Ethology

Animals have long held the interest of psychologists, especially those seeking to understand behaviours and how they may link to human behaviours. How do lions hunt for their meals? How do wolves behave within a pack? How do they decide who leads the pack and who keeps them safe? Ethology is the scientific exploration and study of animal behaviours, allowing for the comparative study of animals and humans within the realm of psychology

Ethology Ethology

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Table of contents
    • We are going to explore the concept of ethology, specifically in relation to how ethology can help explain aggressive behaviours.
    • First, we will discuss the meaning of ethology. Throughout our discussion, we will refer to different examples of ethology to illustrate our points.
    • Moving on from this, we will review the ethological theory of aggression, describing the various ethological explanations of aggression.
    • Finally, we will evaluate ethological theories of aggression.

    Ethology, fox in the snow, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Ethology is the scientific study of animals.

    Ethology Meaning

    Ethology is the scientific study of animals, focusing specifically on how evolution can explain behaviours. Human psychology is complex, but like all other animals, we have our own set of evolutionary traits we can trace back to our ancestors.

    The ethological approach to aggression suggests our aggressive tendencies and behaviours are similar (at a base level, anyway) to animals.

    We can effectively assess aggression in animals and begin understanding the potential origins of aggressive tendencies in humans, although we cannot generalise results from animal studies to explain human behaviours without conducting similar research on humans first.

    Example of Ethology

    Examples of ethology can be seen throughout the animal kingdom. As ethology is the scientific study of animals, we can establish certain examples of behaviours, from predation to defence systems.

    Take a lion and a hyena, for example. A lion has secured a kill, and a hyena tries to scavenge the food. In a fight, the lion would win if it were between one hyena and one lion.

    The lion's aggressive behaviours would be passed on as the lion has both survived the encounter and secured the food.

    However, if there were a group of hyenas, the hyenas may have had a better chance of winning the fight through sheer numbers and aggressive behaviours alone.

    The lion then has to decide whether the food is worth potential fatal injuries. If the lion decides the food isn't worth it and the hyenas secure the food off of the lion (and win the fight if there is one), these aggressive behaviours from the hyenas will then be passed on, as it’s a successful gene in the game of survival.

    Ethological Approach

    Konrad Lorenz suggested that aggression is innate in animals, which builds up to be released when external stimuli trigger it. It is an instinctual process that is passed on rather than learnt.

    An innate releasing mechanism (IRM) is a neural network within the brain. This mechanism helps species secure resources and maximise their chances of survival. Unlike humans, food, territory, and other necessities are harder to come by for wild animals.

    While we have adapted and evolved to the point where food is accessible, animals in the wild still have to fight for their lives regularly, whether to avoid starvation or to secure their territory from opposing species or even their own kind.

    Most of the time, members of the same species will avoid fighting to the death as it is counterproductive. It would not be good for the animals if every fight ended with the death of one of them, reducing the population as a whole. Therefore, members of the same species develop warning signs and fight until the other gives in, known as ritualistic aggression.

    Examples of ritualistic aggression include:

    • Baring teeth.

    • Raising hackles (hair on the back or neck).

    • Growling.

    • Hissing.

    • Appearing bigger.

    Lorenz initially used the example of geese when explaining human behaviour and developed his theory on aggression. Overall, these behaviours are adaptive functions to ensure the species survives.

    Aggression is used to establish multiple systems with these behaviours:

    • Securing of territory: Through aggressive behaviour, a species member can secure a piece of territory. They deter potential intruders, while further behaviours maintain the claim to the territory (for example, lions scent their territory).

    • Fighting for food: By growling or baring their teeth as a warning to others when food is at stake, they warn animals around them that this is their food. Depending on how important the food is for survival, the animal may fight for it or give it up (if it dies fighting for the food but survives to find more food, there is no point in sticking around and fighting for it until death).

    • Fighting for mating rights: The stronger species members will vie for attention and ultimately fight one another to secure their right to mate and pass on their genes. The stronger one generally wins due to genes related to aggression being passed on.

    Ethological Explanation of Aggression

    The ethological explanation focuses on explaining behaviour occurring in the natural environment in animals. Ethological explanations are based on principles of evolution, such as adaptiveness. This is why the behaviour that is explained from an ethological perspective is seen as innate to the animal and supportive of adaptive functions.

    When it comes to aggression, the ethological explanation focuses on its adaptive function. If an animal reacts aggressively on occasion, it can support its survival.

    The ethological approach suggests that addressive behaviour can be an automatic biological response, which is reviewed in different theories. Let's take a closer look at these theories.

    Ethological Theory of Aggression

    Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen are often considered the fathers of modern-day ethology. Lorenz postulated that aggression was an innate, adaptive response that evolved in animals. The environment typically triggers aggression. Nikolaas Tinbergen expanded on these theories with his research on foraging honey bees. Overall, the ethological theory of aggression focuses on (for exam purposes, anyway):

    1. Innate Releasing Mechanisms.
    2. Fixed Action Patterns.

    Innate Releasing Mechanisms (IAMs)

    Innate releasing mechanisms (IAMs) are ‘innate’ because they exist within the animal as an inherited trait rather than a learnt one. They are a neural network within the brain that responds to specific stimuli, triggering the release of a particular sequence of actions (known as fixed action patterns) directly responding to the stimulus. It is an in-built process within the brain.

    Animals have evolved a specific response to certain stimuli.

    If you were to look at it from an evolutionary standpoint, when an animal is successful in the game of survival, its traits are passed down. It would be more efficient for specific characteristics to be immediately known rather than arduously learnt. When a stimulus is presented to an animal, the animal will then go through a ‘pre-programmed’ series of responses or a fixed action pattern (FAP).

