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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  • Jenny H

    One could say that forming concepts is actually categorisation.
    I disagree strongly about it being a ‘behaviour” unless you consider activity in the brain behaviour’

  • Jenny H

    Re ‘sit’, is it a concept rather than a meaning?
    Is a ‘concept’ nothing more than what we understand by a certain word or phrase?
    Understanding is not a behaviour although it strongly influences behaviours.
    I now have a very different dog to the others I have/have had. Surprisingly (to me) she behaves like people on ‘dog lists’ have said dogs behave! (Sort-of dumb, unable to read my mind, do anything for a food treat.)
    She seems to NOT form concepts so much as ‘behaviours’. She WILL sit when you ask her to, exactly where she was when you first rewarded her for sitting.
    I am working hard on her to ask for her (few) known behaviours in a wide variety of different places.
    Does that mean that I am trying to teach her a concept (put your bum on the ground, wherever we are) rather than a behaviour (run to THAT spot on that carpet and put your bum on the floor and wait for the food treat)?
    Maybe we human have trouble communicating our ‘concepts’ to others? Concepts being a mental processing tool, and all we can do is describe the our concept as the external characteristics of whatever is included in our concept?

    • Hi Jenny,

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving these comments! I’m glad this post got you thinking about concepts.

      I totally agree with you that when people or animals are learning concepts, that there is a lot going on in the brain. However, (in my opinion) there’s lots of observable behavior going on to.

      How do we know that someone understands a certain concept? When we are training, there’s no way that we can look inside the brain and say “oh yes, there’s that concept.” What we can see is behavior — that the human or animal behaves one way in response to certain things in the environment and a different way in response to other events or stimuli.

      And when deciding how to teach certain concepts, we must analyze how the person or animal should behave in certain situations and what rules they need to understand.

      I have some thoughts about teaching concepts in this post (, which is notes from a talk by Dr. Joe Layng. You might find them interesting.



      Mary Hunter, M.S.
      Dog Trainer and Behaviorist
      Serving Dallas-Ft. Worth