Juan Vazquez-Leddon
In Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, College of Human Ecology, Psychology

Marlen Z. Gonzalez, assistant professor of psychology, has frequently heard behavioral scientists say “context matters” when trying to make sense of problems caused by human behavior. 

Her answer: Align the science of human behavior with the science of behavioral ecology, or how animals – in this case, humans – interact with their environment. In a comment published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, Gonzalez and Marissa Rice, a postdoctoral researcher in Gonzalez’s Life History Lab, argued that alignment provides needed context.

“It makes things clearer when considering these behavioral ecological rules,” said Gonzalez, who is also director of the Community Neuroscience Initiative. “The beauty about behavioral ecology is you’re forced to do systems thinking and understand that it’s about reciprocal relationships rather than some sort of stimulus-response to an event.”

With this knowledge of behavioral ecology, scientists can better understand the challenges humans are facing. Gonzalez and Rice focused on three of the most pressing: climate change, mental health, and the essentializing of social categories – simplifying groups of people by a few traits that are thought to define them while ignoring diversity and differences among them.

When it comes to climate change, Gonzalez and Rice said that behavioral ecology can help scientists understand how humans interact with the environment. That knowledge can then contribute to more intuitive conservation efforts.

“We should work with the rules of how humans behave with the environment, rather than trying to impose rules and telling people they should act a certain way,” Gonzalez said. “Let’s figure out when you are likely to act in a way that would serve the goal of forestalling climate change.”

Gonzalez and Rice also said behavioral ecology provides a framework for understanding mental health disorders by understanding the utility of the behaviors that cause them.

“It’s really trying to understand that behaviors tend to persist because environments allow them to persist because there is some sort of utility in it,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez and Rice also noted that behavioral ecology offers an “opportunity to correct the implicit or explicit biologization of social categories,” like class and race. They say these categories have been used to explain issues affecting humans such as health disparities and certain behaviors, but that practice gets in the way of true understanding by ignoring the uniqueness of each person’s environment.

How does one gain an understanding of behavioral ecology? Gonzalez and Rice cautioned that behavioral ecology training can’t be done a la carte, but to start, they offered a list of readings, including Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behavior, by Kevin N. Laland and Gillian Brown. Gonzalez also encouraged dialogue with behavioral ecologists. 

“Talk to behavioral ecologists who work on human analogues you care about, whether it’s social bonding, food behavior, parenting, whatever it is, but try to learn this new language,” Gonzalez said. “Have those conversations and get messy.”