What Ethology Can Do for Organisations


1)      Introduction

2)      History of the ethological approach

3)      Services offered by Social Technologies Pty Ltd

4)      Affordability of services



In an earlier post I summarised a recent Report indicating that heightened negative emotions and the stress that flows from them compromise mental wellbeing in organisations, reducing productivity. The annual cost to Australian business is $10.9 billion.[1] Substantial productivity benefits would be yielded by maintaining a mentally healthy workplace. Those benefits multiply if one includes morale as a part of mental well being. The Report hints at this when it recommends a “positive workplace”, though it does not provide details, such as how to operationalise or measure this characteristic.

The Report recommended tactics for improving mental wellbeing, mostly curative. The preventative actions, such as exercise, are not focused on at-risk personnel. This is a major shortcoming in the Report because prevention is better than cure.

In the previous post I recommended a complementary two-part strategy: analysing organisations to identify patterns of negative emotions and stress; and, based on this analysis, changing (only) those aspects of the organisation to reduce systemic negative affect. I recommended the behavioural science of ethology as a discipline suited to carrying out this strategy.

Ethology is the biological study of behaviour. In previous academic research I developed methods for observing emotional expressions and predicting their physiological correlates in many types of work organisation, as reported in my book Emotions in Command[2]. The theory helps identify immediate causes of such emotions as well as the larger systemic cause of human nature interacting with an organisation’s structure and processes. The approach is applicable to leadership in politics as well as in organisations.[3]

Observational method is a strength of ethology. While the mental health profile of an organisation can be approximated using questionnaire instruments such as the Kessler 6 Test for anxiety and depression, survey instruments alone are not reliable. That is partly because of a widespread reluctance to disclose mental ill health. In a recent study of 15,000 young Australians, over 60 per cent of those suffering mental conditions were reluctant to seek information or support, even from online and telephone counselling hotlines.[4] Ethology can complement these tests by identifying emotional stress points that can cause or exacerbate mental conditions. Typically the cause is an individual or procedure or recurring situation that induces negative emotions. Examples are the humiliation suffered by a manager whose authority is undermined or the fear and sadness in counter staff subjected to client aggression. Where observation is difficult these behaviours can be reported via interview.

History of the ethological approach

“Ethology” is not a word commonly used in management studies but ethological ideas have a deep connection with organisational analysis and practice.

1)      Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915), the founder of the scientific management movement, pioneered quantitative analysis of work roles employing ethology-like naturalistic observation. However, Taylor’s theories were deficient in the area of social relations.

2)      The German social scientist Max Weber (1864-1920), whose work is foundational to the sociology of organisations, drew on personal observations of organisation life. His concept of charismatic leadership overlaps behavioural elements of dominance. This is contrasted with his concept of legal-rational administrative behaviour that is relatively detached from dominance and attendant emotions.

3)      The Human Relations movement of management research that originated with the Hawthorne studies (1924-1932) conducted by Elton Mayo (1880-1949) also used field observations to test hypotheses and make discoveries. Its emphasis of natural human groups and interpersonal communication resembles ethological theory.

4)      Abraham Maslow’s (1908-1970) influential theory of the hierarchy of needs had origins in his study of non-human primates,[5] presaging the use of primate models in management theory.[6]

5)      Antony Jay, who popularised management theory by co-writing the British television series Yes Minister, adopted an explicitly ethological perspective in his earlier book Corporation Man (subtitle: Why His Ancient Tribal Impulses Dominate the Life of the Modern Corporation).[7] His approach was developed further by American social scientists Gary Bernhard and Kalman Glantz.[8]

6)      Lionel Tiger, an American sociologist, has advised the U.S. Department of Defence on small-group dynamics based on his ethological study of “male bonds” evolved in hunting bands.[9] With anthropologist Robin Fox he identified some of the stresses incurred when people are constrained by artificial bureaucratic structures.[10]

7)      Stanley Milgram (1933-1984) explained the findings of his famous obedience studies by referring to evolved predispositions and dominance, drawing on early ethologists. He noted that authority, like dominance, is MODULAR, the same behaviours being shown at all levels in a hierarchy.[11]

8)      The “body language” movement began in the 1970s. In Australia Allan Pease made behavioural research on self presentation accessible to a broad public with advice on a range of issues from making a good impression through posture and dress to avoiding cultural misunderstandings.[12]

9)      Bob Deutsch, an American alumnus of the Max Planck Research Centre for Human Ethology, has for many years consulted to VIPs on self presentation, including the Emperor of Japan.

