Instinct: A study in social psychology

Chapter 4: The Nature of Instinct — Analysis and Criticism

Luther Lee Bernard

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The discussion in the previous chapter made it clear that action is conditioned by two general types of factors,—those that exist within the individual and those that constitute his surroundings or environment. The environment is a result of the numerous physical, chemical, biological, psychic and social factors working in close or remote connection over long periods of time. These factors are not inherited. Indeed no one man or animal has more than an infinitesimal part in producing them. The internal factors are both inherited and acquired. Of the acquired ones we need not speak here. The inherited factors fall into a number of classes, such as muscular, glandular, osseous, neural, fluid, and they may be classified generally as either organs or organizations. While both of these types of factors influence the activity processes, we are in this study more concerned with the organization aspect, because it is here, on the side of heredity, that we find the instincts, just as in organization also we find the habits among man's acquired equipment. In this chapter we are concerned with the instincts. We do not disregard the organs, nor do we minimize the importance of the inherited organization of structures other than neural. They influence the conduct of man to a much greater degree than has vet been recognized outside of the held of physiology, and one of the phases of sociological study of the future will be to measure and generalize the influence upon social organization and achievement of such physiological and anatomical factors as stature, glands,

(60) senescence, longevity, etc. Some reference will be made upon occasion to the influence of some of these factors in these chapters.

But since the most significant activity processes, so far as their connection with the external world is concerned, are transmitted through the nervous system, and since instincts are neuro-muscular or neuro-glandular reaction patterns, the instincts are for us of primary importance among the inherited conditions of action. The meaning of instinct is by no means perfectly clear. Yerkes says, "Instinct is one of those historical concepts which has been overgrown by meaning. It is so incrusted with traditional significance that it is almost impossible to use it for the exact descriptive purposes of science." [1] One finds in the literature the most contradictory statements, not only with respect to what other writers have said, but also with reference to contentions of these authors themselves elsewhere stated in their works. Some of the psychologists do not attempt a definite and concise definition of instinct, probably having this confusion and uncertainty in mind. This is particularly true of Knight Dunlap,[2] James Ward,[3] Max F. Meyer,[4] and Titchener in his Text Book of Psychology. [5] But underlying all this mixture and confusion certain general tendencies in the conception and definition of instinct are discernible; and these are generally correct, as viewed in the light of modern scientific developments. It is the purpose of this chapter to examine these statements and to attempt to arrive at a fairly clear and trustworthy statement of the more scientific and dependable tendencies.


Almost all of the psychologists regard instinct as inherited. Even Stout, who distinguishes between the psychological and the biological meanings of instinct, emphasizes this point.[6] The Scotch psychologists and philosophers generally, and the English writers, perhaps to a less degree, make this distinction between the biological and the psychological aspects.[7] Stout includes his discussion of instinct under the general division of perception, showing his inclination to connect it up with consciousness. His definition of instinct from the biological standpoint is as follows: "Instinct . . . distinctively consists in a special pre-adaptation of the nervous system congenitally determined so as to give rise to special bodily actions in response to appropriate stimuli." [8] This view of instinct he, of course, rejects as too mechanical for psychological purposes. It does not distinguish it sufficiently from the reflexes.[9] He declares, "Instinctive conduct does and reflex action does not presuppose the coöperation of intelligent consciousness, including under this head interest, attention, variation of behavior according as its results are satisfactory or unsatisfactory, and the power of learning by experience."[10] This definition represents his psychological view of instinct. It is based on the assumption that mind is essentially different and disconnected from behavior. These supposed conscious and variable attributes of instinct, psychologically defined, really indicate the break-up or modification of instinct under the pressure of the environment. Stout is able to distinguish instinct psychologically considered from instinct biologically considered because in the former case he is dealing not with pure instinct at all, but with an environmental corruption of instinct which brings

(62) the changing adjustment into consciousness. This so-called psychological viewpoint is really a survival of the highly intellectualistic or sophisticated interpretation of human action so common in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and nowhere else so common as among the Scotch metaphysicians. British psychology has not yet recovered from this over-intellectualization. The leavening influence of social psychology, psychoanalysis, the new physiology, animal psychology and behaviorism has not yet had its effect in these quarters. The new psychology, experimentally based, can find no such distinction as Stout emphasizes.

Pillsbury presents three definitions of instinct, representing as many distinct viewpoints. His first definition considers instinct as an inherited response.[10] This view, he says, regards instinct simply as "a more complicated reflex, or one that in its variability in some degree approaches the voluntary act."[11] He further elaborates this viewpoint regarding the nature of instincts in these words: "They are more complicated than the reflex, involve a greater number of muscles, and a larger number of movements in a series. The line between instincts and reflexes, when instinct is used in this sense, is difficult to draw." [12]

The second concept of instinct cited by Pillsbury involves a much broader use of the term. Here it is defined in terms of the end instead of the process, that is, it is conceived teleologically or anthropomorphically instead of structurally. It is viewed from the standpoint of its function in adjustment instead of from the standpoint of its mechanism. Such a definition of instinct covers a wide range of acts in man. Instinctive acts, so considered, "show considerable variation and reach the filial end by various ways." [13] He cites hunting as

( 63) an example. Here the anthropomorphically assumed purpose is always the same, but the technique varies according to the environmental difficulties to be overcome or the difficulty experienced in capturing the particular type of animal desired. One might properly raise the question as to whether this assumption of the identity of end in hunting is correct. As a matter of fact there may be as many purposes in hunting as there are types of objects to hunt or types of hunters and their needs, or combinations of these, to say nothing of the circumstances under which men and other animals hunt. Also, it will readily be seen that this view of instinct does not differ widely from Stout's psychological definition, while the preceding definition elaborated by Pillsbury corresponds pretty closely to Stout's biological definition of instinct.

