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Research Associate & Lecturer, Harvard; Adjunct Associate Professor, Brandeis; Author, Alex & Me
Fixed-Action Patterns: Using The Study Of Animal Instinct As A Metaphor For Human Behavior

The concept comes from early ethologists, scientists such as Oskar Heinroth and Konrad Lorenz, who defined it as an instinctive response — usually a series of predictable behavior patterns — that would occur reliably in the presence of a specific bit of input, often called a "releaser". FAPs, as they were known, were thought to be devoid of cognitive processing. As it turned out, FAPs were not nearly as fixed as the ethologists believed, but the concept has remained as part of the historical literature, as a way of scientifically describing what in the vernacular might be called "knee-jerk responses". The concept of a FAP, despite its simplicity, might prove quite valuable as a metaphorical means to study and change human behavior.

If we look into the literature on FAPs, we see that many such instinctive responses were actually learned, based on the most elementary of signals. For example, the newly-hatched herring gull chicks' supposed FAP of hitting the red spot on its parents' beak for food was far more complex: Hailman demonstrated that what was innate was only a tendency to peck at an oscillating object in the field of view. The ability to target the beak, and the red spot on the beak, though a pattern that developed steadily and fairly quickly, was acquired experientially. Clearly, certain sensitivities must be innate, but the specifics of their development into various behavioral acts likely depend on how the organism interacts with its surroundings and what feedback it receives. The system need not, especially for humans, be simply a matter of conditioning Response R to Stimulus S, but rather of evaluating as much input as possible.

The relevance is that, if we wish to understand why as humans we often act in certain predictable ways, and particularly if there is a desire or need to change these behavioral responses, we can remember our animal heritage and look for the possible releasers that appear to stimulate our FAPs. Might the FAP actually be a response learned over time, initially with respect to something even more basic than we expect? The consequences could affect aspects of our lives from our social interactions to what we see as our quick decision-making processes in our professional lives. Given an understanding of our FAPs, and those of the other individuals with whom we interact, we — as humans with cognitive processing powers — could begin to re-think our behavior patterns.