10)  In 1990 Frank Salter consulted to the Australian Taxation Office and the Family Court of Australia upon completion of his doctoral dissertation on organisational ethology. The subject in both cases was aggression shown by the public to counter staff.

11)  Evolutionary psychology, a field overlapping ethology, is inspiring a rethink of management based on social instincts. Nigel Nicholson, a professor at the London School of Management, is a leading theoretician in this endeavour.[13] The Australian human resource professional Andrew O’Keeffe is applying evolutionary psychology in this country, [14] advising on such topics as overcoming internal rivalry, organisational change, creative uses of gossip, and performance appraisal.

12)  In their book Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman and colleagues argue for innate responses to leadership that explain the benefits of emotional intelligence. They identify six leadership styles, each with its emotional impact on the group (“resonance”).[15]

13)  Behavioural ecology also offers insights bearing on management, for example 2006 research by the Canadian research group led by R. E. White.[16]

14)  In 2008 Mark van Vugt, Robert Hogan and Robert B. Kaiser presented an evolutionary theory of leadership and followship that attributes a good deal to individual differences in personality.[17]  The leadership-followship combination likely evolved because it yielded more competitive groups and thus greater genetic fitness for all group members.  Hogan is the author of the industry-standard Hogan Personality Inventory, which also takes into account biosocial factors.[18]

15)  (Many of these management applications are reviewed in Emotions in Command.[19])

Summary of ethological services

The above precedents indicate that ethology can help identify stress and several other behavioural issues in organisations. Ethology deserves a place alongside other disciplines in assisting the management process. That place is not yet fully developed because ethology is not a mainstream subject in the social sciences or business schools. However the discipline already has some uses. The following services are offered by Social Technologies consultancy.

1)      Teaching ethological theory and methods. These have direct applications to management and organisational design, and offer new perspectives to HR and L&D professionals. Subjects include:

a)      Theory: Evolved sociality compared to the artificiality of formal organisations.

b)      Theory: Emotions and hierarchy.

c)      Theory: Types of directives with different emotional impacts.

d)     Theory: Aggression, bullying, conflict.

e)      Theory: Gender and sex differences. Signals and releasers. Scope for self-presentation.

f)       Theory: Gender. Social technologies to enhance the authority of men and women.

g)      Theory: Stress, its causes advertent and inadvertent; use in power games; and counter-measures.

h)      Theory: Motivations and how they are engaged by organisations.

i)        Theory: Ethnic ties and conflict; signals and responses; building multi-ethnic teams.

j)        Method: Choosing observational categories (what to look for). Obtrusiveness. Qualitative versus quantitative.

2)      Leadership development by coaching or teaching. Subjects include:

a)      Self presentation, behavioural and non-behavioural.

b)      Effective authority styles compatible with personality.

3)      Stress analysisidentifying negative affect and its behavioural and environmental causes, including architecture and office layout. Training, coaching and change solutions.

4)      Training in body language (reading others, knowing and shaping yourself).

These services can only be delivered by trained professionals. Unfortunately ethology is not taught in departments of public administration or business studies, which severely restricts the supply of service providers. Little wonder that ethological services are yet to be packaged for the management market. The development of a full range of targeted ethological solutions must await the establishment of relevant courses across the disciplines that provide training that bears on management.

Cost of observational methods

Quantitative observational methods are costly.[20] A serviceable substitute is qualitative analysis performed by a trained organisational ethologist whose judgments compare well with quantitative analyses,[21] another reason to introduce ethology courses in business schools. Another way to reduce costs is for the ethologist to collaborate with the organisation’s human resources professional or other officer familiar with the organisation’s structures and personnel.

A useful introduction to the subject is to consider a particular behavioural aspect and how it affects work relations and can (or can’t) be managed for desirable ends. One such behaviour is eye contact (gaze). That is the subject of the next post.

Frank Salter


[1] PriceWaterhouse Coopers (2014). Report: Creating a mentally healthy workplace. Canberra, National Mental Health Commission, 20 March: 46 pp. Available at: www.headsup.org.au

[2] Salter, F. K. (2008/1995). Emotions in command: Biology, bureaucracy, and cultural evolution. New York, Transaction.

