Exploring Learned and Innate Behavior

Exploring Learned and Innate Behavior


To explore the differences between learned and innate behavior among humans and monkeys.


This lesson is part of a group of lessons that focus on the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. These lessons are developed by AAAS and funded by the National Science Foundation Grant No. SES-0549096. For more lessons and activities that take a closer look at the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, be sure to check out the SBE Project page.

Although behavior among humans and other living organisms is something they are born with, it also is influenced by, and inherited from, parents and ancestors. In addition, behavior is influenced by the environments in which organisms mature. Inherited traits and learning by experience together have the greatest influence on behavior.

Scientific research has shown that the evolution of humans and monkeys is very similar. Humans are able to think, imagine, create, and learn from their experiences—more so than any other species. From the time we are born, we humans begin learning through our sensory systems—sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. So do monkeys.

But humans not only receive information through these systems, they also learn about themselves and the world around them through the physical, psychological, and social context in which this experiential information occurs. That’s because they have the ability to use language and thought.

Much of what humans and monkeys learn, they learn by association. If two stimuli arrive at the brain at the same time, they will probably become linked together in memory, which means in the future, the occurrence of one memory will most likely trigger the other memory.

This lesson explores the differences and similarities between innate and learned behavior and skills among humans and monkeys. Students at this grade level will be interested in developing new skills and learning how to improve the ones they have. This lesson will help them learn the different factors that influence and improve learning. It will build on the assumptions that students understand about how:

  • Their memory of a past experience can influence how they see a new situation.
  • Practicing a skill can cause it to become automatic.
  • Learning what they already know can help them make sense out of new information and experiences.

Research has shown that students usually have preconceived ideas about how the world works even before receiving traditional instruction. They can be highly resistant to changing their views. But research also has shown that long-term interventions that include appropriate grade-level instructions, using simplified ideas, can reduce their resistance and improve their acceptance and knowledge of the learning process and associated behaviors. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. .)

New information or ideas that conflict with previously established information or ideas can help reorganize the way a student thinks. Reorganizing ideas can help students make sense of the new information, which is essential to their ability to mature and learn throughout their lives. (Science for All Americans, p. 80.)


Scientific research has shown that the evolution of humans and monkeys is the same. The difference is that humans have language.

Ask students to use their Exploring Learned and Innate Behavior student esheet to go to and read the following articles about two studies, which used similar test methods to show that infants and monkeys share an abstract sense of numerical concepts.

  • And Baby Counts Three… is about a study that showed evidence of infants having an abstract understanding of numbers before they learn to talk.
  • Baby Got Math is about the same study, but also mentions another study that tested monkey’s sense of numbers.

After students read these articles, ask them to answer these questions on their Exploring Learned and Innate Behavior student sheet. You can find answers to these questions on the Exploring Learned and Innate Behavior teacher sheet.

  • The researchers sat some babies down in front of two video screens. In one video, two women were saying the word “look.” In the other video, three women were saying the word “look.” How did the babies respond? What did the researchers conclude from the babies’ reactions?
  • The researchers conducted a similar study with monkeys as subjects. How was this study different from the one with babies? What did the researchers conclude from this experiment?
  • Do you think the monkeys would have responded the same way if they had been watching the videos with women saying “look”? Why?
  • What is the difference between innate behavior and learned behavior? What are some examples of each?


How we humans behave is influenced by the combination of the traits and skills we are born with and the ones we learn. How we learn is one of the most prominent ways we differ from other species, such as monkeys. We humans have the ability to transmit the traits and skills we learn and those we are born with from one generation to the next and from one culture to another. And we have language. So we can say that language and tools are the unique human traits that allow us to learn complicated and varied skills from each other.

Research, however, has shown that monkeys also have the ability to use tools and pass learned behavior and skills from one generation to the next, yet they do it without the use of language (excluding sign language).

The anthropologist, Jane Goodall, discovered through her research in the 1960s that monkeys are more like humans than we used to think. Her discovery that monkeys have the ability to use tools rocked the world of science because she introduced new information that contradicted previously established information. As her mentor Dr. Louis Leakey said, “Now we must redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

Students should use the esheet to explore learned and innate behavior among monkeys. Tell them: “Now you have a chance to read about how humans and chimps are alike and different. Read the articles listed on your student esheet. Use your student sheet to answer the questions about each article. You will discuss them later with the whole class.”

Tool Use

  • What was so unusual about Jane Goodall’s discovery on that October day in 1960?
  • Would you say the chimpanzee’s use of tools was innate or learned behavior? Why?


  • What are some of the ways chimpanzees communicate in a group? When have you seen humans communicate this way?
  • What are some of the ways you have seen humans communicate in order to maintain agreement and assurance within the group?

Ask students to read the following articles and use their student sheet to answer the questions. Then have a class discussion about what they learned.

So Like Us

  • List some behavioral similarities between chimpanzees and humans and note which behaviors are innate and which are learned behaviors.
  • What does studying chimpanzees and other animals teach us about ourselves?
  • Why were ethologists so shocked at Jane Goodall’s research with chimpanzees?
  • What does it mean for science that chimps and humans are so much alike?


To assess student understanding, hold a class discussion where you ask students what they learned about how chimps communicate with each other using calls, postures, and gestures. Talk about how humans communicate with each other using language, postures, and gestures. Discuss what some of the differences and similarities are between these ways of communicating.

After you have discussed in class the material they have read, do something that instantly catches students’ attention and causes their reaction to be involuntary. You could:

  • Push an empty desk over so it crashes to the floor.
  • Slam a book to the floor.
  • Jump up and run from one end of the room to the other.
  • Start dancing and singing a familiar song.

Then ask students their immediate response to whatever it was you did. Have them discuss:

  • Did their response stem from something they had learned in the past or was it an innate response?
  • What kind of memories did these stimuli generate?
  • Did they learn any new information that might change how they think about these stimuli in the future?


Pets: Oh Behave! is a Science NetLinks lesson on pets and their learned behavior. Students will find the exercises particularly appealing because they can relate what they learn to their own pets at home or pets in the classroom, if you have them.

Learning: It’s a Memory Thing (What Babies Remember) is a fun article that speaks directly to kids about what scientists have learned about babies and their ability to remember things.

Into the Mind of a Monkey: Primates can teach us a lot about what it means to be human—if we’re careful questions the assumption that monkeys think like humans. Students could compare the conclusions found in this research with that of Goodall’s.

Grant Info
National Science Foundation
Some of the above content was created with support from the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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