Tag Archives: Behavior

Our Northern Flicker

My wife and I recently moved from Manhattan to Tacoma Washington. Although we still love NYC, we were ready for a change from the endless scaffolding and continual roadwork that seems unending and incessant in lower Manhattan. We were frankly tired of being woken up by jackhammers echoing through the skyscraper canyons (in lower Manhattan they literally tear up the streets and pave them over only so they can rip them up again the very next day). We were ready for the peace and serenity of the Puget Sound.

Imagine our Deja Vu shock to be virtually bounced out of bed in the morning by a noise somewhere between a jackhammer and an over-revved race car between 6 and 8 am in the morning. It seemed to come from the general area of the chimney, but it reverberated throughout the house. After exhausting every possibility inside, I went outside to spot a paunchy little bird perched on our chimney, industriously drumming away with his beak on our metal chimney cover at like 10,000 ppm (pecks per minute). He was essentially the little transducer at the base of a huge sound resonator.

northern-flickerIt turns out that he or she is a Northern Flicker and they are well-known to north westerners because they are regionally infamous little drummers. Of course no one can say with certainty why they do this but we can speculate. They are peckers by nature. They peck out hollows for homes with their beaks, they peck to find food, and they peck produce a unique sound that attract mates or communicate with them. Hey, they have a very efficient and powerful little hammer, and when that is all you have…

Some people assume that the bird is just mindlessly pecking on metal because they are too stupid to realize that it is metal. I don’t subscribe to such dismissive and diminutive assumptions regarding animal behavior. This kind of view often arises from a false notion of human exceptionalism that is endemic to religious thinking.

Instead of only taking pride and self-satisfaction in how unique and special we are, I also take great pride and satisfaction in appreciating how alike we are with our animal cousins. Rather than feel diminished by comparisons to animals, by ascribing human-like motivations and capabilities to them, such comparisons give me a deep sense of continuity and familial community with all of nature. Furthermore, we can better learn more about ourselves if we are more open to recognizing our own simplified and less complicated behaviors and motivations in other species.

Therefore, when it comes to our Northern Flicker friend, I think that, like us, he drums for many reasons. Drumming is what he does, he’s really good at it, he takes pride in it, and he enjoys it so it does it just for fun. He probably really, really likes the huge megaphone that our chimney cover offers, and likes to be the loudest Flicker in the neighborhood.

This is not to suggest that our Flicker’s emotions and behaviors and intellect are on a par with ours, but they are simpler versions of our human versions in the same way that his little bird legs gave rise to our human legs and his littler eyes are earlier versions to our human eyes. Their behaviors do not merely “appear” human, they are exactly what evolved into our more complex feelings and emotions. Just as we aren’t the only animals to have some form of brain, we aren’t the only animals to have some level of emotions and intellect and feelings. To dismiss these deep and direct similarities out of some religious sense of separateness is, to me, a highly sad and lonely pedestal on which to place ourselves. You may choose to DEFINE emotions as things only humans have, to DEFINE intellect as intellect only when it reaches human capabilities, but that does not negate the real presence of highly developed precursors in animals.

And just as the drumming of our little Flicker resonates and echoes and touches others in ways he cannot imagine, so too do our more complex behaviors reverberate our to touch others in tangible and deeply personal ways that we cannot imagine. If I were to make it impossible for our little drummer to peck on our chimney cap in some way, he or she might very well start to peck on the wood of our home and that would be much worse for us.

So, my new Flicker friend, you go on drumming on our chimney cap. I grok you and it enriches my life to listen in on your early morning broadcasts. I can identify with your joys and compulsions and frustrations and yearnings for a mate. I hope that later this spring, when your drumming stops, it will mean that our chimney cap has helped you find a mate who will give you other things to do with that spectacular beak of yours!

Satisfaction Surveys

SatisfactionSurveyHave you ever filled out one of those ubiquitous satisfaction surveys? Of course you have. Everyone wants to know how satisfied you are. Whether it be your phone company or your local dry cleaner or your waiter, everyone is keen to quantify, record, and report your level of customer satisfaction.

But despite the fact that satisfaction surveys are as annoyingly common as pennies, how truly useful are they? If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t provide exactly high quality response data to these surveys. If I cannot escape the survey without being rude, I just check “Excellent” for everything without even reading the questions. It’s the easiest thing to do. And what direct benefit is there in it for me to be thoughtful and honest? I’m much more likely to get better service next time if I indicate that my waitress is excellent in every possible way, especially if she was terrible!

And there are lots of reasons beyond immediate self-interest and laziness that most of us lie like Persian rugs on these surveys:

  1. People forget the bad stuff. We have selective memories, and the longer it is after our terrible customer experience, the more likely we are to remember it positively.
  2. People never want to seem like complainers. Even if we had gripes, we are programmed that complaining only reflects badly on us.
  3. People are nice. We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings unnecessarily – even if we are anonymous.
  4. People are habituated to say “I’m fine.” Even if we’re in the middle of vomiting up our lunch after being told that our beloved kitty just got electrocuted attacking an electrical outlet, we automatically say we’re fine.
  5. We assume no one <really> wants to know. We figure that this is pointless paperwork that no one will ever actually read let alone act on it.
  6. Saying everything was wonderful is the easiest way to dispense with this annoying and meaningless survey and get home in time for The Walking Dead.

Here’s an even bigger problem worth discussing in depth. We don’t know what we don’t know and have poor imaginations to envision what we could have. Satisfied compared to what? How do you rate your Toyota? Excellent. Oh wait, I didn’t realize I could have had a Porsche instead… Can I change that answer to Poor?

How do you rate your healthcare? Excellent? Great! But did you know that Norway has a healthcare system that costs ½ the price and ranks 11th to your 37th? Would you like to change your survey answer?

Since we don’t know what we don’t know let alone what we cannot even imagine, Poor to Excellent is not an absolute scale. It only encompasses what we know. If we’re given a dozen similarly bad options, we’re likely to rate the least worst of them Excellent. By the way, this is one of the reasons that “happiness scientists” tell us that more choices make us less happy. We become less satisfied with what we can get if we are made aware of all the better options that we cannot hope to get our hands on.

I have a more nefarious theory about these surveys. I think that smart customer service providers offer these surveys knowing all of this, but they figure that when you indicate that their service was great you’ll actually remember it as being great. Probably sound psychology!

But here’s the biggest problem with these victim-less white lies called satisfaction surveys. We sometimes really, really do need an accurate answer to assess satisfaction. We have lots of important social science studies that have little choice but to measure satisfaction through this sort of survey. Unfortunately, for all the reasons given, this data is usually just so much garbage in.

We need smarter measures of satisfaction.

One solution is to de-emphasize or even abandon the self-reporting of satisfaction measures. Instead, smart companies or researchers measure indirect indicators of satisfaction. Rather than ask for a self-reported satisfaction, they look at objective behaviors that correlate with satisfaction.

For example, given a subsequent choice of options, what option does the person actually choose? Do they recommend the option to others? Instead of asking whether they like the coffee or the ambiance of the restaurant, measure how many refills they ask for and how long they remain to digest and converse over their coffee.

Satisfaction surveys are just a microcosm within a wide range of human behaviors. In almost every situation dealing with people, looking at actual behaviors can tell us far, far more than relying upon anything they tell us about their motivations or their opinions.