[3] Stewart, P. A., F. K. Salter and M. Mehu (2010). The face as a focus of political communication: Evolutionary perspectives, experimental methods, and the ethological approach Sourcebook for political communication research: Methods, measures, and analytical techniques. E. P. Bucy and R. L. Holbert. New York and London, Routledge: 165-193.

[4] Patricia Karvelas (2014). Girls twice as likely to be mentally ill. The Australian, 18 June, p. 5. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/health-science/girls-twice-as-likely-to-be-mentally-ill/story-e6frg8y6-1226957912849#mm-premium.

[5] Maslow, A. (1940). “Dominance-quality and social behavior in infra-human primates.” Journal of Social Psychology 11: 313-324.

[6] White, R. E. and B. D. Pierce (2000). “On Maslow, monkeys, and evolution.” Academy of Management Review 25: 696-701.

[7] Jay, A. (1975/1971). Corporation man; who he is, what he does, why his ancient tribal impulses dominate the life of the modern corporation. Harmondsworth, Penguin.

[8] Bernhard, J. G. and K. Glantz (1992). Staying human in the organization: Our biological heritage and the workplace. Westport, CN, Praeger.

[9]Tiger, L. (1989/1969). Men in groups. New York and London, Marion Boyars.

[10] Tiger, L. and R. Fox (1989/1971). The imperial animal. New York, Henry Holt & Company.

[11] Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority. An Experimental View. New York, Harper & Row, pp. 23-5, 28-30.

[12] Pease, A. and B. Pease (2011). Body language in the work place, Pease International.

[13] Nicholson, N. (1998). “How hardwired is human behavior?” Harvard Business Review(July-August): 135-147. See the consulting website: http://hardwiredhumans.com.au/

Nicholson, N. (2000). Executive instinct: Managing the human animal in the information age. New York, Random House.

[14] O’Keeffe, A. (2011). Hardwired humans: Successful leadership using human instincts. Sydney, Roundtable Press.

[15] Goleman, D., R. Boyatzis and A. McKee (2013). Primal leadership, with a new preface by the authors: Unleashing the power of emotional intelligence, Harvard Business Review.

[16] Pierce, B. D. and R. E. White (2006). “Resource context contestability and emergent social structure: An empirical investigation of an evolutionary theory.” Journal of Organizational Behavior 27: 221-239.

[17] Vugt, M. V., R. Hogan and R. B. Kaiser (2008). “Leadership, followship, and evolution.” American Psychologist 63(3): 182-196.

[18] http://www.hoganassessments.com/content/hogan-personality-inventory-hpi, accessed 16 July 2014.

Hogan, R. (2007). Personality and the fate of organizations. Mahway, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum.

[19] Salter, F. K. (2008/1995). Emotions in command: Biology, bureaucracy, and cultural evolution. New York, Transaction, pp. 99-107.

[20] Quantitative analysis of the distribution of emotions in an organisation is most feasible for medium and large organisations using limited sampling of work groups.

[21] Part of the training is to judge which research questions are amenable to qualitative methods.

Ethology, Emotions and Organisations

In the last post I summarised a recent Report indicating that heightened negative emotions at work cause or exacerbate anxiety and depression that cost Australian businesses an estimated $10.9 billion annually.[i]  I noted that the behavioural-science discipline of ethology is especially suited to analysing emotions in organisations.

This post briefly outlines the behavioural science discipline of ethology and the more pertinent discipline of human ethology. It provides resources for further exploration of these subjects.

An inspiring introduction to ethology is a 2010 lecture by Robert Sapolsky[ii] at Stanford University. Sapolsky explains how ethology developed in the 1930s when animal psychology was dominated by behaviourism, a theory in which animals and humans are blank slates able to have any behaviour imposed upon them through reinforcement. Evidence for this consisted of experiments on caged rodents. In contrast, the early ethologists began by looking at animals in their natural environments, before experimenting to test various hypotheses. Sapolsky followed in this tradition in the 1980s and 1990s in his study of baboons in the wild. By measuring hormone levels he made important discoveries about how personality affects dominance and stress, at least in baboons.[iii]

Blank slate assumptions have persisted in Western social science, including management theory, despite being falsified scientifically many decades ago.[iv] The longevity of blank slatism in the social sciences is due to their rejecting biology after the 1940s.[v]

Modern ethology was pioneered from the 1930s to the 1950s by Nikko Tinbergen, Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz, who jointly won the 1973 Nobel Prize. They were all from continental Europe, though Charles Darwin published a ground-breaking study of human emotions as early as 1872.

