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Many Minds

May 3, 2023

We humans are social animals—and that takes work. As we move through the world, we have to navigate around other people's desires, needs, and beliefs. Much of this work happens in conversation—through our words, our glances, our gestures. It happens in countless different situations, according to different norms and systems. Human social interaction is, in short, a multi-layered, delicate dance. But it’s also not the only kind of social interaction out there. Apes, dogs, and other social species also have to negotiate with others and sometimes with humans. There's not just one species of conversation, in other words—there are many. 

My guest today is Dr. Federico Rossano, Associate Professor of Cognitive Science and Director of the Comparative Cognition Lab at the University of California, San Diego. Throughout his career, Federico has studied social interaction from a number of different angles, in a range of different settings, and across different species—including humans, bonobos, orangutans, and most recently dogs. 

 Here, we discuss the field of conversation analysis and how Federico got started in it. We talk about his early work on how people use gaze in conversation, and how the use of gaze differs across cultures. We discuss how Federico ported some of the tools of conversation analysis over to study social interaction in apes. We also talk about his new line of research on how dogs use soundboards to communicate with their human caretakers. This work has been attracting a lot of buzz and also a bit of pushback, so we dig into the controversy. Along the way, we touch on: Umberto Eco; platypuses; how much work it takes to simply come across as ordinary; the concept of the human interaction engine; the Clever Hans effect; the impossible task; and why many scientists are so skittish about animal language research.

This episode is not just about different forms of conversation. It is itself a different form of conversation—at least for us. This was our first ever in-person interview, something we expect to do a bit more of going forward.

Alright friends, on to my real-life, 3d, face-to-face chat with Dr. Federico Rossano. Enjoy!


 A transcript of this episode is available here.


Notes and links 

4:00 – The classic 1964 paper, ‘The Neglected Situation,’ by Erving Goffman.

6:00 – An obituary for the novelist and semiotician, Umberto Eco, who died in 2016. His best-loved novel, perhaps, is The Name of the Rose. He’s also the author of a book of essays called, Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition.

17:30 – The classic paper, ‘On doing “being ordinary”’, by Harvey Sacks.  

20:00 – A brief introduction to Conversation Analysis. 

32:00 – Dr. Rossano’s work on gaze is summarized in his 2012 chapter, ‘Gaze in Conversation.’ His work on questions in Italian is here

35:30 – The quote from Georg Simmel is as follows: “[T]he totality of social relations of human beings, their self-assertions and self-abnegation, their intimacies and estrangements, would be changed in unpredictable ways if there occurred no glance of eye to eye.” 

39:50 – Dr. Rossano’s work on gaze across cultures is described here

43:00 – Dr. Rossano did his postdoctoral work with Michael Tomasello, who joined us for a previous episode

47:00 – Dr. Rossano’s work on bonobo interaction is here and here

56:00 – Dr. Rossano’s original work on food sharing in orangutans is here. A more recent paper on food sharing is here.

1:05:00 – The idea of the “human interaction engine” was first proposed by Stephen Levinson in 2006

1:10:30 – See the recent theme issue on ‘Revisiting the human “interaction engine”’. Dr. Rossano’s contributions to the issue are here and here.

1:18:00 – Dr. Rossano’s work on dogs has been done in coordination with the company FluentPet. FluentPet makes the pet-friendly buttons (aka soundboards) made famous by Bunny, the “talking dog of TikTok.”

1:23:30 – For an insider’s view of what happened in the original “animal language” studies, see a paper by Irene Pepperberg here

1:27:30 – A recent review by Dr. Rossano and colleagues about the use of “augmented interspecies communication devices” like the soundboards he and colleagues are currently studying. 

1:38:30 – The “impossible task,” a widely used task in comparative psychology, was first described in 2009.

1:44:45 – A recent podcast discussed the “animal language” debates in detail. Dr. Rossano was featured on the show.   

1:57:30 – A paper in which Charles Goodwin discussed the case of his father, Chil, is here.


Dr. Rossano recommends: 

Sequence Organization in Interaction, by Emanuel Schegloff

Lectures on Conversation, by Harvey Sacks

Roots of Human Sociality, edited by Stephen Levison and Nick Enfield

Origins of Human Communication, by Michael Tomasello


Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute, which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from Assistant Producer Urte Laukaityte and with creative support from DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd. Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala.

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