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Behaviour is the way human beings and other organisms act. Many people use the word behaviour to mean conduct--that is, how a person's actions fit society's idea of right and wrong. But in psychology and other behavioural sciences, behaviour is regarded as any activity of a person or other living thing. This article reflects the more general usage and focuses on human behaviour. 

Most human behaviour results from a combination of many factors. For example, a person might shout in answer to an insult. This response probably results from more than just the insult. It may be caused partly by being tired or hungry or by having been hurt by someone similar to the person now doing the insulting. 

Although behaviour has many causes, most scientists seek to isolate single causes. This makes the scientific study of behaviour hard. Many researchers in psychology use controlled experiments in which they can examine the effect of one factor at a time on a particular kind of behaviour. Some investigators design experiments to test the behavioural effects of several factors in various combinations. Still other researchers study behaviour in the "real" world by observing people in their daily activities. Observing behaviour outside controlled experiments cannot prove that one thing causes another. But studying people in the real world often helps scientists see the ways in which causes identified in experiments actually operate in people's daily lives. 

Specialists in many fields study behaviour. Psychologists and some biologists study animal behaviour in controlled experiments. Other psychologists study individuals or small groups of people in controlled games or tasks to understand many aspects of behaviour, including the reasons for people's feelings, thoughts, and motives. These studies help establish principles that can be used to explain, predict, and modify behaviour. Educational researchers study how people behave in the classroom. In sociology, behavioural research focuses mainly on the behaviour of people in large groups and social institutions, such as businesses, churches, governments, and hospitals. An anthropologist may live in an isolated community to study behaviour patterns of a whole group. 

Scientists from different fields carry out joint studies of specific problems of behaviour. For example, many psychologists, educational researchers, sociologists, and anthropologists are concerned with the ways in which behaviour is connected to physical illness. These scientists work together to learn why people adopt such harmful behaviour patterns as smoking and overeating. The scientists also study how to encourage more healthy behaviour. 

Factors that affect behaviour 

Human behaviour is determined partly by heredity and partly by environment. In addition, it can be modified through learning. 

Heredity is determined by genes. Genes are short segments of the cell structures called chromosomes, which parents pass on to their offspring. Genes consist of chemical substances that give the offspring a tendency toward certain physical and behavioural qualities. The extent to which heredity influences behaviour is hard to determine. For example, a person might inherit the genes to be an excellent pianist. But the person may never learn to play the piano well without early and continual training--and a piano on which to practise. In this way, genetic and environmental influences are intertwined in a person's behavioural development. Most scientists agree that genes have some influence over general intelligence and special aptitudes in such activities as athletics, mathematics, music, and science. But heredity is not the only factor involved in producing these characteristics. 

Environment consists of the conditions and forces that surround and influence an organism. The environment can cause certain behaviour. For example, unfamiliar surroundings may arouse curiosity or fear, depending on the circumstances. An intermediate level of arousal tends to have the most favourable effect on behaviour. Extremely high or extremely low levels of arousal may have a negative effect. A slight feeling of anxiety, for example, might help a student's performance on a test. But extreme anxiety could result in a poor performance. 

Learning is the process by which behaviour changes as a result of experience or practice. A person learns a great deal of behaviour through new environments that show examples of new behaviour, give instruction or provide opportunities to practise new behaviour, and reward or punish new behaviour. Learning takes place constantly because people are always being given new problems to solve or are being shown new ways of doing things. 

Types of behaviour 

Behaviour is often classified as voluntary or involuntary. Speaking at a meeting, for example, appears to be voluntary, and blushing when spoken to seems involuntary. But both types of behaviour may change with experience. Deciding to speak at a meeting may in fact be determined by a person's previous experience of public speaking. In addition, people may not blush any more once they have gained more self-confidence. Thus, it may be difficult to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary behaviour when such factors are taken into consideration. 


A major aspect of psychology called behaviourism developed from research on learning. It was introduced in 1913 by the American psychologist John B. Watson, who felt psychologists should study only observable behaviour rather than states of consciousness or thought processes. He believed that changes in a subject's behaviour result from conditioning, a learning process in which a new response becomes associated with a certain stimulus. 

Watson's approach to behaviourism was strongly influenced by the research of the Russian physiologist Ivan P. Pavlov during the early 1900's. Pavlov's experiments with animals proved that certain reflex actions can become conditioned responses to entirely new stimuli. For example, a dog's mouth begins to water as a reflex when the animal smells meat. Pavlov rang a bell each time he was about to give meat to a dog. Eventually, the dog's mouth began to water when Pavlov merely rang the bell. The flow of saliva had become a conditioned response to the ringing of the bell. 

Watson demonstrated that responses of human beings could be conditioned in a similar manner. In one study, he struck a metal bar loudly each time an infant touched a furry animal. The sound scared the child, who in time became frightened by just the sight of the animal. Watson felt that he could produce almost any response in a child if he could control the child's environment. 

During the mid-1900's, the American behavioural psychologist B. F. Skinner became known for his studies of how rewards and punishments can influence behaviour. He believed that rewards, or positive reinforcements, cause behaviour to be repeated. Positive reinforcements might include praise, food, or simply a person's satisfaction with his or her own skill. Punishments discourage the behaviour they follow. But punishment also encourages people to avoid situations in which they might be punished. Skinner concluded that positive reinforcement is more effective in teaching new and better behaviour. His work led to the development of teaching machines, which are based on positive reinforcement. 

In procedures called behaviour modifications, therapists use positive reinforcers to shape behaviour in desired ways. For example, behaviour modification has been used to help retarded children learn basic school subjects. The children may receive rewards such as smiles, hugs, or food for doing their schoolwork and behaving properly. In other behaviour modification programmes, children work for tokens or points. Later, they can exchange the tokens for sweets, toys, or other rewards. Such programmes have also proved effective in shaping the behaviour of children with normal intelligence and of juvenile delinquents. 

Additional resources 

Level I 

Cain, Nancy W. Animal Behaviour Science Projects. John Wiley, Chichester, West Sussex, U.K., 1995. 

Porter, Keith. How Animals Behave. Cambrifge University Press, Cambridge, U.K., 1987. 

Stidworth, John. Animal Behaviour. Way land, Hove, East Sussex, U.K., 1990. 

Level II 

Avery, Gayle and others. Psychology at Work Funamentalswith Applications. 2nd ed. Prentice Hall, Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, U.K. 1985. 

Hall, Geoffrey. Behaviour: An Introduction to Psychology as a Biological Science. Academic Press, Sidcup, Kent, U.K., 1984. 

Hart, Stephen and De Waal, Franz. The Language of Animals. Henry Holt, New York, 1996. One of the vols. in the Scientific American Focus Books. 

Morris, Charles G. Psychology: An Inroduction. 7th ed. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, U.S.A.,1990. 

Sparks, John. The Discovery of Animal Behaviour. Little Brown, Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A., 1982.



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