Tuesday, November 27, 2018

tinbergen's four questions

The Dutch ethologist and ornithologist, Nikolaas Tinbergen - along with colleagues Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz - received the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their 'discoveries concerning organisation and elicitation of individual and social behaviour patterns'. Essentially kickstarting our understanding of the innate properties of animal behaviour.

Alongside this accolade, Tinbergen’s most famous contribution to science is the ‘four questions’ framework, originally posed in his 1963 article ‘On Aims and Methods of Ethology’.

This simple framework goes a long way towards explaining how and why any animal exhibits a behaviour, and was instrumental in putting the nature vs nurture debate to bed once and for all. The model shows how all behaviour (and all traits) are products of complicated interactions between genes and the environment.

Tinbergen and his colleagues argued that any analysis must address four aspects of a trait: how it works, what function it serves, how it develops, and its evolutionary history.

Although not posited as explicitly evolutionary, Tinbergen’s Four Questions - as they have since come to be known - detail the basic considerations a researcher should want to make. And they still hold.

(Ethologists tended to focus on observable behaviour and so didn't go deep into the psychological mechanisms, that came later as areas of ethology morphed into evolutionary psychology.)

The four questions are grouped under two headings.

Proximate questions.

1. What are the mechanisms? - how does the behaviour get elicited, what signals or primes are required, and which pathways within the organism are involved?

2. How does it develop? - how does the behaviour change with age, experience and environment?

Ultimate questions.
3. Why did it evolve? - how did evolution and earlier generations/species contribute to this particular behaviour?

4. Why did this behaviour help the organism/species survive/reproduce?

To illustrate how this framework can be applied, think of the last time you stuffed a Big Mac into your face. What was the decision process behind that?

Was I hungry? Perhaps it was just convenient? I had a hangover? Or it’s a treat every now and again?

These kinds of explanations for behaviour operate at the proximate level.

These causes point to relatively up-close and immediately present influences—to what you are presently feeling or thinking or a plausible story you tell yourself.

Yes, proximate reasons are important, but they tell only tell part of the story.

Proximate reasons don't address the broader question of why Big Macs are appealing in the first place.

Understanding the deeper reasons for preferences and behaviour requires an ultimate explanation.

Ultimate explanations focus not on the relatively immediate triggers of behaviour, but on its evolutionary function.

In the Big Mac scenario, humans have psychological mechanisms that respond positively to the sight, smell, and taste of foods rich in sugars and fats.

These mechanisms exist because an attraction to these kinds of foods helped our ancestors obtain calories and survive in an environment that where they were often scarce.

So whereas the proximate reasons you bought a Big Mac may be many and varied, the ultimate cause is that a desire for sugary and fatty foods helped solve the critical evolutionary challenge of survival in the ancestral environment.

McDonald's, Burger King and KFC have become some of the biggest brands in the world and wield colossal global advertising budgets. However, it's no accident that they got there selling burgers, fried chicken and milkshakes rather than salad.

Market researchers, like social scientists, have typically been concerned with the proximate influences on behaviour.

Moreover, anything masquerading as insight asserting that people generally want to experience pleasure or happiness, and to avoid pain or sadness is just banal.

However, an evolutionary perspective highlights that there is a deeper level of explanation rooted in the adaptive function of behaviour.

This is a useful lens through which to look at motivation because while there could be any amount of proximate motives for a given behaviour and many goals people pursue, there is a much smaller set of ultimate evolutionary functions that behaviour might serve.

These functions are almost certain to be connected to recurrent adaptive problems that our ancestors would have faced. And as they are rooted deep in our long evolutionary history, they can shape all stages of consumer journeys and decision-making processes.

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