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Gorillas in our midst: Observation over conversation

People Nerd John Dominski on what apes taught him about human research

Words by Carrie Neill, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

John Dominski knows primates. As a researcher, he’s logged time at gravitytank, Salesforce and Northern Trust. But the other place he’s logged a lot of time? The Regenstein Center for African Apes at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. Over the last seven years, Dominski has taken over 70,000 photos of the gorillas in residence there, co-authoring two books to date, “Gorillas Up Close” and “What is Baby Gorilla Doing?,” with sociologist Christena Nippert-Eng, his former professor at IIT who introduced him to the subject. During Dominski’s senior year, Nippert-Eng taught a class for advanced sociology students at the zoo’s Gorilla House about the importance of observation in cross-disciplinary research. Dominski says it was a perfect environment for learning to be a better observer.

“As ethnographers and researchers, we often rely so strongly on conversation or participatory research, and observation can fall to the wayside, since we don’t have as many opportunities to do it,” he says. “We’re not as natural at it. But obviously, we can't talk to gorillas or chimpanzees. In order to truly understand what their lives are like, we have to be really good observers.”

And when it comes to social interactions and group behavior, he says humans have more in common with our primate relatives than we might think. dscout sat down with John to discuss his learnings from primate studies and how they might apply to human research.

dscout: You’re a design researcher, an avid nature photographer, and you’ve co-published two books about gorillas. It seems safe to say you’re curious about the environment around you.

John Dominski: Yes, I’ve always been curious about the world and how and why things work the way they do. We’d be in the car for hours on family vacations and I’d be figuring out why clouds fly at different levels, having a long conversation with my grandmother about it. I was always trying to come up with the true reason behind why something exists. In my work now, that’s very much something I’m after, trying to maintain an open and curious nature. 

Curiosity is the desire to fully engage in the problem you’re working with, whether it’s a design problem, or something else. I want to be as close to the user as possible, as close as I can be to the edge of their experience.

John Dominski

Curiosity is the desire to fully engage in the problem you're working with, whether it’s a design problem, or something else. I want to be as close to the user as possible, as close as I can be to the edge of their experience.

Ultimately, you need a driving curiosity to be a good researcher, you have to feel okay questioning everything. You need an ability to geek out about basic truths, whether they’re about a cloud or a person. Because sometimes those seemingly mundane truths actually have powerful consequences, and can have real impact.

Impact is something we’ve been talking about a lot lately, and all of the challenges that come with showing how research creates impact.

It's important to me that the outcome of my work creates tangible impact, and I’ve been lucky to work at places that take research seriously, starting with gravitytank and now at Northern Trust. gravitytank was an informal design school. Working with designers feels like I'm constantly in school, trying to soak up their tool kit and ways of working. But in a different way than academia, because it’s all for the sake of impact.

At Northern Trust, research that supports design is taken seriously. We’re designing service and digital experiences for clients, and that’s really challenging because we’re also working to bring those to life through development partners. You need a curiosity about human experiences and the ability to imagine situations people are going to find themselves in. And then have a clarity about those situations too.

What do you mean by clarity?

I mean: how do you truly clarify the impact of design, including recognizing the potentially unintended consequences? I’ll give you an example from the gorilla world. At the Lincoln Park Zoo there was an overweight gorilla named JoJo who the zookeepers were trying to help lose weight. In that case, having clarity about that problem meant not only understanding that JoJo needed to lose a ton of weight, but also understanding the behaviors that were supporting his weight gain, and the design interventions that would support weight loss. And it also meant understanding that JoJo lives in a very well-designed habitat with his natural social group of kids and others. The zoo staff found that JoJo loved high calorie gorilla biscuits, and he would gorge on them. He'd hoard them. So they tried to reduce the number of biscuits that he could consume, and one solution was creating little feeders hung high enough that JoJo couldn’t climb up and get them. But his daughter, Susie, who was seven or eight at the time, could climb up, and her fingers were nimble enough to get the biscuits. She would collect a few and toss them down to her dad. So despite being designed to prevent JoJo from eating these biscuits, it didn’t do that at all. That's the process of design and iteration. Once the zoo staff learned that, they came up with another solution. That constant process of clarifying what outcomes actually are, as opposed to what you expect. Reconciling your intended outcomes and expected hypotheses at the same time.

Illustration by Delaney Gibbons

Let’s talk about your work with gorillas! I imagine that gives you insight into thinking about your work in research in a totally different way. Have you learned a lot from them?

Absolutely. Gorillas completely exemplify patience. They're such amazing observers themselves, and so conscious of everything happening around them. Nothing goes on without them knowing about it, a guest entering or a zookeeper doing something—but they don't make it obvious that they're looking. A really good observer can soak in the context, the clues, the situation, the environment, the behavior, without making a scene that it's happening. You never see a gorilla point at something, but if you're really clued in, you might see them casually glance at something out of the corner of their eye. They’ll flirt with something that they’re interested in, but they’ll never come right out and show you, “This is what I'm interested in”—unless they truly trust you, unless they want to have a moment with you.

