Willingness to act

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Willingness to act is a technical term of the instinct theory of the classical comparative behavioral research (ethology) developed mainly by Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen . It describes “the willingness of an animal to behave in a certain way .” In the specialist ethological literature, willingness to act is often referred to as motivation or mood , occasionally also as drive , urge or tendency , in the field of psychology primarily as motivation .

The ascription of a willingness to act in animals is classified by many researchers as problematic today, since action in the narrower sense is only ascribed to humans, among other things as the result of conscious planning of activities. The instinctive behavior of animals, however, is not considered to be conscious behavior.

The function of “willingness to act” in instinct theory

The instinct theory of classical comparative behavior research has been developed since the 1930s as a counterpoint to so-called reflexology and to the stimulus-response models of behaviorism . Both had described behavior as a sequence of “entrance” and “exit”, of the triggering stimulus and a subsequent, visible response to this stimulus. Internal states that could influence the reaction to a stimulus were not taken into account by reflexologists or behaviorists, but by representatives of the competing young subject ethology . “Due to the rapid development of the subject”, however, a “confusion of terms” that lasted for decades, stated the Dutch ethologist Gerard Baerends in the Handbuch der Zoologie in 1956 . Baerends recommended the term urge when a certain instinct was addressed by external key stimuli , but at the same time mentioned that other ethologists used motivation , willingness or mood for the same situation ; some researchers used according Baerends also "readiness' to the latent possibility to indicate the activity of an instinct - and mood" for the physiological condition of the animal as soon as an action is triggered. "20 years later it was called in Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia similarly:" Under The behavioral scientist understands motivation as changes in the physiological state which are responsible for the fact that an animal responds differently to the same stimulus at different times. You can translate this term with the popular word 'mood'. "

According to George Barlow , the best-known model of how an animal becomes ready to act comes from Konrad Lorenz, who called it the psychohydraulic instinct model. Lorenz assumed that in the central nervous system for every instinctive movement (meaning: "hereditary coordination") arousal is continuously produced and stored. This excitation builds up, as it were, and is then reduced in particular when the key stimulus associated with the respective instinctive movement is perceived and the instinctual movement then takes place. According to the model, the intensity and duration of the reaction to the key stimulus are dependent on the pent-up arousal, so “the willingness to perform an instinctive act is subject to fluctuations. [..] This phenomenon is encountered in a more or less pronounced way in all instinctive actions. ”One observes both“ Increase in willingness to act with the time lag to the last reaction sequence ”and“ Decrease in willingness to act due to abreaction. ”According to Konrad Lorenz, a special case is considered Idle action (the willingness to act is so great that the instinctive movement due to a lowering of the threshold value runs without a recognizable key stimulus) and skipping movement (two conflicting willingness to act block one another).

In her analysis of instinct theory, Hanna-Maria Zippelius noted in 1992:

“The difficulties that arise when checking the assumptions of a motivation theory are primarily methodological , since no acceptable measurement methods for determining specific motivations are available so far. With the help of physiological parameters such as temperature , pulse rate , skin resistance , only general excitation can be measured, but not the specific quality that belongs to a specific motivation. "


An animal's willingness to act can be influenced by very different factors:

  • external stimuli
    • Alarm calls from sociable animals increase the willingness to take action to flee.
    • An abandoned chick makes contact calls. If the mother is nearby, the willingness to call decreases.
  • Nutritional status
    • Block off young birds : They open their bills wide when one of the parents comes to the nest with food. Fed nestlings do not block.
  • health status
    • Many birds primarily feed their most agile and strongest, i.e. healthiest, nestlings. This can result in less vigorous young animals - especially in unfavorable weather and the associated food shortage - starving.
  • Hormonal state
    • Progesterone levels rise in the body of a pregnant female house mouse ; a pregnant female starts building a nest. If a female who is not pregnant is injected with progesterone, she too begins to build a nest.
    • Due to external stimuli (length of day, light conditions, temperature, weather), the hormone level increases in migratory birds , which results in an increased willingness to migrate.
  • Age and maturity
    • Mammals lose the sucking reflex after a certain age . Nestlings no longer block after a certain age.
    • Dragonfly larvae stop capturing prey a few days before they leave the water to transform.
  • Previous actions
    • In many animals, the willingness to mate expires after mating has been completed.
  • Memory contents
    • Many animals prefer to go to places where they have already found a lot of food, for example, or where they are particularly safe from predators.
  • Habituation ( habituation )
    • The ticking of a clock is no longer noticed after a while. Only when you consciously turn to this sound again does it become audible.
    • If you offer blackbird nestlings the triggering stimulus to block in quick succession, the intensity of the reaction decreases more and more until it reaches the value 0.
  • Gender and hormones
    • Both the willingness to engage in sexual behavior and agonistic behavior are often strongly or exclusively influenced by the sex of the other animal.
  • endogenous rhythms and external timers
    • In bunker tests (the test subjects live isolated from the outside world for several days and weeks) it was found that people observe activity times, rest times and meal times at regular intervals even without external timers such as daylight or clock. However, the rhythm under the test conditions is not exactly 24 hours ( circadian rhythm )

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Entry motivation in: Klaus Immelmann : Grzimeks Tierleben , supplementary volume behavior research. Kindler Verlag, Zurich 1974, p. 632.
  2. ^ Christian Becker-Carus et al .: Motivation, readiness to act, drive. In: Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie . Volume 30, No. 3, 1972, pp. 321-326, doi: 10.1111 / j.1439-0310.1972.tb00860.x .
  3. Gerard Baerends : Structure of animal behavior. In: Handbook of Zoology. Volume 8: Mammalia. 10th part, 1st half, p. 12.
  4. George Barlow : Questions and Concepts of Ethology. Chapter 15 in: Klaus Immelmann: Grzimeks animal life, supplementary volume behavior research. Kindler Verlag, Zurich 1974, p. 213.
  5. Konrad Lorenz : Comparative behavior research. Basics of ethology. Springer, Vienna and New York 1978, p. 143, ISBN 978-3-7091-3098-8 .
  6. ^ Uwe Jürgens and Detlev Ploog : From ethology to psychology. Kindler Verlag, Munich 1974, pp. 22-23, ISBN 3-463-18124-X .
  7. Hanna-Maria Zippelius : The measured theory. A critical examination of the instinct theory of Konrad Lorenz and behavioral research practice. Braunschweig: Vieweg 1992, p. 32, ISBN 3-528-06458-7
  8. organs delayed. In: Spectrum of Science. No. 7, 2000, p. 27.
    Decentralized biological clocks. In: Spectrum of Science. No. 8, 2008, p. 24 ff.