Kirsty Graham
November 2018

Kirsty Graham and Cat Hobaiter look at how non-human pri­mates use ges­tures to com­mu­ni­cate: Can human par­tic­i­pants “under­stand” chim­panzee and bonobo gestures?

Kirsty was one of our first Gorilla Grants winner. Cat Hobaiter acted as Kirsty’s super­vi­sor during her research. For this intereesting spot­light we inter­viewed both. Have fun reading!

What did you do using Gorilla?

We study how chim­panzees and bonobos use ges­tures to com­mu­ni­cate – they use a set of around 70 ges­tures and many of the ges­tures share mean­ings for both species. Chim­panzees and bonobos are our closest living rel­a­tives, and given that they share so many of their ges­tures, we wanted to see if humans share them too. We used to test whether human par­tic­i­pants “under­stand” chim­panzee and bonobo gestures.

In each round, par­tic­i­pants watched a clip con­tain­ing a chim­panzee or bonobo gesture and were given four options for what they thought the gesture means. The “correct” answer is the meaning it’s used for in chim­panzees and bonobos.

We’re still analysing our data, but one thing we do know is that it looks like our par­tic­i­pants were above chance – so there’s def­i­nite­ly some­thing that humans under­stand about ape gestures!

What are the main ways people mis­un­der­stand your thesis?

We found that the major­i­ty of great ape ges­tures seem to be bio­log­i­cal­ly inher­it­ed – that makes them like many other animal signals (includ­ing ours!). It doesn’t matter who you are, all apes have access to the same species-reper­toire of ges­tures, and closely related species share many — some­times almost all — the same ges­tures too.

Some people inter­pret that as us saying ape ges­tures are fixed, or inflex­i­ble – but that’s not the case at all. Just like in human lan­guage, we have a bio­log­i­cal­ly inher­it­ed foun­da­tion, which is incred­i­ble plastic through our ontoge­ny. You can take a ‘human-typical’ set of avail­able phonemes and end up with lan­guages as diverse as Chinese, Swahili, and French. The avail­able ges­tures might be bio­log­i­cal­ly inher­it­ed, but what young apes learn to do with them might turn out to be really flexible.

Has the study been published?

Not yet! We are plan­ning to finish the article in October, then we will submit it and cross our fingers (we are gesture researchers, after all).

How do you think online research is going to change your field?

Online research can help us to reach demo­graph­ics outside of the uni­ver­si­ty. So many studies are limited to the stu­dents we can recruit from within the psy­chol­o­gy depart­ment! Online research allows us to draw from a much larger and more rep­re­sen­ta­tive pool of people.

Did you have any issues getting ethics for using Gorilla?

Not at all – one of the plus points for us using Gorilla was the flex­i­bil­i­ty to set up our own consent forms, and debrief state­ments, and to recruit in a number of dif­fer­ent ways. For example we could let under 12-year old par­tic­i­pants play the appli­ca­tion as a ‘game’ without col­lect­ing their data.

Why did you choose Gorilla?

The School in St Andrews is a Psy­chol­o­gy school, and they sent round an email about this new tool. Being honest I’m not sure it would have caught our eye if it wasn’t called Gorilla! But once we had a play with it we were hooked. We’ve never done any online citizen science research and Gorilla made it super easy.

“We recruit­ed almost 15,000 participants!”

For you, what is the stand-out feature in Gorilla?

Oh wow – from our point of view the set up was really intu­itive and cus­tomis­able, and from the participant’s point of view it’s got a very acces­si­ble, com­fort­able inter­face. Through social media, radio, and online arti­cles, we recruit­ed almost 15,000 par­tic­i­pants, and we would never have been able to reach that number without the Gorilla plat­form and the team behind it.

What improve­ments would you like to see in Gorilla to make your research easier?

It was really neat start­ing to work with Gorilla as the plat­form was devel­op­ing – there were a couple of occa­sions where we’d ask about a feature that was just coming out. One thing that would be really useful for out­reach and for taking exper­i­ments to more remote areas would be the ability to down­load the experiment as an app that can be used offline. That way we could have it on touch­screens in museums or zoos as an inter­ac­tive exhibit. Actu­al­ly, we have heard that this is in the works, so watch this space!

What orig­i­nal­ly inspired you to work in your field of research?

Cat: I came to pri­ma­tol­ogy almost by acci­dent. I started out in Physics, but then took a Psych class early on and came across the idea that evo­lu­tion had shaped not only our bodies but also our minds — that had me hooked!

If you could inter­view any researcher (alive or dead), who would it be and why?

Steven J. Gould because we could talk science and pol­i­tics, and prob­a­bly about the fact that the two are insep­a­ra­ble. And all the delight­ful and goofy stories about dinosaurs and evo­lu­tion, of course.

Are there any online courses, pod­casts, dis­cus­sion groups or resources that you’d rec­om­mend to others?

It’s a generic one but get on to Twitter – there’s an incred­i­ble science com­mu­ni­ty on there, and no matter how niche your subject there’s a twitter family for you. You don’t have to par­tic­i­pate that much at first, just fol­low­ing your favourite researchers and insti­tu­tions is a great way to keep in the loop on new papers, grants, and jobs. But if you feel like getting stuck in it’s also an incred­i­ble resource for con­nect­ing with both other sci­en­tists and non-science folk.

When you’re not working, what do you enjoy doing?

We swear there are two of us behind this inter­view, but we have so much overlap it sounds a lot like we’re just one person!! When we’re both in the same place we enjoy hiking and rock climb­ing, and we’re plot­ting a surfing trip for the autumn when Kirsty is back from the field. And of course most of these adven­tures end in a pub, or on top of a moun­tain with Cat’s flask of whisky.

What’s your favourite science inter­net meme?

The Far Side car­toons by Gary Larson are amazing — there are so many good science ones, and even a couple of animal com­mu­ni­ca­tion and field pri­ma­tol­ogy ones!


Kirsty Graham
Picture showing a test glass Primatology, Comparative Psychology
Picture showing an university graduates hat Research Associate
Picture showing a School University of York
Kirsty Graham

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