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Behavior that enables an organism to function effectively in its environment.

Adaptation describes the process of change in organisms or species to accommodate to a particular environment, enabling their survival. Adaptation is crucial to the process of natural selection. Ethologists, scientists who study the behavior of animals in their natural habitats from an evolutionary perspective, have documented two main types of adaptive behavior. Some behaviors, known as "closed programs," transmit from one generation to the next relatively unchanged. "Open genetic programs" involve greater degrees of environmental influence.

Adaptation occurs in individual organisms as well as in species. Sensory adaptation consists of physical changes that occur in response to the presence or cessation of stimuli. Examples include the adjustment eyes make when going from broad daylight into a darkened room and the way bodies adjust to the temperature of cold water after an initial plunge. Once a steady level of stimulation (such as light, sound, or odor) is established, we no longer notice it. However, any abrupt changes require further adaptation.

The adrenalin-produced reaction to environmental dangers called the "fight or flight" syndrome (including rapid breathing, increased heart rate, and sweating) can also be considered a form of adaptation. The psychological responses involved in classical and operant conditioning, which involve learned behaviors motivated by either positive reinforcement or fear of punishment, can also be considered adaptation.

Further Reading

Bateson, P.P.G. Perspectives in Ethology: Behavior and Evolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

Lorenz, Konrad. The Foundations of Ethology. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1981.

Weiner, Jonathan. The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Abacus to Courage