Teaching Tools

Tinbergen's questions

The overview below can support the implicit or explicit classification of different causes and consequences of a behavior in the classroom.

We can engage content from across the content anchors to explore specific types of causes. Lesson materials across content can engage students in reflecting on these questions of cause and variation in human behaviors, such as:

  • What if we change the immediate conditions in some way (e.g. of an experiment)? Would the person/individual have behaved differently? Why, or why not?
  • Does this behavior have some beneficial outcomes for an individual in his/her environment? What might have been this individual's motivation for behaving like that? (this can be further explored with the help of a Payoff Matrix)
  • What factors and experiences in the individuals life might have contribued to the fact that he/she behaved like that?
  • Do you think humans in all cultures have such a behavior? Why, or why not? How could we find out?
  • Do you think all mammals (or animals, or living beings) have such a behavior? Why, or why not? How could we find out?
  • Do you think this behavior might have been beneficial for the survival and reproduction of our ancestors? How and since when? How could we find out?

A behavior has just occurred. Why did it happen? Your first category of explanation is going to be a neurological one. What went on in that person’s brain a second before the behavior happened? Now pull out to a slightly larger field of vision, your next category of explanation, a little earlier in time. What sight, sound, or smell in the previous seconds to minutes triggered the nervous system to produce that behavior? On to the next explanatory category. What hormones acted hours to days earlier to change how responsive that individual was to the sensory stimuli that trigger the nervous system to produce the behavior? And by now you’ve increased your field of vision to be thinking about neurobiology and the sensory world of our environment and short-term endocrinology in trying to explain what happened.

And you just keep expanding. What features of the environment in the prior weeks to years changed the structure and function of that person’s brain and thus changed how it responded to those hormones and environmental stimuli? Then you go further back to the childhood of the individual, their fetal environment, then their genetic makeup. And then you increase the view to encompass factors larger than that one individual - how has culture shaped the behavior of people living in that individual’s group? - what ecological factors helped shape that culture - expanding and expanding until considering events umpteen millenia ago and the evolution of that behavior.”

Robert Sapolsky (2018), p. 6, 7