What are some examples of social behavior, and what is the definition of social behavior?

Social behavior is a set of actions performed by individuals of the same species when they interact with each other. Both humans and animals engage in social behavior; social interaction can be both verbal and nonverbal. Some examples of human social behavior are: watching sports together, high-fiving, conversing about politics, and kissing.

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Social behaviors are believed to have originated because they benefitted the organisms who made use of them in their earliest forms, making those individuals more likely to survive and reproduce. Social behaviors are those interactions among individuals of a species which benefit one or more members in some way. The purposes of these interactions vary widely depending on the species and its unique needs.

Some social behaviors which are generally beneficial to humans include the following:

  • Making eye contact with people when speaking to them
  • Smiling at people upon meeting them
  • Asking for help when it's needed
  • Creating groups with a common goal based on the talents of other individuals
  • Forming friendships and spending time with other people
  • Following the rules of a society
  • Engaging in the accepted rules of communication for a given culture in appropriate ways

In each of these examples, humans who can demonstrate an aptitude in these social behaviors have an advantage in their societies. They are able to form connections that benefit them immediately and long term--personally, socially, and professionally. People who can navigate social behaviors well are not isolated in their worlds, which is beneficial to survival and eventually to reproduction.

Humans are not the only species who have learned to engage in social behaviors to achieve a benefit. Ants, for example, have developed highly organized societies which are divided into castes that serve the overall needs of the entire colony. Honeybees have a sophisticated society based on a division of labor, with bees serving the group in varied roles such as nurse bees and foragers, who ultimately serve the queen and therefore the continuation of the species. Dolphins live in pods and hunt together, thereby increasing their odds of finding nourishment. Female elephants are often seen working together to protect the youngest elephants in their herd, often acting as a collective maternal force.

Social behaviors, therefore, include the interactions between individuals that demonstrate an ability to work together and to improve the potential outcome for the species as a whole.

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Social behavior can also be considered socialization and interaction. Social behavior occurs when individuals interact with one another, engaging in a group or pairs to communicate and relate.

There are many examples of social behavior. For instance, simply hanging out with friends is a social behavior, and so are romantic relationships and athletic groups. Any activity where people are actively engaged with other groups of people is a social activity. In other primates, for example, grooming is a social behavior. Packs of wolves and schools of fish are both examples of social units. Any time an individual, of any species, is interacting with other members of their species, they are engaged in social activity and are relating to other individuals.

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"Social behavior" can be defined simply as the interaction between or among two or more people or animals, the latter usually discussed in terms of animals of the same species. It is a broad topic that includes both the spoken word and unspoken physical movements. Examples of social behavior include the way individuals interact during a party, meeting, athletic event, or any other gathering. The nature of the gathering and the personality and temperament of each individual can be studied as well as the collective behavior of a group. In the former case, social behavior can involve the way an individual assimilates into a crowd or group. Conversely, social behavior can involve the way people isolate themselves. Collective behavior of a group can involve the positive aspects of behavior, such as when a group of individuals acts together to improve a given situation, or the negative aspects of behavior, as when a group of individuals unites in a violent outburst or riot. 

With regard to animals, there have been numerous studies of the way various species interact with each other. Apes, for example, have been the subject of studies that have documented the way these animals behave among each other, with their more "human-like" characteristics usually emphasized by researchers. Similarly, lions have been frequently studied so that researchers could better understand their social behavior. Such studies have examined the way in which prides of lions form hierarchical structures and the way in which male and female lions divide labor intended to benefit the pride.

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Researchers in many fields -- including animal behavior, anthropology, psychology, and sociology -- study social behavior. The term "social behavior" may be defined slightly differently depending on the field, but this definition (from biologist Terrence McGlynn) captures the main idea:

"Social behavior consists of a set of interactions among individuals of the same species."

This definition (from Biology Reference) is also helpful:

"Social behavior is defined as interactions among individuals, normally within the same species, that are usually beneficial to one or more of the individuals."

But it's important not to conflate "social behavior," which is neutral with respect to the nature of the social interactions, with terms like "prosocial behavior," which specify behavior that is intended to help others.

Social behavior can be friendly and mutualistic, as when two monkeys groom each other. Both parties receive immediate benefits.

It can be altruistic, as when a vampire bat donates food to a hungry companion. The donor pays a cost to deliver a benefit to the recipient.

But it can also be mutually antagonistic, as when two male elephant seals fight for access to females. And of course social behavior can include one-sided displays of aggression, or assertions of dominance.

Examples of human social behavior include:

  • shaking hands
  • flirting
  • conversation
  • religious rituals
  • snubbing or "putting down" another person
  • exchanging nonverbal signals (like smiles or frowns)
  • offering reassurance or consolation
  • sharing a meal
  • teaching
  • disciplining a child
  • singing or making music together
  • any act of cooperation between individuals
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