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What is the difference between humans and animals?

The answer to this question is of central importance when trying to understand animal behaviour.
One thing is certain: humans and animals work differently.

What is my dog thinking about exactly? This is something that almost all dog owners have wondered. It is a question that is indeed difficult to answer – not least because the question itself assumes that dogs and humans work and think the same way.

Thought is a very complex process and is a predominantly human trait. Animals, on the other hand, work on intuition. A dog does not think about the price of raw materials for food.

What is social behaviour?

Behaviour is, in the strictest sense, a difficult term to understand. Behaviour deals with externally perceptible active changes in movement, posture, gestures and sounds made by humans and animals that facilitate communication.

Social behaviour is a behaviour which aim is to generate an action or a reaction from other people in humans and from other members of their species in animals.

Social behaviour in animals comprises the following examples:

  • Courtship
  • Brood care
  • Territorial disputes
  • Communication between animals
  • Pack formation
  • Hierarchical ordering

Social behaviour in humans comprises the behaviour in our social fabric:

  • Speech
  • Eye contact
  • Body language
  • Gestures

What differentiates instinct from social actions?

An action is something that is done or not done by an actor that is associated with purpose. The important point is that this purpose appears meaningful. For some, putting up a three-metre-high house of cards may be subjectively meaningful, for someone else perhaps not. This subjective meaning is derived from the individual's motivation for taking the action.
This action is social if it is reciprocally related to the behaviour of another and / or if it is oriented toward it. For example, when a young man helps an old lady to cross the street or when two men get into a fight after a few too many beers.

What is the difference between social actions and (social) behaviour?
Social behaviour occurs without a subjective meaning. For example, "yawning" is a behaviour without a subjective meaning.

This difference is important. The behaviour of animals is mostly intuitive – i.e. guided by instinct. A dog cannot be reasoned with. It is not capable of social actions. Dogs do not make decisions based upon a thought process which involves weighing up all the arguments, rather, they decide based upon which stimulus best satisfies their instinct. This stimulus-response principle is important for understanding what makes animals tick. Only once you understand the instincts of an animal can you influence them.

The exception proves the rule

As is so often the case in life, there are exceptions: Primates have a limited capacity for taking actions that fulfil a subjective purpose and make intelligent decisions.

How can the behaviour of animals be influenced?

The most important thing is not to humanise animals. A dog is a dog – not a human. We need only to understand the dog in order to influence its behaviour.

If we are familiar with the behaviour and instincts of the animals with which we live, then we'll be able to live together more easily and peacefully.

Put yourself in the position of the animal

As humans, we have the ability to imagine ourselves in someone else's place. What would it be like to be the chancellor or a rock star? We can also imagine ourselves in the position of an animal:

Put yourself in the position of a marten with no knowledge of physics. You can get into the attic by climbing over a high fence by the house. It's warm up there, and the roof structure should provide a safe haven from the weather. If there's a way into the attic space, the marten will settle there. If this access is protected by some kind of barrier (e.g. an electric fence), then he will keep away and not take this route. The marten might try and find another way up. If this route presents an additional barrier, then this attic will be of little use to him, and he will search out a new, more attractive place to hide. The marten has no idea how electricity works and cannot figure out a way past such a barrier, unlike humans.

The situation is similar for a horse in a paddock. If it receives an electric shock from the fence, then it will think carefully about whether it will dare touch it again. Even if current is only flowing the first time it touches the fence and not at later time, the initial contact with the fence will stick in memory. Will it try again? Without a specific need to do so, no.

The concept of marginal utility applies just as much for animals as it does for humans. This states that an interest in something will exist until such a time when the effort needed to reach it becomes greater than its use. A few examples: How much is a scoop of ice cream worth? £0.50? £1? £2.50? £10? If the marginal utility is £2.50, then a person will not be interested in buying an ice cream for £2.60.

In animals, this equates to the strength of their instinctual drive as the deciding factor and with what means (stimulus) this drive can be altered (reaction).

An example:
a dog with a strong drive to hunt that is extremely hungry catches the scent of a rabbit. What would deter the dog from going after the rabbit? Definitely not a distracting noise. Were the dog not hungry and in a different environment without any rabbit being nearby, then the same noise would irritate the dog so much that he would be influenced by it.
Behaviour is therefore controlled by both the environment and the drive.

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