    In a study by Sackett (1966), they isolated four male and four female rhesus infant monkeys from their mothers, raising them in a wired cage, and observed their behaviour:

    • Researchers showed these monkeys a picture of other monkeys of the same species displaying threatening and non-threatening poses.

    • Considering the monkeys had been isolated, they did not learn that these behaviours were threatening. They have no real exposure to threatening poses and have not been taught to defend themselves against it.

    • Despite this, the isolated monkeys adopted defensive poses to the threatening images.

    • This finding suggests they were born with this instinctive mechanism of defence, an innate releasing mechanism. Monkeys recognised threatening stimuli and enacted FAP to react defensively.

    Ethology, two rhesus monkeys sitting on a wall, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Sackett (1966) demonstrated how rhesus monkeys have innate defensive behaviours.

    Fixed Action Patterns

    IRMs trigger fixed action patterns (FAPs) when the animal comes across specific external stimuli.

    A FAP is an instinctive series of behaviours triggered by external stimuli.

    Once started, FAPs cannot be stopped, according to Lorenz.

    Evaluation of the Ethological Theory of Aggression

    Ethology is the study of animals, so using these results to understand human behaviour comes with its hurdles and strengths.

    Strengths

    First, let's examine the strengths of ethological research into aggression.

    • Biological evidence: The neural and hormonal system has been linked to aggression in humans. The limbic system, serotonin, testosterone, and cortisol play a role in aggressive behaviours. This rule also applies to animals. It implies that aggressive behaviours are innate and instinctive, which is the primary argument of ethology.

    • Fight-or-Flight is one of our innate responses to a threatening stimulus. If we choose to fight or act aggressively in defence, we refer to this as the ethological approach to aggressive behaviours in humans.

    Weaknesses

    Now, let's examine the weaknesses of ethological research into aggression.

    • Comparing animal behaviours to humans: Generalising animal behaviours to humans is complex and not always an accurate representation or process. Humans have many different social and cultural influences that change behaviours, suggesting that aggression is not wholly innate, and two, affected by external stimuli more so than animals.

      • Consider this study by Nisbett et al. (1996): The culture of honour was measured in southern white males and compared with northern students at the University of Michigan. A confederate bumped into students in three experiments and called them ‘assholes’.

      • Those from the south felt more threatened, reacted more aggressively, were more upset and were physiologically primed for aggression. Compared to northern students, they were more likely to engage in aggressive behaviours, as they felt their masculinity was threatened.

      • This difference in humans is cultural. Northern students were mainly indifferent. According to this study, cultural and social upbringing affect aggression. Biology does not control it as much as ethology likes to suggest. How can culture override innate responses?

    • Human aggression is premeditated: In ethology, for animals at least, aggression is a reaction. It is a means to an end, necessary for survival in most cases. In humans, aggression is visible in war, cruelty, and abuse. It is not just for survival, nor to secure other necessities. Aggression is premeditated in some cases, such as murder, and ethological explanations, such as Lorenz's theory on aggression in animals, do not account for this. We have an element of control over aggression that innate releasing mechanisms do not fully support.

    • Behaviours are not universal in humans: Although we touched upon this in the study by Nisbett, innate releasing mechanisms are universal across the species. For ethology to apply aptly to humans, we have to have similar innate releasing mechanisms, but this is not the case. One person may not react to a threatening stimulus the same way another would; this gap widens when the two are from different places.


    Ethology - Key takeaways

    • Ethology is the study of animals. In some cases, researchers will then compare the results to humans, used to explain our behaviours and psychology.
    • The ethological approach to aggression suggests that our aggressive tendencies and behaviours are similar (at a base level, anyway) to animals. We can effectively assess aggression in animals and relate those aggressive tendencies to humans.
    • Konrad Lorenz believed aggression builds up in animals and is an innate, instinctive response to external stimuli, known as innate releasing mechanisms. Fixed action patterns result from innate releasing mechanisms and are a series of behaviours animals must complete once started.
    • Biologically, humans’ limbic and hormonal systems support the ethological argument of aggression. Fight or flight is another example of an innate releasing mechanism.
    • It is hard to apply animal studies to humans due to the complexity of our behaviours. Cultural and social situations influence aggression in humans, and we can act aggressively with premeditated intent (war, abuse).

    Frequently Asked Questions about Ethology

    Why is ethology important?

    Ethology is vital because it allows us to understand animal behaviour and why species act a certain way, giving insight into an evolutionary perspective on why behaviours manifest in animals. Ethology can also be used as a building block, in a sense, in the study of human behaviours.

    Who came up with ethological theory?

    Ethology has existed as a concept for a long time. Charles Darwin may have been the first to begin studying ethology truly. Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen are often considered the fathers of modern-day ethology.

    Is ethological theory nature or nurture?

    This answer changes depending on what section of ethology you intend to study. For instance, innate releasing mechanisms are nature, not nurture. Species inherit innate releasing mechanisms, they do not learn them. However, a lion teaching its cub how to hunt can be an example of nurture, despite inherent urges and behaviours facilitating the process.

    What is the focus of ethological research?

    Ethology is the study of animals. In some cases, researchers will use the results and compare them to humans to explain our behaviours and psychology. 

    What is ethology?

    Ethology is the scientific study of animals.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or False: We can assess aggression in animals and relate those aggressive tendencies to humans. 

    True or False: Innate releasing mechanisms, in theory, help species secure resources and maximise their chances of survival without having to learn how to do so.

    Lorenz used the example of ______ initially when trying to explain human behaviour and developed his theory on aggression. 

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    Team Ethology Teachers

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