Ethological Theory: Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:01 A Look at Ethological Theory
  • 0:44 What Is Ethology?
  • 2:04 A Natural Behavior
  • 3:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nathan Kilgore

Nathan has taught college Psychology, Sociology, English, and Communications and has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will give an explanation of ethological theory - noting the history, founding contributors, and distinguishing characteristics of this evolutionary approach in understanding newborns and their ability to attach and ultimately survive.

A Look at Ethological Theory

In the early 1950's, two European zoologists (Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen) studied geese. Lorenz noticed that shortly after geese are born they have a brief window of opportunity to discover their mother. This time of learning is so sensitive that when exposed to even Lorenz himself, the baby geese would follow him as if he was the mother goose!

The zoologists noted that baby geese had a tendency to adapt their behavior so that the mother goose would stay close by and within reach. Lorenz and Tinbergen suggested that these behaviors were a means of survival.

In this lesson we will study the theory behind some behaviors as a hereditary trait that promote survival

What is Ethology?

Ethology is a study of behavior based on two core principles:

  • behavior changes to achieve survival (sometimes referred to as an adaptive trait)
  • behavioral traits are inherited

The work of Charles Darwin laid the foundation for ethology. Darwin believed biological traits could adapt (or evolve) over time to promote survival. Ethological theories are in large part about how behavior adapts to better ensure survival and is passed down to the next generations.

The ethological theory can be held in contrast to behavioral theories, which claim that behavior is learned. Learning could come from watching the parents, or just making associations, like a bird discovering that bugs can be found under rocks and continuing to exhibit the behavior of turning over rocks to find food.

Ethological theory claims that our behavior is part of our biological structure. According to ethological theory, just as a child may receive certain physical characteristics passed on from a previous generation, so to the child inherits certain behavioral traits to survive.

Explanations for behaviors, such as aggression and gathering food, are also part of ethological theories. One ethological theory, for example, suggests that colic babies cry often as a result of previous generations of neglect.

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