Fixed Action Patterns

Most animals have specific reactions and patterns of behaviour unique to them. A cat will hiss and arch its back to defend itself, a dog will bare its teeth and growl, horses will neigh and shake their heads, and babies will grab anything presented to them. Oddly enough, every cat you encounter will probably perform these actions, as will almost every dog and horse, and so on. Are these learned behaviours or innate behaviours?

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Table of contents

    Are they fixed action patterns? And if so, what are fixed action patterns?

    • As part of the ethological approach, fixed action patterns explore animal behaviours.
    • First, we are going to define fixed action patterns.
    • We will explore fixed action patterns in animals, providing fixed action patterns examples.
    • Finally, we will analyse fixed action patterns vs instinct, navigating various key studies in fixed action patterns in psychology.

    Fixed Action Patterns, a cat hissing with ears back, StudySmarterFig. 1 - A cat will hiss in defence or if angered.

    Define Fixed Action Pattern

    Fixed action patterns (FAPs) are a set of instinctive behaviours in a species. They are a sequence of actions that respond to a stressor or cue (stimulus). FAPs are innate (not learned) and must be performed to their fullest extent, even when the stimulus is no longer present. They occur in all animals across the same species.

    They are a concept of the ethological approach and occur because of an innate releasing mechanism (IRM).

    Innate releasing mechanisms (IRMs) are instinctive responses that evolved and are passed on rather than learned – a hard-wired mechanism of the brain that acts as a release, in a sense.

    When an animal encounters a particular stimulus or event, it responds through a series of behaviours. These behaviours represent a neural network in the brain that responds to specific stimuli and triggers a specific sequence of actions directly responding to the stimulus. IRMs are a part of a built-in neural network that responds to specific stimuli to trigger the behavioural response.

    Konrad Lorenz is considered the founder of this theory.

    According to the theory, fixed action patterns are instinctive.

    Fixed Action Patterns: The Six Types of FAPs

    Konrad identified six types of fixed action patterns:

    1. Stereotyped: FAPS follow a specific pattern and are unchanging. They are rigid and highly predictable, ‘stereotypical’.

    2. Complex: FAPs are not just a reflex but a set pattern of behaviours occurring in a specific order and complex patterns.

    3. Universal: FAPs are found in all species responding to a specific threat.

    4. Triggered: FAPs that have been triggered must be completed, even if the stimulus that triggered them is no longer present (also known as ballistic).

    5. Released: FAPs respond to a specific stimulus, meaning they only occur in particular scenarios. It is a reaction to a specific ‘releaser’.

    6. Unaffected by learning/independent of experience: FAPs are not learned from parents but occur the first time a FAP occurs.

    Fixed Action Pattern, illustration of the six different fixed action pattern Types, StudySmarterFig. 2 - There are six fixed action pattern types.

    A common theme in all these fixed action patterns is the releasor. It determines the exact FAP that will occur in the animal.

    Fixed Action Patterns in Animals

    When answering a question in an exam, you can show the examiner that you know exactly what a fixed action pattern is by giving examples. So, here are a few fixed action patterns in animals:

    • A dog chases a cat when it sees it running away.
    • Moths fold their wings when they detect ultrasonic sounds. Predators use these ultrasonic sounds to find prey, and moths fold their wings when they notice this and hide.
    • In mating dances in birds, males show off their colourful wings and perform a special dance around a female.

    In humans, a subtle example of a FAP is a yawn: When people see another person yawn, it triggers them to yawn themselves. The yawn is then challenging to suppress once it starts. It is an innate reaction to seeing others or hearing the word ‘yawn’.

    Ethological Approach

    Given the influence genes have on the development of specific traits, genes may influence fixed action patterns. In the ethological approach, fixed action patterns are viewed as responses triggered by a particular stimulus; they are much more complex than a reflex, however, so do not confuse the two.

    Behaviour changes and evolves – dogs are an excellent example of where certain FAPs have been bred into prominence.

    Each dog breed has its characteristics and traits. For example, retrievers are excellent retrievers, ratting dogs are great at catching rats, and pointer dogs adopt a pointing posture to instinctively point at something – a clear FAP.

    The dogs themselves have been specifically bred to excel at these behaviours, so they are exaggerated in the breed and the dogs excel in the FAPs. As these animals can be specifically bred to emphasise these FAPs, we can assume FAPs have some genetic basis.

    Key Studies in Fixed Action Patterns in Psychology

    As we mentioned earlier, Konrad Lorenz is the father of fixed action patterns in ethology. Numerous studies have found examples of FAPs in animals (and in some rare cases, potentially humans, but our complex social systems make it much more difficult for researchers to demonstrate FAPs in our behaviours confidently).

    Male Stickleback’s Mating Behaviours and Aggression

    Niko Tinbergen studied the mating behaviour of male sticklebacks (freshwater fish), specifically the three-spined stickleback. During the mating season, sticklebacks turn their bellies red and establish nesting territories. They are also aggressive toward other males, increasing their chances of mating with females.

    When they see another male stickleback with a red belly, it triggers an innate releasing mechanism. They begin a fixed action pattern of aggressive behaviours, trying to scare away the competing male.

    Tinbergen was trying to figure out whether or not the red belly was the trigger, so he created wooden male sticklebacks and confronted the real fish with the wooden objects to see its reactions. One wooden stickleback had a red underside, and the other did not.

    When encountering the wooden object with the red underside, the male sticklebacks went into their FAPs and were aggressive. However, when they encountered the wooden object without a red underside, they did not respond with their FAPs. The FAP would always run to completion.

    Interestingly, the models Tinbergen used were crude and often just managed to resemble a fish, so it was indeed the red belly and not the accuracy of the models stimulating an IRM and FAP.