We would visit a gorilla at Lincoln Park Zoo named Makari and bring photos to show her. She’d come over to the glass to look. They were photos of her and the other gorillas, and she’d look at them, and you could see she recognized who was in the photos. When she wanted to look at the next photo, she’d knuckle the glass and we’d flip to the next picture.

Most of the time gorillas only interact that way with other primates. It can happen with humans, but only when you're behaving appropriately, when they can tell that you’re operating as their advocate. To have those special moments, you have to be super patient.

In “Gorillas Up Close,” you say: “If you want to understand gorillas, you should start with one very important rule: don't mess with a silverback.”

Socially, gorillas are pretty patriarchal. Their whole existence is about protecting the well-being of their troop. Out of the five great apes—orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and humans—gorillas most strongly exemplify that protective, dominant nature. They're the biggest primate, though chimpanzees are more aggressive. A lot of gorilla aggressiveness is show and expression. When they get riled up, or if they're playing aggressively with each other, they'll beat their chests and make loud noises. The pure size and power of them demands respect. There’s huge potential for sheer aggression, though gorillas are rarely aggressive.

It’s an interesting model of masculinity. But not all silverbacks are the same. Another silverback at the Lincoln Park Zoo, Kwan, was generally more high-strung, taller and lankier than JoJo, still very big, but more anxious, or maybe has more things on his mind. In his troop, the social dynamics were different. The three females would come together and put him in his place. So yes, you should never mess with a silverback, but you should also never mess with three of your females! You need to respect them, too.

Illustration by Delaney Gibbons

It’s very clear from your descriptions of them that, like humans, they have pretty distinct personalities and patterns of behavior. One of the things that’s certainly true in research is that a research subject’s behavior can affect how we interact with them. Did you approach some gorillas differently because of your relationship with them or a personality trait you’d observed?

You have to strike a balance, letting gorillas be gorillas, but I think I made some strong connections when I was going to the zoo frequently. There was a gorilla named Azizi, and I felt like he would recognize me. He would sustain eye contact a little bit longer, or if I was sitting in this particular place against the glass, he would come over. But there were times I pissed Azizi off accidentally, too. Once, I was making too much sustained eye contact. He swung down, put his foot right against the glass where my face was, kicked the glass and made this huge noise! It startled me. As he was walking away, he shot this look over his shoulder, like, “Stop staring.”

You clearly had a unique relationship, but then also—

I was being a very impolite primate.

Is that a behavior that they dislike from other primates, not just humans?

Anyone, yes. Direct and sustained eye contact. And baring teeth. For us, seeing someone’s teeth usually communicates a positive emotion, a smile. But if you smile at a gorilla, they just see you baring your teeth. It’s a cue we perceive one way, and they perceive very differently, and for a valid reason. Another behavior is full-body frontal facing, like squaring up. If we were sitting across a table it would make sense that we would face each other. For gorillas, it's more natural to be to the side, oriented slightly away from one another. It makes them more comfortable.


When you're squared up to someone, you're revealing your whole size, your whole self, your whole girth and width and height. Polite gorilla posture is more submissive. With gorillas, it's about being grateful to just be in their presence. Don't try to be a silverback. Don't try to be the dominant leader. You should minimize your size. The same strategy works in research interviews!

We’ve been talking recently about non-verbal cues, and how those can be in conversation with one another. In our recent “Reading the Room” discussion, Michael Margolis mentioned that if he was having a conversation with someone and he wanted them to feel more comfortable, to switch the power dynamic, he’d lower his chair.

I love that. That’s such a good tactic, lowering the chair.

That's something we can learn from our primate relatives, reading those signs about body language.

Absolutely. I've seen so many times where there’s a bachelor troop of four male individuals, which is kind of like watching four teenagers. There's a lot of fighting, there's a lot of posturing. Of the Lincoln Park bachelors, Azizi is bigger than all the other bachelors, and so he's the bona fide leader. He’s the big brother, and because of that, there can be a bit of three-on-one play. Azizi will be resting, and all of a sudden, another one of the bachelors will come up and toss a few wood chips at him. Like a little brother doing the same thing to their big brother, just to see what happens. And sometimes, if the other bachelor keeps throwing wood chips, Azizi will get up and they’ll chase each other. They’re very expressive and deliberate and very action-oriented.

But that’s the non-subtle behavior, the stuff that most people see. Everything leading up to and after that big activity... understanding that requires having spent time with them and having an understanding of them as individuals and of the nuances of their sensitivities and etiquette. The etiquette of a bachelor troop is very different from a family troop. And that’s what you have to be patient to see. Everyone can understand what’s happening when a gorilla is pounding on the glass, or when they’re doing something big and expressive. But it’s the in-between times that really tell you what’s going on.

In a lot of ways, it sounds not so different from us. By the time people get into an argument or start raising their voices, you can tell that things aren’t going well. But the precursor to that, the interactions people have with one another before a big blow-up... you might not pick-up on if you aren’t paying close attention.

Exactly. It’s the same with gorillas—everything is subtle until it’s not.

Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.

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