Animal behavior research is becoming increasingly successful at stopping observer bias from creeping in – but there remains to be room for improvement

Animal behavior research is predicated on careful commentary of animals. Researchers may spend months in a jungle habitat observing tropical birds mating and raising their young. They could track the frequency of physical contact in cattle herds of various densities. Or they may record the sounds whales make as they migrate through the ocean.

Animal behavioral research can provide fundamental insights into the natural processes that influence ecosystems all over the world, in addition to our own human minds and behavior.

I study animal behavior – and likewise the research reports from scientists in my field. One of the challenges of the sort of science is ensuring that our own assumptions don’t influence what we expect we see in animals. Like all people, the best way scientists see the world is formed by biases and expectations that may affect how data is collected and reported. For example, scientists who live in a society with strict gender roles for ladies and men might interpret the things they observe in animals as reflecting the identical divide.

The scientific process corrects such errors over time, but scientists have faster methods at their disposal to attenuate potential observer bias. Animal behavior researchers haven't at all times used these methods—but that's changing. A brand new study confirms that over the past decade, studies have increasingly adhered to the rigorous best practices that may minimize potential bias in animal behavior research.

Black and white photo of a horse with a man and a small table between them with three upright cards lying on it.
Sum up?
Karl Krall/Wikimedia Commons

Prejudices and self-fulfilling prophecies

A German horse named Clever Hans is widely known within the history of animal behavior as a classic example of unconscious bias resulting in the unsuitable result.

Around the Turn of the twentieth centuryClever Hans was said to be good at math. For example, in response to his owner's request “3 + 5,” clever Hans tapped his hoof eight times. His owner would then reward him along with his favorite vegetables. First observers reported that the horse's abilities were legitimate and that its owner was not deceiving.

A careful evaluation by a young scientist named Oskar Pfungst revealed that the horse couldn't respond properly when it couldn't see its owner. Smart Hans wasn't good at math, but he was incredibly good at observing his owner's subtle and subconscious clues that told him the mathematical answers.

In the Nineteen Sixties, researchers asked human study participants to encode rats' ability to learn. Participants were told that their rats had been artificially chosen over many generations to be “smart” or “boring” learners. Over several weeks, the participants had their rats perform eight different learning experiments.

In seven of the eight experimentsThe human participants rated the “bright” rats as more able to learning than the “dull” rats, regardless that in point of fact the researchers had randomly chosen rats from their breeding colony. The bias caused the human participants to see what they thought they need to see.

Eliminate bias

Given the clear potential for human bias to distort scientific results, Textbooks on methods of animal behavior research Since the Eighties, researchers have been encouraged to ascertain their work using at the very least one in all two reasonable methods.

One is to be sure that the researcher observing the behavior doesn’t know whether the topic is from one study group or one other. For example, a researcher would measure the behavior of a cricket without knowing whether it was from the experimental group or the control group.

The other best practice is to make use of a second researcher, with fresh eyes and no knowledge of the information, to look at the behavior and code the information. For example, while analyzing a video file, I count 15 times titmice take seeds from a bird feeder. Later, a second independent observer counts the identical number.

But these methods for minimizing potential bias are sometimes not utilized by animal behavior researchers, perhaps because these best practices require more effort and time.

In 2012, my colleagues and I conducted a review Nearly 1,000 articles published between 1970 and 2010 in five leading animal behavior journals to learn the way many reported these methods to attenuate potential bias. Less than 10% did so. In contrast, the journal Infancy, which focuses on human infant behavior, was way more rigorous: over 80% of its articles reported using bias avoidance methods.

It's an issue that's not only limited to my area of ​​expertise. A 2015 review of published articles within the life sciences found this Blind protocols are rare. It was also found that studies using blinded methods in comparison with studies without blinded methods found smaller differences between the important thing groups observed, suggesting that possible biases led to more notable results.

In the years following our article's publication, it was often cited and we wondered whether there had been any improvements in the sector. Therefore, we recently reviewed 40 articles each from the identical five journals for 2020.

We determined the speed of papers that reported Control of bias improved in all five journals, from under 10% in our 2012 article to only over 50% in our recent review. However, these reporting rates still lag behind Infancy magazine, which was 95% in 2020.

All in all, things are looking up, but things can still recover with regards to animal behavior. In practice, as audio and video recording technology becomes more portable and inexpensive, it’s becoming easier to use methods that minimize potential distortion. The more the sector of animal behavior adheres to those best practices, the stronger the knowledge base and public trust on this science will turn into.

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