    Greylag Goose Egg-retrieval

    Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz have identified specific behaviours in ground-nesting birds, such as greylag goose egg-retrieval. When an egg rolls out of the nest and is displaced, the goose begins a fixed action pattern of action:

    1. It looks at the egg and sets it to identify it.
    2. It then stretches its neck over the egg.
    3. With the egg under its beak, it rolls it back into the nest.

    If the egg is removed while the goose is rolling it back into the nest, she continues to roll the egg as if it were still there. The goose performs the entire sequence of actions to roll the egg back into the nest, even if the egg has disappeared under her beak. The displaced egg triggers an IRM that begins the FAP, which cannot be interrupted.

    Sackett (1966): Isolated Monkeys and Aggression

    In Sackett (1966), the monkeys were isolated from their mothers as infants, so they could not learn behaviours from them. This includes behaviours such as defence mechanisms. Sackett showed the infant monkeys pictures of other monkeys displaying familiar, recognisable threatening poses and non-threatening poses.

    The isolated monkeys responded defensively to the threatening images, even though they had never learned this behaviour from their mothers. It was an innate response to aggression, a FAP they were born with.

    Fixed Action Patterns, a baby rhesus monkey sitting atop a stone floor, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Rhesus monkeys show fixed action patterns¹.

    Humans and Fixed Action Patterns

    Humans are complex creatures that societal influences and cultural norms govern. While smiling at someone on the street in one country is considered the norm and polite, it may be regarded as rude and offensive and is not customary in another country.

    So, where one culture encourages actions like smiling at a stranger, another might strongly disapprove.

    Since our behaviour often depends on our personal choices and cultural context, it is difficult to determine if people have many FAPs in psychology. Yawning is the simplest example of a possible FAP in humans. Smiling is a non-aggressive FAP, but cultural differences make it almost impossible to study this practice properly.

    Another potential example of a FAP in humans is when babies tightly grab onto items when handed to them.

    Fixed Action Pattern vs Instinct

    Fixed actions are instinctive processes that exist in animals. An instinct is a behaviour specific to the animal. It is a biological compulsion to perform an action based on a particular stimulus.

    Some refer to instinct more abstractly: if someone acts ‘instinctively’, it usually means without thinking. They relied on unconscious behaviours and reacted accordingly.

    Birds, for example, have an instinctive need to migrate depending on the season. Similarly, dogs are bred for instinctive behaviours, such as shepherding and ratting dogs.

    These dogs exhibit behaviours typical of manoeuvres performed by dogs that assume these roles without training.

    Problems with Fixed Action Patterns

    A few problems with the theory of FAPs exist, namely that FAPs are adaptive. Environmental factors can change how an animal responds to certain stimuli, even if the FAP is considered fixed and unchanging. Learning is an essential component of all animal life, and without learning, most animals would not survive. If this were the case, we would not be able to train a dog or own a cat and domesticate it.

    Animal studies are also not always applicable to humans, so generalising the results to human behaviour is inherently tricky and incorrect. We cannot say a human would react as aggressively as a male stickleback because a male stickleback is not exposed to the daily lifestyle of a human (to say the least).

    However, by studying FAPs, we have identified evolutionarily advantageous behaviours, which is helpful in the study of animals overall (it is also beneficial in studying human behaviours because it gives a basis for understanding we can build on). It has given us insight into innate behaviours related to aggression, particularly in the case of the stickleback.

    Aggression is highly expressed in many species and is important for the survival of these species. In particular, the FAPs of male sticklebacks are associated with aggressive displays during the mating season to increase the likelihood of finding a mate.

    Issues exist, however, in that FAPs and IRMs fail to account for premeditated violence or aggression. Premeditated aggression is not in response to an environmental trigger.


    Fixed Action Patterns - Key Takeaways

    • Fixed action patterns (FAPs) are innate, instinctive responses of an animal that are triggered when it is confronted with a particular situation or stimulus.
    • Innate releasing mechanisms initiate fixed action patterns; once triggered, they cannot be stopped.
    • Six types of fixed action patterns exist: stereotyped, universal, complex, triggered, released, and unaffected by learning.
    • Male sticklebacks are an excellent example of fixed action patterns in aggression.
    • It is challenging to apply this theory of aggression and behaviour to humans is challenging because cultural and societal influences dictate many human behaviours.


    References

    1. Fig. 3 - Rhesus Monkey by Eatcha, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Fixed Action Patterns

    What is a fixed action pattern?

    Fixed action patterns (FAPs) are a set of instinctive behaviours in a species. They are a sequence of actions that respond to a stressor or cue (stimulus). FAPs are innate (not learned) and must be performed to their fullest extent, even when the stimulus is no longer present. They occur in all animals across the same species.


    How many types of fixed action patterns are there?

    There are six: stereotyped, universal, complex, triggered, released, and unaffected by learning. 

    What is an example of a fixed action pattern?

    An example of a fixed action pattern can be seen in the male stickleback’s aggressive response to the red belly of another stickleback. Red bellies usually mean the other stickleback is a male and a potential competitor during mating season. 

    Are fixed action patterns genetic?

    A genetic component to fixed action patterns can be suggested, as genes influence behaviours to some extent, and fixed action patterns are behaviours innate in the species, not learnt from outside sources. 

    What are fixed action patterns in animals?

    Fixed action patterns in animals are instinctive behaviours within animals that are present in all members of the same species. They are a sequence of actions an animal must perform to completion upon being exposed to a specific stimulus/stressor. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    There are fixed patterns of action in animals that are unique to each species.

    Fixed Action Patterns are:

    Fixed Action Patterns are a core concept of the __________ approach and usually occur after an innate releasing mechanism (IRM). 

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