Sunday Science: What is a concept?

Science Sunday posts are short posts about the science of animal behavior and training. They often feature a quote or a passage of text. Spend a moment today thinking about the ideas in the post. As always, you can share your thoughts or questions in the comments section.

Behavior Analysis Book Shelf


“What is a concept? This is another term which has come into psychology from popular speech, carrying with it many different connotations. We shall have to be careful in using it, remembering that it is only a name for a kind of behavior. Strictly speaking, one does not have a concept, just as one does not have extinction—rather, one demonstrates conceptual behavior, by acting in a certain way. Our analysis should really start with a different question: What type of behavior is it that we call “conceptual”? And the answer is that when a group of objects get the same response, when they form a class the members of which are reacted to similarly, we speak of a concept. A child’s concept of “horse” may be such that his first sight of a cow, a mule, or a camel may all result in his saying “Giddap” or Whoa,” or simply “Horsie.” A group of events may also be responded to in the same way and thus form a concept, such as “war.” Classes of objects or events, differently responded to, develop different concepts. “But,” you may say, “this is only generalization and discrimination all over again” –and so it is. Generalization within classes and discrimination between classes—this is the essence of concepts.”

Fred Keller & William Schoenfeld
Principles of Psychology, 1950

Concepts are made up of defining properties. Generalization teaches the learner rules for what to include in the concept, while discrimination teaches the learner rules for what to exclude.

Much of what is taught involves learning concepts, both when training animals and when teaching people to train animals. Give some thought today to the general question of “What is a concept?” as well as to examining particular concepts you often teach.

For instance, consider training a dog to stay. I’ve met dogs that thought “stay” meant stay sitting, when in the kitchen, while a person walks a dozen steps backward, while facing the dog. Anything outside of these circumstances results in a look of confusion from the dog. This dog’s idea of “stay” is very narrow!

When teaching a broader concept of stay, there are lots of instances of generalization that must be practiced (stay in the house and yard, at the door before going out, while another dog walks past, and more) but also instances of discrimination (it’s okay to get up if you hear the word “come”). When learning how to train a stay, there are also plenty of concepts for the human student to learn, such as “How quickly to increase distance” or “How to add distractions.”

What concepts have you taught recently?

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