We teach behavioral science, but... what exactly is behavior?

Human behavior, in one form or another, is something we are all thinking about every day, if not most of the day. In our pre-service teacher education course, one of the first things we do is question and clarify our basic conceptions that we know what behavior actually is.
Published in Neuroscience
We teach behavioral science, but... 
what exactly is behavior?

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By Dustin Eirdosh & Susan Hanisch

It is week 3 of our pre-service teacher education module Human Behavior and Sustainable Development. This is an interdisciplinary course for future teachers from all subject areas at the University of Leipzig's Center for Teacher Development and School Research (ZLS; Zentrum für Lehrerbildung und Schulforschung). We help educators consider the challenges and opportunities in teaching human behavior as an interdisciplinary theme that spans and integrates traditional subject areas. Through this lens we look at (human) behavior across a wide diversity of contexts, based on the content anchors of our Global ESD Design Concept:

Human behavior is a great topic because it is so close to our everyday lives, it is the stuff of our everyday experience, and how we understand the behavioral dynamics around us influences our safety, well-being, and ability to pursue the things we care about. So, it might seem, there is little need to define what exactly the concept of behavior means. Isn't behavior just the things an organism does? It is not quite so simple. To help students reflect on their current conceptualization of behavior, we ask them to work in small groups (in zoom breakout rooms using shared google slides) to try to work through a range of possible examples of the concept, and sort them into three categories: Example, Not Sure, or Non-Example:

There tends to be universal agreement on some (e.g. smiling and going for a walk are behaviors, puberty is not), and less clarity on others (e.g. feeling hungry or sad? being stressed? science? values?). In going through these examples, students are engaging in what Julie Stern and team call conceptual attainment, clarifying the boundaries and core attributes of a given concept, and gaining an appreciation for various examples that may challenge or refine those conceptual boundaries. We then help students see that they are not alone in doing this kind of conceptual clarification work, in fact, it is at the heart of science itself. 

We share with our students an interesting study (Levitis et al. 2009), which surveyed 174 behavioral biologists regarding their concepts of what constitutes behavior. The results are perhaps more diverse than public perceptions of science might expect.

Adapted from Levitis et al. (2009) behavioral biologists do not agree on examples vs. non-examples of behavior
Adapted from Levitis et al. (2009) behavioral biologists do not agree on core attributes of what behavior is

Understanding that even scientists within a field as focused as behavioral biology don't always agree on basic scientific concepts, is an essential lesson in the nature of science, but it can also be confusing or even stressful. Some students (and humans) simply want "the right answer". We use this exercise to help our future educators become more aware of the processes of conceptual learning and to then clarify how we will approach the concept of behavior in this module. 

Because we want students to develop the skills for teaching human behavior as an interdisciplinary theme, it means they need to be flexible and fluent across the many appropriate uses of the concept of behavior across scientific traditions and frames of analysis. Competency across biological, cognitive, behavioral, cultural, and complex systems perspectives on the notion of behavior will be essential for 21st-century educators to help students understand themselves and the evolving place of humanity in our world and universe. This introductory lesson is just a small step on a journey for all of us in the cultural evolution of our collective understanding of who we are as a species and how we can better work together to make the world a more sane and sustainable system for all. We welcome you to join our growing community of educators interested in using human behavior as an interdisciplinary theme for teaching evolution as an interdisciplinary science. 

More information and teaching resources


The lesson and resources above are from the OpenEvo Open Syllabi project module Human Behavior and Sustainable Development.  For more information and resources, learn more about OpenEvo, or sign-up to use and co-design open educational resources for teaching evolution as an interdisciplinary science. 

OpenEvo is a project of the Department of Comparative Cultural Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany. 


Levitis, D. A., Lidicker, W. Z., & Freund, G. (2009). Behavioural biologists do not agree on what constitutes behaviour. Animal Behaviour, 78(1), 103–110. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.03.018 

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