A theoretical innovation of the early ethologists was the concept of the “fixed action pattern”. Contrary to behaviourism, many behaviours are genetically programmed and emerge spontaneously in the developing organism, including humans. An example is human facial emotions. The six basic emotions emerge without learning in all human populations, and are then refined through social experience.[vi] The innateness of the emotions is demonstrated by studies of children born deaf and blind, who nevertheless show the basic emotions. The fact that foetuses smile before they are born makes a blank slate explanation for them highly implausible. The ethological study of humans grew from the foundations laid in studying animals. A leading textbook on the subject is by the Austrian ethologist Irenaeus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, titled simply Human Ethology.[vii]

Human ethology deploys the usual methods of social science research such as interview and questionnaire but also emphasises naturalistic observation and physiological measures. Naturalistic observation was greatly facilitated in quantity and quality by the movie camera and subsequently by low-cost video recording. Audio-visual recording is now a core method in the study of politics and organisations.[viii]

Also distinctive are ethological concepts, which are often drawn from animal studies. Even when studying behaviours closely associated with humans, such as speech, culture and religion, ethology adopts a biological and cross-species perspective. The result is theory that is universally applicable and which integrates non-verbal behaviour, psychology and physiology.

Its integrative character makes ethology especially useful for analysing the health effects of organisations. An example is research into interactions within organisations that links:

1)      Interactants’ rank;

2)      Whether the interaction is competitive or cooperative; and

3)      The emotions being express.

The original research conducated by Salter studied four basic emotions: happiness, anger, sadness and fear. Recent research led by American organisational ethologist Patrick Stewart included disgust, another basic emotion.[ix] The relationship between rank, type of interaction and emotion is shown in the following table. (Click to enlarge.)


Ethological theory allows organisations to be categorised according to the behavioural systems they engage to motivate subordinates. Three important behavioural concepts are reciprocity, dominance, and affiliation, interactions and relationships found in many species including humans. The following behavioural typology comes from Emotions in Command.[x]   (Click to enlarge.)

3-D typology-1

The typology is part of “infrastructure theory” which I developed in Emotions in Command. The theory conceives organisations as resting on the three behavioural systems named above – reciprocity, dominance, and affiliation. These involve motivational systems of the same name that are reliably associated with emotions. Work groups and whole organisations can be categorised according to the behavioural systems used to motivate employees.

One early realisation among ethologists was that humans are a cultural species par excellence who construct elements of their environment. Alone among the species, humans began devising techniques, culturally-transmissible techniques, for influencing their own behaviour. All human societies are based on culturally-transmitted rules, part of the “social technologies” we manufacture with the same brain that invented physical technologies of shelters, knives and digging sticks.

The study of social technologies has several origins, including the Machiavellian school of political philosophy, 19th century English liberal thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham and his pantechnicon, and most scientifically the European and American schools of ethology. I review the history of social technology theory in Emotions in Command (chapters 1 and 2).

This cultural component means that the ethological study of organisations is not focused solely on “body language” but also on the organisational environment, and interactions between them. Although members of organisations are seen as evolved organisms with a repertoire of innate behaviours, they inhabit the artificial environment of organisations conflicts can arise between innate predispositions and work conditions. The ethological perspective has contributed to the critique of formal organisations for their tendency to impose inhuman conditions, including rigid hierarchies and impersonal relationships. (Discussed in the next post.)

The ethological analysis of organisation has made several other findings. All directives have the same segments, beginning with gaining the attention of the subordinate and ending with monitoring of task performance. The segments are shown in the diagrams below, first without feedback and then with feedback.  (Click to enlarge.)



One hypothesis generated by the research is that all successful managerial systems work by elaborating one or more directive segments. In complex organizations specialised staff and sometimes whole departments function to attract attention, instruct in work skills or monitor performance. These findings confirm the ethological principle that an organism can only be communicated with using its evolved communication repertoire.

The next post summarises how ethology can assist the management of organisations.



[i] Pricewaterhouse Coopers (2014). Report: Creating a mentally healthy workplace. Canberra, National Mental Health Commission, 20 March: 46 pp. Available at: www.headsup.org.au

[ii] Robert Sapolsky (2010). Ethology. Circa 60 minutes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ISVaoLlW104, accessed 28 May 2014.

