I have always felt there was a pleasing symmetry between the observer effect in quantum physics and the study of animal behaviour. In both cases, you cannot be sure your observation does not change the thing you are measuring. When Athena realises I’m watching her, she moves faster towards the plate of toast I had negligently left unguarded. 

But observations also only tell you what’s happening on the surface. I can make an educated inference about why Athena is rushing towards my toast and raking her tongue through the butter, but I can’t know. As I always say, Behaviour X does not always mean Motivation Y. 

I’ve been ‘observed’ a lot this week. I asked one of my academic friends to review my CV. This friend is one of the cleverest and hardest working people I know. I live in fear of my boss ever meeting her, because I’ll be out of a job in a heartbeat. The friend commented “Gosh you do a lot, don’t you? I’m tired just reading this”. 

Well, do I? A CV is written to make me as appealing as possible. Of course I look like I do a lot to that simple observation. Is that a real representation of me?

And then this week I had my first ‘opt out’ lecture recordings as part of our new Agricultural degrees. There was an interesting moment when out of the corner of my eye I saw the light go orange, and I knew I was about to be observed, not just by these students right now, but by other students, maybe other staff, maybe even you (I’m toying with the idea of making those lectures public as I really enjoyed them). 

In a recent Teaching Matters blog I discussed some of the results of our lecture recording project, and the perception that being recorded will change your behaviour. I am really interested by this finding that the act of recording is transformative, and I’m looking forward to exploring it further. And I did change my behaviour when I knew people were watching me. I wrote my slides differently, leaving breadcrumbs for easier navigation, showing them R code so they could return to these lectures after learning R, and using a slightly different method of anonymous polling given the students would be watching it back.

I change when I’m being watched. Athena changes when she’s being watched. Particles may or may not change based on when they’re being watched, I’ve never quite figured out that part of quantum physics. 

But this is not to say the first state, the unobserved state, is fundamentally ‘right’. It’s more an acknowledgement of our innately social states. One last observation (heh). I recently received some paper revisions, and it was on a journal that practiced open review. Someone I like and respect didn’t understand the point I was making in my paper. And because I knew who it was who was ‘observing’ me, I responded to that feedback a lot more positively than I usually do, and I thought “gosh, I wasn’t very clear there, how I can be clearer?” My original state was not better. 


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