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Fixed Action Patterns

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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 cats will preen themselves in a particular way. Oddly enough, every cat you encounter will probably perform these actions, as will almost every dog and horse, and so on. These are fixed patterns of action in animals that are unique to each species.

Fixed Action Patterns Definition

Let us first define fixed action patterns.

Fixed action patterns (FAPs) are 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 are a core concept of the ethological approach and usually occur after an innate releasing mechanism (IRM).

Innate releasing mechanisms (IRMs) are instinctive responses evolved and 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.

Fixed Action Patterns Cat hissing StudySmarterCat hissing and arching its back, Revicon, flaticon.com

How many types of fixed action patterns are there?

There are 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 are a response to a specific stimulus, meaning they only occur in specific 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 Types StudySmarterFixed action pattern types, Tyler Smith - StudySmarter

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

If the stimulus is particularly strong or exaggerated, the FAP will also be exaggerated, referred to as supernormal stimuli.

Fixed action patterns in animals and humans

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 of it.

So, here are a few fixed action patterns in animals:

A dog chasing 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 difficult to suppress once it starts. It is an innate reaction to seeing others or even hearing the word ‘yawn’.

A famous example of fixed patterns of action is Pavlov’s dogs, who responded to a bell by salivating after it was associated with feeding times. Each time Pavlov fed his dogs, he rang the bell. When Pavlov rang the bell, the dogs salivated even if there was no food because the bell signalled feeding time. The bell was the stimulus, and the response was salivation.

This example shows how a fixed pattern of action could be learned, even though we have already established that fixed patterns of action are innate and not learned. Salivation was innate in dogs, and Pavlov made this innate behaviour respond to a different stimulus. Nevertheless, this is an example of fixed patterns of action in psychology.

Ethological Approach

Considering the influence genes have on the development of certain traits, genes may influence fixed patterns of action.In the ethological approach, fixed action patterns are viewed as reflex responses triggered by a particular stimulus. 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, well, 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 cases in 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 (a 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 to increase their chances of mating with females.

Fixed Action Patterns Male Stickleback mating behaviours and aggression StudySmarterMale stickleback with red underbelly, alongside wooden model, OpenStax College¹, Behavioural Biology: Figure 1, CC BY 4.0When they see another male stickleback with a red belly, 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 taught a male stickleback wooden objects. One 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.

Greylag goose egg-retrieval

Both Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz have identified specific behaviours in ground-nesting birds, such as greylag goose egg-retrieval behaviours.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 fixes 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.

Fixed Action Patterns Greylag goose egg-retrieval StudySmarterA goose beginning a fixed action pattern to retrieve a displaced egg, Profprestos, commons.wikimedia.org, CC BY 4.0

Slackett (1966): isolated monkeys and aggression

In this study, the monkeys were isolated from their mothers as infants, so they could not learn behaviours from them. This includes behaviours such as defence mechanisms.Slackett 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 Slackett (1966): isolated monkeys and aggression StudySmarterMonkeys reacting to threatening poses, innate releasing mechanisms, Slackett (1966), commons.wikimedia.org

Humans and FAPs

Humans are complex creatures that societal influences and cultural norms govern. While it is normal and often polite to smile at someone on the street in one country, it may be considered rude and offensive and is not normal 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, 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.

Fixed action pattern vs instinct

An instinct is behaviour specific to the animal. It is a biological compulsion to perform an action based on a specific stimulus.

Fixed actions are instinctive processes that exist in animals. They are no different from instincts and are themselves instincts.

Some refer to instinct more abstractly: if someone acted ‘instinctively’, it usually means without thinking. They simply 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 shepherds 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 actually 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. We would not be able to train a dog or own a cat and domesticate it if this were the case.
  • Animal studies are also not always applicable to humans, so generalising the results to human behaviour is inherently difficult 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 helpful in the study of 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 has been shown to be 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.

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.
  • Konrad Lorenz is considered the founder of this theory.
  • Innate releasing mechanisms initiate fixed action patterns, and 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 a good example of fixed action patterns in aggression. They showed FAPs in response to red underbellies of other male sticklebacks and showed FAPs in response to wooden objects with red undersides. The red underbelly was the stimulus, and the aggressive response was the FAP.
  • Greylag geese also show fixed patterns of action when retrieving displaced eggs.
  • It is difficult to apply this theory of aggression and behaviour to humans because cultural and societal influences dictate many human behaviours. Animal studies do not translate well to humans.

¹Behavioral biology: Proximate and ultimate causes of behavior(Opens in a new window, OpenStax College, Biology, CC BY 4.0

Frequently Asked Questions about Fixed Action Patterns

Fixed action patterns in animals are instinctive behaviours in a species, a reflexive action in response to a stressor. They occur when an animal encounters certain stimuli and exhibits a specific behavioural response to those stimuli. It is innate and not a learned behaviour.

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

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. 

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. 

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. 

Final Fixed Action Patterns Quiz

Question

What is a fixed action pattern?

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Answer

Fixed action patterns (FAPs) are 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.

Show question

Question

Who came up with the concept of fixed action patterns?

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Answer

Konrad Lorenz.

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Question

What is an innate releasing mechanism?

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Answer

Innate releasing mechanisms (IRMs) are instinctive responses evolved and 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.

Show question

Question

Name the six types of fixed action patterns.

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Answer

Stereotyped, complex, universal, triggered, released, unaffected by learning. 

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Question

What do we mean by stereotyped fixed action patterns?

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Answer

FAPS follow a particular pattern and are unchanging. They are rigid and highly predictable, ‘stereotypical’.

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Question

What do we mean by complex fixed action patterns?

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Answer

FAPs are not just a reflex and can be a set pattern of behaviours occurring in specific orders, in complex patterns.

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Question

What do we mean by universal fixed action patterns?

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Answer

FAPs are found throughout the species in response to a specific threat.  

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Question

What do we mean by triggered fixed action patterns?

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Answer

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

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Question

What do we mean by released fixed action patterns?

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Answer

FAPs are a response to a specific stimulus, as in, it only occurs in certain scenarios. It is a response to a particular ‘releaser’.

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Question

What do we mean by unaffected by learning fixed action patterns?

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Answer

FAPs are not learnt from the parent, apparent from the first instance of a FAP.

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Question

Are fixed action patterns genetic?

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Answer

Somewhat, yes. There are genetic components to fixed action patterns, as genes influence behaviours to some extent. Fixed action patterns are behaviours innate in the species, not learnt from outside sources. 

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Question

What did Niko Tinbergen find in his study on male sticklebacks?

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Answer

During the mating season, sticklebacks turn their bellies red and establish nesting territories. They are also aggressive toward other males to increase their chances of mating with females. Tinbergen placed wooden objects with and without a red underside near a male stickleback. The male stickleback was aggressive to the red underbelly objects, but not the objects without the red underbelly. 

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Question

How do greylag geese display fixed action patterns?

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Answer

In their retrieval of displaced eggs, greylag would extend the neck over the egg and use the underside of its beak to roll it back into the nest upon noticing the egg. Even if the egg were moved, it would not stop this action; it had to complete the FAP. 

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Question

How do the monkeys in Slackett’s study display fixed action patterns in response to aggression?

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Answer

Monkeys isolated from their mothers as infants were shown pictures of threatening and non-threatening poses of other monkeys. They reacted defensively to threatening pictures, even though they had never learnt this behaviour. Their defences were innate. 

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Question

Why do studies on animals and fixed action patterns not fully apply to humans?

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Answer

Humans are subject to societal and cultural influence and evolve rapidly in behaviour, adapting to the situation at hand. The studies on animals do not apply to humans. 

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