Have you ever wondered how a dog learns to wag its tail? Or how a baby knows to cry when hungry? How do birds learn to fly in flocks or spiders know to weave a web?
The study of human and animal behaviour is commonly referred to as behavioural science. It delves into many different fields – psychology, sociology, politics and economics. In medicine, we can use this knowledge to predict patterns of child development, as well as better understand mental health and recognise patterns of behaviour that may lead to diagnosis and treatment of a psychiatric condition. Behavioural science has led to breakthroughs in education and health, as well as directly influenced our political and economic foundations.
So what do we mean by behaviour?
Biologically speaking, behaviour is simply an action or reaction in response to something (which we call a stimulus). For example, eating is a behaviour – an action in response to hunger, the stimulus. Many behaviours are instinctive – for example, laughing, smiling, crying or sleeping. A baby does not need to be taught how to laugh, smile or cry. These behaviours are instinctive and observed in all members of the human species (just as tail wagging is a behaviour observed in all dogs).
However, behaviours can also be learnt, unlearnt, adapted and modified. As humans, we can learn new skills such as playing a musical instrument. We can learn customs such as “manners”. We can unlearn undesirable habits such as biting our nails (or farting in public!). But some behaviours are harder to unlearn or change. People who struggle with addiction, victims of assault who experience fear and anxiety in unwanted situations or even learning to cope with situations in a new way that may feel quite unnatural. This is where the study of psychology has become so prominent – learning how we can use the theories gained from behavioural sciences to modify human behaviour and thoughts.
As a GP with a strong interest in child and adolescent health, I am fascinated by the study of human behaviour. There is so much to learn that may ultimately help us to better understand ourselves and each other.