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Analyzing the Details of Communication: Part Two

 Imagine the following situation for me: say you visited a foreign country without any knowledge of its language or customs. While sightseeing, you get turned around and end up in a residential area. You knock on a door to try to get someone to point you in the right direction. A man answers the door and asks you a question in his own language. You don’t know exactly what he said, but he looks friendly and curious as to why you are standing on his doorstep, so you try to get him to understand your situation. He realizes you are lost and you finally succeed in getting him to figure out where you are trying to go, but he can’t give you exact enough directions because of the language barrier. Realizing the futility of trying to explain, he closes his door behind himself and leads you through the unfamiliar streets back to the tourist area where you were supposed to be. Leaving you there, he waves goodbye and returns back to his home.

       Can you see the three different types of communication acted out in this scenario? Being from different countries, the man’s external communication was unknown to you. Your conscious communication could read that he was not angry that you were interrupting his afternoon and your innate grasp of subconscious communication never even made you question if you were supposed to follow him or if he was just going out for a stroll.

       Are you beginning to see how important our subconscious communication is? It is what tells you if you are supposed to follow the hostess or wait for her to find you a table, if someone would like you to pass the salt, and if a stranger is looking at you or at someone behind you, all without having to say a word. Our subconscious communication between our fellow humans is pretty incredible when you think about it, but it’s when the communication is extended to other species that things get really interesting.

       Some of you may have heard of a horse from the early 20th century named Clever Hans. His owner, Wilhelm Von Osten, exhibited Hans throughout their native Germany, demonstrating how the horse could supposedly add, subtract, multiply, divide, work with fractions, tell time, keep track of the calendar, differentiate musical tones, read, spell, and understand German. Questions could be written or asked orally. A pretty incredible horse, right? However, Clever Hans went down in history not as the smartest horse in the world, but as a hoax.

       After a formal investigation in 1907, a panel of thirteen people known as the Hans Commission, realized that the horse was not actually performing these mental tasks, but was watching the reactions of the humans around him. They discovered that Clever Hans was responding to involuntary cues in the body language of the human questioner, who had the intelligence to solve each problem. Hans’ owner was entirely unaware that he was providing such cues or that Hans was picking up on them. After meticulous testing, it was found that the horse could get the correct answer even if his owner did not ask the questions. However, Clever Hans got the right answer only when he could see the questioner, and only when the questioner knew what the answer was.

       This led them to then examine the behavior of the questioner in detail, and showed that as the horse approached the right answer, the questioner’s posture and expression became subtly more tense, and that tension was released when the horse found the correct answer. It was also discovered that even if the questioner was aware of the body language clues, they were helpless to stop them. The horse could read their involuntary subconscious communication, even if they tried to suppress it.  

       Nowadays, Clever Hans is seldom mentioned except in the term Clever Hans Effect, the risk of which is painstakingly avoided in comparative psychology and animal intelligence experiments. In most circles, the only important thing learned from the Clever Hans experiment is that horses can’t actually do arithmetic. But think beyond that. What does Clever Hans teach us about communication and horse training?

1.     That horses are capable of picking up on the subconscious communication of another species.

2.     That incredible results can be achieved through using that communication.

3.     That horses are more likely to respond to body language cues than training cues.

       No doubt Clever Hans’ owner thought he was training Hans. He thought the horse a testament to his careful repetition and the animal’s intelligence, only to find out that for the horse it made more sense to read his trainer’s body language the same way he read the body language of his pasture-mates. It begs the question of how often is a supposedly “trained” horse not actually trained at all? People say all the time that their horse is trained to voice commands and will trot when you say “trot.” And maybe they do. But if your horse was grazing in its pasture without you around and the word “trot” was played on an intercom system, would your horse stop what it was doing and trot off? Probably not.

       This is what we teach: how to understand and harness your subconscious communication that your horse is innately picking up on and have it to work for you instead of against you.    


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