[iii] Sapolsky, R. M. (1990). “Stress in the wild.” Scientific American 262(January): 106-113.

Sapolsky, R. M. (1991). “Testicular function, social rank and personality among wild baboons.” Psychoneuroendocrinology 16: 281-293.

[iv] Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. Viking.

[v] Salter, F. K. (2012). “The war against human nature in the social sciences.” Quadrant 56(6). http://www.quadrant.org.au/magazine/issue/2012/6/the-war-against-human-nature-in-the-social-sciences.

[vi] Recent research indicates that only four emotions are fixed action patterns. Jack, R. E., O. G. B. Garrod and P. G. Schyns (2014). “Dynamic Facial Expressions of Emotion Transmit an Evolving Hierarchy of Signals over Time.” Current Biology http://www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822(13)01519-4?script=true, accessed 1 April 2014. Discussed at: http://socialtechnologies.com.au/advances-in-reading-emotions/

[vii] Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (1989/1984). Human ethology. New York, Aldine de Gruyter.

[viii] Salter, F. K. (1996). “Drawn by light”: Visual recording methods in biopolitics. Research in biopolitics IV. A. Somit and S. A. Peterson. Greenwich, CN, JAI Press: 23-59.

[ix] Stewart, P. A., F. K. Salter and M. Mehu (2009). “Taking leaders at face value: Ethology and the analysis of televised leader display.” Politics and the Life Sciences 28(1): 48-74.

[x] Salter, F. K. (2008/1995). Emotions in command: Biology, bureaucracy, and cultural evolution. New York, Transaction, p. 454.

Mental Health, Emotions and Business Productivity

A recent high level Report makes a strong connection between emotional stressors at work and productivity. A consortium of researchers led by the consultancy Pricewaterhouse Coopers studied the impact of reduced mental health on absenteeism, presenteeism (underperforming at work), and workers’ compensation claims.[1] A headline finding is that every $1 invested in mental health returns $2.30 in saved costs. Poor mental health costs Australian business $10.9 billion annually.

Providing a mentally healthy workplace is a rational business investment. To bring this point home, the Report provides some statistics of the prevalence of mental health conditions.[2] Some remarkable facts are:

1)      In a 12-month period, 20% of Australians experience a mental health condition.

2)      45% of Australians in the age range 16-85 experience a mental health condition at some point in their lives.

The data came from the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing conducted in 2007,[3] when the economy was still booming one year before the 2008 financial crisis. The survey reports high rates of conditions caused or exacerbated by stress, such as can occur at work. Mental illness is a “clinically diagnosable disorder that significantly interferes with an individual’s cognitive, emotional or social abilities”.[4] Milder conditions can also reduce productivity. Anything that reduces mental wellbeing, such as low morale, is likely increase costs.

It is worth identifying these disorders to better understand how they might be exacerbated or improved by workplace experiences.

Anxiety disorders affect 14.4% of Australians every year. These consist of:

  1. Panic disorder (2.6%)
  2. Agoraphobia (2.8%)
  3. Social phobia (4.7%)
  4. Generalised anxiety disorder (2.7%)
  5. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (1.9%)
  6. Post-traumatic stress disorder (6.4%)[5]


Of these, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6 are sensitive to stressful emotional experiences. Most anxiety disorders are associated with feelings that can be induced in organisations: “tension, distress or nervousness”.[6]

Affective disorders affect 6.2% of Australians every year. These consist of:

  1. Depressive episode (4.1%)
  2. Dysthymia (chronic mild depression) (1.3%)
  3. Bipolar affective disorder (1.8%)[7]


All affective disorders are sensitive to negative emotional experiences – being triggered by them and contributing to them.

The Survey shows significant age and sex differences. The 25-34 age group suffered most mental health problems (18% per year). Women are especially vulnerable to anxiety disorders. In the age range 25-34 they show almost twice the frequency shown by men.[8] They are also more liable to affective disorders, except for the bipolar condition. In the age range 16-24, women show almost twice the prevalence of affective disorder shown by men. This disparity is confirmed by a study – the Youth Mental Health Report –of 15,000 young people aged 15 to 19 who completed the Kessler 6 Test for anxiety and depression. Indications of mental illness were reported by 14 per cent of males and 26 per cent of females.[9]

The Youth Report confirmed the connection between mental ill health and negative emotional experiences. Young people with an adverse Kessler 6 Test score are more likely to express concern about bullying, emotional abuse and family conflict.

