Behaviorist vs. Ethologist

Behaviorism and ethology are two different ways of studying animal behavior.
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Behaviorists and ethologists both study animal behavior, but they differ in how they view the causes of it. Behaviorists think animal behavior is largely learned or conditioned and design experiments to study how environment affects behavior. Ethologists believe animal behavior is innate, or instinctive, and observe animals in the wild to study it.


    The science we now call behaviorism traces back to Ivan Pavlov's experiments with dogs in the late 19th century. Pavlov discovered that by conditioning dogs to associate a reward (food) with an unrelated stimulus (like a bell), he could get the dogs to salivate at the stimulus alone. In the early part of the last century, psychologists J.B. Watson and B.F. Skinner conducted famous experiments in operant conditioning, using rewards and punishments to influence behavior. Today, behaviorists still conduct experiments to discover the effects of external stimuli on animals.


    Ethology is a subdiscipline of behaviorism. Where classical behaviorists see animal and human behavior as a learned phenomenon, ethologists see it as innate to each species. Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen are generally recognized as the founders of modern ethology. Lorenz and Tinbergen were biologists rather than psychologists, as the early behaviorists were. Their purpose was to observe and study innate behavior patterns in specific species without influencing them.

Differences Between Behaviorism and Ethology

    Behaviorists study learned behavior in animals by manipulating variables in a controlled environment (usually a laboratory). Ethologists study instinctive behavior in animals by observing them in their natural environments without interacting. Behaviorists work with only a few particular species that are good at learning random tasks in response to changes in the environment. Ethologists study entire species across a broad spectrum of species in order to compare and contrast the interaction between species' genetically programmed behavior and their environments.

Similarities Between Behaviorism and Ethology

    Despite their different approaches, behaviorists and ethologists both study animal behavior. Neither instinct nor learning by themselves are enough to explain and understand everything animals (or humans) do. The two approaches complement each other, and in many cases overlap. Whether in laboratories or in the wild, behaviorism and ethology both involve large amounts of research, observation, note-taking and writing and deductive reasoning. Many careers combine both approaches -- animal trainers, for example, need to understand the innate nature of whatever animal they work with before they can effectively train them to respond to external cues.

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