are in awe.  Then they try to repeat the experiment, and they fail.  They fail because, for whatever reason, your mice only did those wonderful things when YOU were present!  If anyone else, or even no one else was present, the mice didn’t react the same way.

This is silly, you say.  This could never happen, you say.  Oh yeah?, I say!  Take a look at an article in Science magazine from 2 May 2014, page 461.  The article says that Jeffrey Mogil found that the very presence of male odors near research mice was enough to alter his results!  How is that for powerful odors?  Female odors were fine, and even female mixed with male odors were alright.  But get male odors alone with the mice, and !bam! there goes your findings.

How crazy is this?  Very.  It reminds us that as students of behavior, we always have to be aware that our very presence is going to alter the behavior of those around us.  We always have to compensate for ourselves; there is no such thing as impartiality or “zero impact.”  We may not be able to measure that impact, but it’s always there.  It makes our job of trying to understand behavior that much harder.

And that stinks.


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