Industries differ in prevalence and type of mental ill health. Overall prevalence is highest in the financial and insurance sector, where 33% of employees experiencing it per year. It is almost as prevalent in electricity, gas, water and waste services (EGWW, 31.6%) and information media and telecommunication (31.5%). Anxiety conditions are most common in the IT, media, financial and insurance, and EGWW sectors. Affective disorders (especially depression) are most prevalent in financial and insurance, IT, and EGWW industries. Full statistics on prevalence are provided in Appendix C of the Report.

Return on investment in mental wellbeing, if efficiently targeted, can be substantial. A 33% reduction in absenteeism, presenteeism and workers’ compensation across the country would yield the following returns. A person with a mild mental health condition will work 10 more productive hours per year, with a moderate condition 52.5 more productive hours and 2 fewer days absent per year, and with a severe condition 127.5 more productive hours and 13 fewer days absent per year.

Further return on investment can be expected from the higher morale that flows from mental wellbeing. The Report calls these benefits “intangibles” though group morale is a known positive indicator for raised productivity and, as argued in future posts, is measurable and predictable given the right analytic tools.

In summary, the data indicate that negative emotional experience is a major cause of lost mental wellbeing and therefore lost work productivity. Mental disorder can be brought into organisations and it can be caused or exacerbated by them. Either way, it lowers their productivity and reduces the wellbeing of the team. That is why a dollar spent on remedies returns, on average, $2.30.

Affordable solutions

The Report recommended “organisational change” to safeguard mental health, and identified seven actions for achieving this:

  1. Worksite physical activity programs;
  2. Coaching and mentoring programs;
  3. Mental health first aid and education;
  4. Resilience training;
  5. Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) based return-to-work programs;
  6. Well-being checks or health screenings;
  7. Encouraging employee involvement.


Actions 1, 3 and 7 can be used preventatively. Omitted from the list are two key preventative measures: analysing an organisation to identify patterns of negative emotions and stress; and, based on this analysis, making minimal changes to the organisation to reduce systemic negative affect. These measures are briefly indicated in the HeadsUp website (see below).

All of these actions can be costly and difficult to execute, especially the last two. Surveying, interviewing and observing staff costs time and disrupts work flow. Changing organisations also costs time and stress, and without a guiding theory and associated data-gathering methods might need to be repeated until the right constellation is hit upon.

Size of organisation and cost of investing in mental health

The need for efficient screening methods and valid theory is not as urgent when the incidence of mental health conditions is high. Remedial and preventative actions can yield strong returns on investment, even when those actions are not targeted. This is the case for small organisation in the EGWW and IT industries and for medium sized organisations in the public administration and safety, mining, and EGWW industries.

Return on investment is more variable in large organisations. It is high for public administration and safety and mining industries but more often low in other industries.[10] The Report does not offer an explanation for these low returns The Report does not suggest that large organisations are generally immune to mental health problems. On the contrary, it recommends remedial actions in large organisations based on decentralised monitoring and leadership of mental health programs.[11] Taken together, this part of the Report indicates an analytical deficit, perhaps originating in mainstream management theory. That impression is reinforced by the HeadsUp website’s vagueness on the subject. It states, without elaborating, that organisations can create a mentally healthy workplace by identifying and minimising workplace risks to mental health. And the website states that employers are legally required to provide a mentally safe and healthy workplace as part of their responsibilities under work health and safety legislation.[12] Again elaboration is not provided.

Perhaps large organisations with moderate mental health issues do not respond well to remedial efforts because their negative-affect hot spots and mental health conditions are not very detectable or predictable using existing methods and theories.

Cost-efficient prevention requires a theory of how organisations shape emotions. Such a theory would allow managers to predict where negative affect is likely to occur, focusing attention where it is most needed. And it would indicate the minimum organisational changes needed to reduce mental ill health.

Such an analysis was developed by Frank Salter in his book Emotions in Command: Biology, Bureaucracy, and Cultural Evolution (Transaction 2008). The analysis identifies causal links between authority and emotions, both positive and negative, in work organisations. The book also develops observational methods for analysing emotions in numerous work contexts.

