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Ethology

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Ethology

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.

As established in the APA Dictionary of Psychology:

It’s a comparative study of nonhuman animals in their natural environments.

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 relate those aggressive tendencies to humans.

A basic example would be the fight between two animals over food.

Take a lion and a hyena, for example. A lion has secured a kill, and hyenas try to scavenge the food. In a fight, if it were between one hyena and one lion, the lion would win. 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, they may have a better chance of winning any 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.

Ethology Lion King StudySmarterLion king, Flaticon

Konrad Lorenz's 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). This mechanism helps species secure resources and maximise its 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 on a regular basis, 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 used the example of geese initially when trying to explain 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, primarily due to genes related to aggression being passed on.

Ethological explanations of aggression

We can consider the two aspects of ethology we are concerned with for the exam:

  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 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).

For instance, a cat sees another cat that it perceives as threatening. It will hiss, raise its back and hair, trying to appear more prominent. This behaviour is an innate releasing mechanism and is common amongst all cats. Because all cats do it, it’s an inherited, instinctive trait in the species.

In a study by Slackett (1966), they isolated infant monkeys from their mothers 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 they 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.

Monkeys reacting to threatening poses, innate releasing mechanisms, Slackett (1966)

Fixed Action Patterns

Innate releasing mechanisms are the inherited behaviour that inhibits aggression until the animal is exposed to external stimuli. When this happens, the animal exhibits pre-programmed behaviour in response.

This reaction is known as the fixed action pattern (FAP). It’s instinctive and primarily reflexive. Thus, an animal baring its teeth is a reflex to threatening stimuli or even a defence act in some cases.

Both IAMs and FAPs will be discussed further and evaluated in their sub-articles.

Evaluation of ethology and ethological theory of aggression

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

Strengths

  • Biological evidence: In humans, the neural and hormonal system has been linked to aggression. 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

  • 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 in the University of Michigan. In three experiments, a confederate bumped into students and called them ‘assholes’.

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

    • This difference in humans is cultural. Northern students mainly were 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? Ethology does not have proper answers to this question.

  • 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, and ethology does not account for this. We have an element of control over aggression that innate releasing mechanisms do not fully support.

  • We observe aggression in animals; animals do not report it themselves: Can we confidently say these behaviours in animals are aggressive? If they are purely for survival, they may not be down to aggression, and the animal itself cannot confirm this. We can only infer this is the behaviour they are displaying.

  • 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, and 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 use the results and compare them to humans, used to explain our behaviours and psychology. ‘It’s a comparative study of nonhuman animals in their natural environments.’
  • 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. Innate releasing mechanisms are inherited. Fixed action patterns result from innate releasing mechanisms and are behaviours displayed from external stimuli.
  • Most of the time, members of the same species will avoid fighting to death as this is counterproductive. Instead, they will use ritualistic forms of aggression, such as baring their teeth to warn others.
  • 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

Ethology is vital because it allows us to understand animal behaviour and why certain species act a certain way. We can then understand the importance of certain factors and use these results to infer information about other things, such as human behaviours.

Ethology has existed as a concept for a long time. Charles Darwin may have been the first to begin studying ethology truly.

This answer changes depending on what section of ethology you intend to study. For instance, concerning IAMs and FAPs, it is primarily nature, not nurture. Species inherit innate releasing mechanisms, not learn them. They are known already, suggesting it is nature.

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. 

Final Ethology Quiz

Question

What is ethology?

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Answer

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.

Show question

Question

What is the ethological approach to aggression?

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Answer

The ethological approach to aggression suggests our aggressive tendencies and behaviours are similar (at a base level) to animals. We can effectively assess aggression in animals and relate those aggressive tendencies to humans. 


Show question

Question

If a pack of hyenas behave aggressively to a lion to steal its food, is this an example of aggression in ethology?

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Answer

Yes, as aggression is an innate releasing mechanism to ensure the survival of either species.

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Question

What did Lorenz suggest about aggression in animals?

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Answer

Konrad Lorenz suggested that aggression is innate in animals. Aggression builds up in the animal to be released when triggered by external stimuli. 

Show question

Question

Is aggression an instinctual process, according to Lorenz?

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Answer

Yes, it is an instinctual process that is passed on, rather than learnt, an innate releasing mechanism (IAM).

Show question

Question

Would members of the same species fight to the death for something?

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Answer

No. Most of the time, members of the same species will avoid fighting to death as this is counterproductive.

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Question

What behaviours will an animal display instead of fighting as a warning? Is this an example of a fixed action pattern (FAP)?

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Answer

Baring their teeth, hissing, raising the hair on their backs, growling. Yes, it is an example of FAPs.

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Question

What is ritualistic aggression?

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Answer

It refers to warning behaviours all members of the same species display when aggressive or defensive (baring teeth, hissing, growling).

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Question

Why would an animal act aggressively?

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Answer

To secure territory, food, and mating rights.

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Question

What are innate releasing mechanisms?

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Answer

Innate releasing mechanisms are ‘innate’, evolved responses to specific stimuli, in the sense that they exist within the animal as an inherited trait rather than a learnt one.

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Question

What did Slackett (1966) find in their study?

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Answer

Isolated infant monkeys recognised threatening poses when shown images of other monkeys. Despite never being taught to do so by their mothers, they reacted defensively. They had innate responses to threatening stimuli.

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Question

What are fixed action patterns?

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Answer

Innate releasing mechanisms are the inherited behaviour that inhibits aggression until the animal is exposed to external stimuli. When this happens, the animal displays a pre-programmed behaviour in response to it. This behaviour is known as the fixed action pattern (FAP).

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Question

Name one strength of ethology.

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Answer

Any of the following: 

  • Biological components such as the limbic and neural systems affect aggression, suggesting it is biologically ingrained and innate. 
  • Fight or flight response is a clear example of ethology in humans; it is our innate response to threatening stimuli. 

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Question

Name one weakness of ethology.

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Answer

  • Not comparable to humans (free will, premeditated aggression). 
  • Not universal across the human species. 
  • Not genuinely known if animals are being aggressive or just trying to survive.

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Question

What did Nisbett et al. (1996) find in their study?

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Answer

Southern white men reacted more aggressively to a confederate man who called them names after bumping into them than northern men. This reaction suggests a cultural difference in aggression.

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