Papers in the Biological Sciences


Date of this Version



Published in R. J. Blanchard et al. (eds.), Ethoexperimental Approaches to the Study of Behavior, 30-50. Copyright © 1989 by Kluwer Academic Publishers. Used by permission.


My purpose in this paper is to describe two research projects that combine experimental psychology and behavioral ecology . The first employs the operant conditioning technology developed by psychologists to test hypotheses arising from ecological studies of foraging animals. The second uses concepts from natural history and ecology to explore the nature and evolution of spatial memory. These two projects demonstrate both the advantages and the challenges of interdisciplinary work.

There are many advantages to combining psychological and biological perspectives on the behavior of animals. But truly interdisciplinary work is rare, mostly because it is so difficult to achieve meaningful integration across the boundaries that define different approaches. The ideas of LG.katos (1) about the nature of science help illuminate this difficulty. According to Lakatos, scientists work within "research programs." A research program is characterized by a set of central assumptions which are not subjected to direct empirical test . This central core provides the overall framework within which specific hypotheses are generated. These hypotheses are then tested empirically. Different research programs, as well as different disciplines, differ in context and in which questions they consider most important . If these differences are not understood, appreciated and dealt with, truly interdisciplinary research is impossible. All too often, what passes for interdisciplinary research involves only superficial cross-disciplinary integration. Therefore, before discussing details of the research we have been doing , I will briefly outline the differences between the approaches of experimental psychology and behavioral ecology (more detailed discussions are available, see 2, 3) . The particular branch of experimental psychology in which I am interested is the experimental analysis of animal learning . This area involves several traditions, particularly those of the Skinnerian (4) and of the associationist (5). Although these traditions differ in important ways, they do share a number of characteristics. They are both resolutely generalist in the sense that they assume that a relatively small set of principles will account for behavior in a wide variety of situations and a wide variety of species. They are also, as is most of psychology, heavily environmental and mechanistic . In terms of methodology, the emphasis is on automated, 'objective' laboratory studies of behavior under highly controlled laboratory conditions . Behavioral ecology is quite different in orientation (6). Where the psychologist's emphasis is on understanding behavior in the laboratory, the behavioral ecologist, even when engaged in laboratory studies of behavior, is primarily interested in understanding behavior under natural conditions. Where the psychologist emphasizes a few general mechanistic principles (e.g., the law of effect or contiguity), the behavioral ecologist emphasizes functional principles, particularly the concept that behavior functions to maximize the representation of the individual's genes in succeeding generations . Where the psychologist tends to assume that principles are easily generalized across species , the behavioral ecologist tends to assume that species are different in many important ways.