The analysis is situated within the discipline of human ethology. Ethology is the biological study of behaviour, pioneered by scholars such as Charles Darwin, Konrad Lorenz, Demond Morris, Irenaeus Eibl-Eibesfeldt and Robert Hinde. The discipline overlaps urban anthropology and biopolitics.

Ethology is integrative, showing the connections between social relationship (e.g. leader-follower), physiology (e.g. stress and wellbeing), emotional expression and corresponding psychological experience (happiness, fear etc.). Emotions in Command shows that different organisations arouse different emotions but also distribute emotions in different patterns among employees. A fundamental finding is that organisations distribute emotions unevenly among leaders and followers.

Ethological analysis can identify stress risks and help design new structures and routines to reduce those risks. Observation of relevant behaviours is needed to identify structural and behavioural factors that raise the risk of conflict and stress, which in turn raises the incidence of mental health conditions. The theory also allows an analyst to use observational data to categorise organisations according to the types of behavioural systems used to manage employees. This categorisation provides some predictability of negative emotions and associated stress likely to be experienced.

The next posting outlines the discipline of ethology, followed by a post that sets out how ethological theory and methods can help detect emotional stressors and change organisations to reduce their effects.

Frank Salter




[1] Pricewaterhouse Coopers (2014). Report: Creating a mentally healthy workplace. Canberra, National Mental Health Commission, 20 March: 46 pp. Available at: www.headsup.org.au

[2] PwC Report, p. v.

[3] ABS (2007). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, Table 1, 23 October 2008, http://www.ausstats.abs.gov.au/ausstats/subscriber.nsf/0/6AE6DA447F985FC2CA2574EA00122BD6/$File/43260_2007.pdf, accessed 28 May 2014.

[4] Survey of Mental Health, p. 4.

[5] Individuals can have more than one condition.

[6] Survey of Mental Health, p. 10.

[7] Individuals can have more than one condition.

[8] Survey of Mental Health, p. 9.

[9] The Report was prepared by the NSW Mental Health Commission. Patricia Karvelas (2014). Girls twice as likely to be mentally ill. The Australian, 18 June, p. 5. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/health-science/girls-twice-as-likely-to-be-mentally-ill/story-e6frg8y6-1226957912849#mm-premium.

[10] Detailed returns on investment in mental health are provided in the Report, Appendix E.

[11] Report, p. viii. Regarding large organisations’ low return on investment, the Report states that actions might need to be implemented on a team or group basis and engaging local “champions” to ensure that the investment “remains targeted amongst employees”.

[12] http://headsup.org.au/, accessed 5 June 2014.

Advances in Reading Emotions

In January 2014 researchers at Glasgow University’s Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology questioned the long-held theory that human have six basic emotions.[1] Research scientists Rachael E. Jack, Oliver G. B. Garrod, and Philippe G. Schyns argued that children initially show four biologically-based emotions. With social experience they develop two more. The initial four instinctive emotional expressions are fear/surprise, sadness, happiness, and anger/disgust. Later surprise and disgust are signalled as separate emotions.

In this theory there are only four basic or innate emotions, not the usual six identified by psychologists.

In March 2014 other researchers developed an algorithm that allows computers to read human emotions, even complex ones formed by blending the primary facial expressions. Shichuan Du, Yong Tao, and Aleix M. Martinez at Ohio State University, went a long way to proving a theory originally developed by Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz, that facial expressions can be blended.[2]

The team had their computer code the facial expressions of 5,000 photographs of 230 people. The result was 15 compound emotions, including “sadly angry”, “fearfully surprised”, and “happily disgusted”. All are distinct blends of the basic six expressions. And all are formed by contractions of muscles in the face specialised for form the patterns we call emotional expressions.

These studies are the latest in a long series of exhaustive research stretching back to Charles Darwin’s ground breaking treatise, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872.

Studies such as the two reviewed here bring the day closer when computers – personal computers – will be able to read the emotions of those using them. The new methods might also help diagnose and study such conditions as schizophrenia, autism and trauma.

However, computers are still not nearly as clever as children or even dogs, who are evolved to detect human emotions. By 18 months of age, toddlers can tell when an adult is faking a smile. Dogs are better judges of human emotions than are chimpanzees.

