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The Development of Behavior: A Synthesis of Developmental and Comparative Psychology

Bill Seay, PhD and Nathan Gottfried, PhD

1978, Houghton Mifflin Company

Comparative Psychology––Where has it gone? Merged into ethology or morphed into physiological psychology? Absorbed into behavioral neuroscience, biological and evolutionary psychology?

While many say the area is still thriving, comparative psychology is no longer listed at the Louisiana State University Psychology Department.

But once upon a time the department had its share of these “monkey men,” the affectionate term for those who observed the behavior of primates and then told us about the development, adaptation, or social structures of these close great-ape relatives.

One of those men is Dr. Billy Seay, now retired from both his work as Professor in comparative psychology and from his role as Dean of the LSU Honors College.

“Comparative psychology was the study of animal behavior,” he told the Times. But when asked if the objectivity that comparative often provided is missing these days, he said, “Objectivity requires constant attention and re-evaluation of thinking and point of view. Any field of science requires objectivity and constant vigilance.” And, he explained, it is available now as well as then in efforts of psychologists.

When Seay came to LSU as a young psychologist in 1964, he brought with him the distinction of having published in the then ground-breaking studies about mother-infant separation. Seay studied with the American primatologist, Harry F. Harlow, at the University of Wisconsin.

In his work at Wisconsin and with Harlow, Seay published “Mother-Infant Separation in Monkeys,” in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, “Affectional Systems in Rhesus Monkeys,” and “Maternal Behavior of Socially Deprived Rhesus Monkeys,” and ‘Maternal Separation in Rhesus Monkeys,” in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease.

“Harlow provided his students with the resources of his laboratory, staff support, and considerable independence,” Seay explained. “When research was published he used a ‘post-Nobel’ style of authorship. Students were consistently the first author of research reports. Exception occurred only if he had an agreement with an editor to be first author. He would not coauthor dissertation publication. You were on your own.”

When Seay joined the LSU faculty in 1964, the primate center in Covington was just opening. He did his research there and found it easy to find funding for his work. “I had an National Science Foundation grant and repeated some of the Wisconsin rhesus monkey studies with another species, the Java monkey. I was also able to study the Patas monkey.”

But eventually funding became more scarce and Dr. Seay decided to take an offer to serve as the Director of the LSU Honors College and then the first Dean.

Seay worked with colleague and fellow LSU professor and development psychologist, Dr. Nathan Gottried, who passed away in 2012.

Together they authored The Development of Behavior: A Synthesis of Developmental and Comparative Psychology in 1978, which rested on the expertise of both men.

The Development of Behavior was ahead of its time. While debates still occur today about which influence––genetic, environmental, epigenetic, individual, etc.,––is dominant in development, Seay and Gottfried’s text explained the importance of five “sets” for determining behavior from all five directions. In Development, the authors approached behavior from the dynamic interplay of the Phylogenetic Set, the Ontogenetic Set, the Experiential Set, the Cultural Set, and the Individual Set.

“One hopes that what is not lost is that all behavior is multiply determined,” Seay told the Times. “There is not a single cause for any behavioral outcome,” he said.

In The Development of Behavior, Seay and Gottfried took each of these five Sets as a topic for Part I, “The Determinants of Behavior.” The text outlines the multiple and interdependent influences on human development, wrapping each one into the others to punctuate the complex interactions possible, even if yet to be discovered.

The chapter on the “Phylogenetic Set” shows that behavioral development is “species typical.” Authors include topics of reflexes, fixed action patterns, and learning dispositions. For the “Ontogenetic Set” the influence of maturation on behavior is described, and authors include topics of prenatal, neonatal, and sexual identity topics.

In the chapter for “Experiential Set” they cover learning, both classical conditioning and instrumental, and specific and nonspecific environmental dependence influences on behavior.

Chapters 5 and 6 are the “Cultural Set” and “Individual Set” and the authors lay out continuing explanations of development by shifting between Sets and the dynamic influences. Seay and Gottfried explain that cultural influences may not be dramatic, but rather subtle and out of conscious awareness. The chapter on the Individual Set makes clear that there is unique variation in all humans, coming from the individual set of influences.

For Part II, “The Development of Behavioral Processes,” the authors note that “all behavior is oriented and organized in some way,” and they select four behavioral processes to include for readers in showing how this occurs.

They include a chapter on “The Orientation of Behavior” with sources of information about the psychology of attention, perception, and motivation.

In “The Organization of Behavior,” places emphasis on development and schemas (the internal structures that are basic to organized behavior) and explain smiling, self-schemas, counting, and problem-solving schemas, for example. Descriptions of human and also animals are richly woven throughout.

Chapter 10 outlines “Affectional Relationships,” with reviews of attachment, love, affection and development, and includes attachment in humans, birds, mammals and topics of affection, development and heterosexual love and gender identity.

In remarking about the views in 1978, Seay told the Times, “Our point was that ambiguity with respect to personal gender identity,” he said, “would inhibit the development of adjustment. Self-doubt is always a problem. Uncertainty concerning femaleness and/or maleness is a serious form of self-doubt. I continue to believe that ‘the development of an unambiguous personal gender identity is very important for later adjustment.’ I think uncertainty may be a basis for disaster.”

The final section for behavioral processes, is “Social Organization,” Chapter 11. This chapter includes examples of temporary and permanent organization, with examples from bison, mallard ducks, wolves, and humans.

“I think that both biological and cognitive psychology fail to recognize the importance of culture in shaping and determining behavior,” Seay said about the awareness of cultural impacts. “The cultural setting is a determining factor with respect to the environment an individual encounters. Failure to recognize cultural influences on behavior limits understanding behavior.”

The chapter on “Variation in Adaptation” covers the broad issues of population adaptability, with examples of baboons and gorillas. And the closing chapter, “The Meaning of Development,” brings together the synthesis and framework for the text.

In their conclusions, the authors write: “The history of the species, the culture, and the individual always are to be seen in present behavior. The universals and particulars always interact. As much as we study present behavior and its foundations, the future behavior of the species and the individual cannot be predicted with certainty.”

Throughout the text, the authors place their emphasis on the variety of influences that merge to create behavior, that each can be influenced by the others, creating the unique, changing person. The approach in Development of Behavior is as rich and worthwhile today as it was in 1978.

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