Tinbergen's Four Questions

In 1963, Nobel Prize-winning zoologist Niko Tinbergen published - On the aims and methods of ethology, in which he outlined four questions (sometimes referred to as Tinbergen’s four problems).

Tinbergen said that instead of recording any specific behavior and taking it at face value, we can characterized by answering each of the four questions:

1. What is the behavior for?

This question concerns the behavior’s function. What is the behavior currently used for and what is its survival value? How does the behavior help the individual to survive and reproduce in its current environment?

2. How does the behavior work?

This question concerns proximate causation or control. How do causal fac- tors control the behavior? What kinds of stimuli elicit a behavioral response? What are the neurological, psychological and physiological mechanisms that mediate the behavior?

3. How did the behavior develop?

This question concerns ontogeny—the development of the behavior for that individual. How did the behavior arise during the individual’s lifetime? What internal or external factors influenced the behavior’s development? How do the developmental processes work? What is the nature of the inter- action between the individual and its environment during development?

4. How did the behavior evolve?

This question concerns phylogeny—the evolutionary development of the behavior in that particular species. What factors could have shaped the behavior over the course of evolutionary history?

In practice, all four questions bring out diffenent, but related answers. It gives us a holistic view of the user’s behavior & let’s us see the behavior from different perspective so that we can identify the gaps.

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