People are generally good at detecting emotions, though women are generally more adept than men. What we lack is a theory of social situations able to interpret our observations. Such a theory, to be reviewed in future posts, is needed to explain which emotions are aroused by which social situations.[3]

Frank Salter, 1st April 2014


[1] “Dynamic Facial Expressions of Emotion Transmit an Evolving Hierarchy of Signals over Time”, Current Biology. http://www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822(13)01519-4?script=true, accessed 1 April 2014.

[2] “Compound facial expressions of emotion”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA). http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/03/25/1322355111.

[3] Salter, F. K. (2008/1995). Emotions in command: Biology, bureaucracy, and cultural evolution. New York, Transaction.


Parliamentary Passion

Unusual emotions were displayed last week in Federal Parliament. Moral emotions. We are used to anger, sneering, joviality, and copious amounts of straight-faced dull neutrality but not since ex-prime minister Julia Gillard’s speech in October 2012 when she accused Tony Abbott of misogyny have we seen such a display of righteous indignation.

The immediate cause was an Opposition censure motion directed at the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Bronwyn Bishop. Leader of Opposition Business, Tony Burke, accused Bishop of being incompetent, showing partiality, and acting as an “instrument of the Liberal Party”. The demeanour of both sides of the House and of Madam Speaker can be viewed during many interactions on youtube.com.

It was the alleged partiality towards the Government that aroused indignation. Why? Two hypotheses come to mind. Both were suggested in Parliament.

The first hypothesis is that the Speakerdid show partiality. The Opposition cited evidence for this, often as running commentary on the Speaker’s behaviour. For example, at one point Opposition frontbencher Tony Burke protested to the Speaker that she had expelled an Opposition member unfairly. Paraphrasing: “You asked her whether she wanted to leave the House, and when she replied you expelled her!” Other evidence cited is that Bishop had expelled 99 Opposition MPs but no Government MP, a greater than usual ratio. Also, she continues to attend Government party room meetings, breaking a tradition of speakers standing down from such party duties.

The second hypothesis is gamesmanship by the Opposition. The Leader of the Government Business, Christopher Pyne, implied that the Opposition was not genuine in its criticism of the Speaker. He stated that this was a “stunt”, a form of gamesmanship. Evidence for this interpretation is that Tony Burke likened Bronwyn Bishop to a villainous English headmistress on her first day as Speaker.

The Opposition might have felt emboldened to attack the Speaker because of their intuition that she lacked authority with their constituents. They might have felt that the mud would stick – not because she was being grossly unfair but because her peremptory manner was readily interpretable as such, especially for some Labor loyalists.

Characteristics of Bronwyn Bishop fit this interpretation. Bronwyn Bishop is an upper class Anglo lady. Given that the Labor Party is experienced at playing identity politics it is not unreasonable to suppose that they judge her class, ethnicity and sex to be red rags to some Labor voters. From this perspective, baiting the Speaker might be seen as a tactic that will pay dividends, much like Julia Gillard’s attack on Tony Abbott’s “misogyny” was meant to elicit sympathy from women.

Without a formal comparative study this observer cannot test these hypotheses.

But both hypotheses reflect on the wisdom of the Westminster tradition. Whether the Speaker was guilty as charged or the Opposition unfairly accused her of partiality in order to undermine her authority, impartiality is prescribed in that tradition and for very good reasons.[1]

Parliaments dispense great wealth and power that affect the lives of millions. It is therefore not surprising that contests for advantage within them can become heated. Members of those parliaments are usually people of talent and energy, capable of holding their own in debate and intellectual contest. Regulating their debates requires not only skill but power. But a parliament is not a dictatorship or a politbureau or a corporate board. In a democracy parliament must be self-governing within the constitutional frame, able to censure a government that has lost support, able to eject an MP who is disruptive, able to call an election that replaces the government.

Parliaments in the Westminster tradition appoint their own speakers whose authority relies on receiving continuing support from the parliament. Speakers are appointed by governments and can continue in power despite unpopularity if the government so wishes. But speakers who rely on coercion often rule over unruly houses. The most productive parliaments are managed by speakers who are respected for their fairness. That depends on them enforcing rules in an impartial manner. That is why in making their criticisms the Opposition displayed moral emotions, instead of the usual mix. They were asserting not that the Speaker lacked power but fairness and the legitimacy and trust that brings.

[1] Salter, F. K. (2008/1995). Emotions in command: Biology, bureaucracy, and cultural evolution. New Brunswick, Transaction Publishers. Chapter 8: “Chairmen’s command of meeting procedure: The challenge of aggression”.