Understanding behavior is immensely complicated. Since the middle of the 20th century (after the modern synthesis1), the predominant understanding of the “sources” of behavior centered on the “nature” vs. “nurture” debate. In short, this debate is about whether behavior is best attributed to genetic inputs or environmental factors. Of course, this dichotomy has been shown time and time again to be a “straw man” argument; all behavior (and all traits) are necessarily products of complicated interactions (i.e., nature via nurture).2 However, this debate highlights the central goal of the behavioral sciences – explaining variance in behavior. In a perfect world where we could predict 100% of all behavior, we would necessarily have a complete understanding of all the sources of variance that give rise to behavior.

What does variance explained have to do with evolutionary thinking and business? In 1963, the Nobel Laureate and well-known evolutionary biologist Nikolaas “Niko” Tinbergen posed four questions based on evolutionary thinking that would completely change how we understand behavior.3 Each question offers a different perspective on why and/or how behavior comes to be. Two are “how” questions, about mechanism:

  • How do proximate mechanisms give rise to behavior? (proximate explanation)
  • How do developmental factors influence behavior? (developmental explanation) 

The other two are “why” questions, about the fundamental evolutionary sources of behavior: 

  • Why did a particular behavior evolve over time? (functional/ultimate explanation)
  • Why did evolutionary history gave rise to a particular behavior in certain species but not others? (phylogenetic explanation)

The virtue of these four questions is that it highlights that there are always multiple answers to questions about the causes of behavior. For example, we might ask, why do some birds sing? There are necessarily multiple answers: some sing because of the release of particular hormones (a proximate explanation); some sing because they were exposed to the songs of their parents during development (a developmental explanation); some sing because individuals who sang more attractive songs had more offspring, and thus, higher biological fitness (a functional/ultimate explanation); some sing because their evolutionary ancestors branched off from non-songbirds because of natural selection or genetic drift (a phylogenetic explanation).4 All of these explanations are complementary; together they provide a richer account of the causes of behavior.

Any behavioral science—including business—that does not acknowledge, understand, and utilize Tinbergen’s four evolutionary questions to guide research will simply be leaving variance left to be explained on the table, and will be fundamentally limited as a result.

Although Tinbergen’s four questions are taken for granted in the field of behavioral ecology and ethology (where it originated), surprisingly few human behavioral scientists in any discipline (let alone business) are aware of these four questions. Fewer still actually use these four questions to guide their work. This ignorance of Tinbergen’s work is highly problematic, because many of the “debates” and “controversies” in behavioral science are a product of researchers talking past each other with different explanations. Mainstream social psychology, for example, is focused on understanding proximate mechanisms that guide behavior, whereas evolutionary psychology is focused on functional questions. Neither is the “right” approach – both (along with developmental and phylogenetic explanations) are necessary to truly explain behavior fully (that is, to account for more variance in behavior)5. Any behavioral science—including business— that does not acknowledge, understand, and utilize Tinbergen’s four evolutionary questions to guide research will simply be leaving variance left to be explained on the table, and will be fundamentally limited as a result.

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1. Huxley, J. (1942). Evolution: The modern synthesis. George Allen & Unwin: London.
2. Ridley, M. (2003). Nature via nurture: Genes, experience, and what makes us human. HarperCollins Publishers: New York.
3. Tinbergen, N. (1963). On aims and methods of ethology. Ethology, 20, 410-433.
4. Catchpole, C. K., & Slater, P. J. B. (2003). Bird song: Biological themes and variations. Cambridge University Press.
5. Mishra, S. (2014). Decision-making under risk: Integrating perspectives from biology, economics, and psychology. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 18, 280-307.


Published On: April 3, 2018

Sandeep Mishra

Sandeep Mishra

Sandeep Mishra is an Assistant Professor of Business Administration at the Hill/Levene Schools of Business at the University of Regina. His research expertise is in the broad areas of judgment and decision-making, personality and individual differences, and evolutionary theory. Professor Mishra’s research program is primarily focused on understanding decision-making under risk and uncertainty, including gambling.

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