Pillsbury's third definition conceives of instinct as still less definite, or still more "psychological." He says, "In the extreme instances of this class little is determined by inheritance other than that the desired end shall be attained. The attainment may be by any method that previous experience or the acquired habits shall dictate. Here belong very many, if not most, of the complicated instincts manifested by the human adult. Acquisitiveness, combativeness, sympathy, and the great mass of instincts that may be regarded as protecting the human individual, the family, and the social group are constituted of movements that have no regularity, but nevertheless drive the individual to a fairly definitely prescribed end." [14] This "fairly definitely prescribed end," as here stated, is obviously either a metaphysical or a theological, that is, an anthropomorphic assumption, for the writer goes on to say that the reason for the dominance of the end is not usually appreciated.[15] The end can exist only in the mind of God (theological), or in the nature of things (metaphysical), or in the highly sophisticated and teleological

( 64) interpretative logic of the onlooker. It is a superimposed value, existing in the human mind of the philosopher; it is not a part of the instinctive mechanism, so long as this mechanism remains an instinct. Hence, it is not instinctive.

Most of the psychologists and neurologists appear to support the mechanistic interpretation of instinct as set forth in the first definition of Pillsbury and the biological account of Stout. Exceptions will be noted later. Loeb, indeed, makes instincts identical with tropisms or tropistic reactions.[16] He rejects the old conception of instincts, "that they are inherited reflexes so purposeful and so complicated in character that nothing short of intelligence and experience could have produced them."[17] He denies that they are determined or directed in the central nervous system or upper brain, as some writers would seem to imply. He says, " It is only certain that neither experience nor volition plays any part in these processes."[18] In explaining the assumed tropistic character of the instincts he says, "The explanation of them (the tropisms) depends first upon the specific irritability of certain elements of the body surface, and, second, upon the relations of symmetry of the body . . . . For the inheritance of instincts it is only necessary that the egg contain certain substances—which will determine the different tropismsand the conditions for producing bilateral symmetry of the embryo."[19] This implied definition of instinct makes the automaticity of the stimulus-response process of primary importance in the instinct. It is a structural conception of instinct. If consciousness of purpose or end enters in, except as a supplementary aid or after effect, it is because the instinctive or inherited process failed of and by itself to secure

( 65) an acceptable or wholly successful adjustment and the instinct therefore has to be modified. If consciousness follows the act it is because the adjustment already secured has not continued to take care of the situation and of the needs of the adjusting organism.

The oldest traditions of the newer psychologists in this country, at least by word of pen, conform to this strict inheritance view of instinct. William James says, "Instinct is usually defined as the faculty of acting in such a way as to produce certain ends, without foresight of the ends, and without previous education in the performance." [20] This definition is, to be sure, anthropomorphically stated and does not definitely exclude consciousness of process and of end, but it does imply that the instinct is a matter of heredity. Thorndike, who in large measure carried on the tradition of James, also speaks of the instinct as an unlearned tendency.[21] Indeed, Thorndike's three types of unlearned tendencies of man correspond rather closely to Pillsbury's three types of instincts, except, possibly Pillsbury's first type is more complicated than Thorndike's reflex and Thorndike does not find so much variation in his second type (instinct) as does Pillsbury. Certainly Thorndike does not define instinct in terms of the end value, but in terms of the mechanism. It is in terms of the mechanism that he characterizes all these types of unlearned tendencies, unless we interpret the word "tendencies" itself to indicate a telelogical concept. Of the reflex he says, "When the tendency concerns a very definite and uniform response to a very simple sensory situation, and when the connection between the situation and the response is very hard to modify and is also very strong so that it is almost inevitable, the connection or response to which it leads is called a reflex."[22] It is interesting to note that practically

( 66) all the psychologists and neurologists would agree on this definition of the reflex. This is not wholly true, however, for some of the behaviorists look upon the organism as a whole as being self-active, hence for them the reflex is largely an abstraction. Watson says, "The term reflex is a convenient abstraction in both physiology and behavior . . . . We mean by reflex when used in this way that action takes place under appropriate stimulation in some fairly circumscribed glandular or muscular tissue. It is an abstraction because reflex action in the eye, the leg, hand or foot can never take place in isolation. Action is altered in other parts of the body as well . . . . Theoretically we might have a pure reflex if we were to stimulate a single neuro-fibrillar ending of an afferent neurone and had a single neuro-fibrillar strand of a motor neurone connected with a single muscle fiber." [23]

Thorndike defines the instinct by comparison with the reflex: "When the response is more indefinite, the situation more complex, and the connection more modifiable, instinct becomes the customary term."[24] He selects one's misery at being scorned as an instance of this type of unlearned tendency. Of the last type of unlearned tendency which was in these pages compared to Pillsbury's third type of instinct, he says, "When the tendency is to an extremely indefinite response or set of responses to a very complex situation, and when the connection's final degree of strength is commonly due to very large contributions from training, it has seemed more appropriate to replace reflex and instinct by some term like capacity, or tendency, or potentiality."[25] On the whole, the language in which both James and Thorndike describe the mechanism of instinct—its indefiniteness and its variability — seem, in some degree at least, to contradict their assump-

( 67) -tion that it is an unlearned tendency. From the standpoint of structure it can be adaptive only in so far as the structure corresponds to an act to be performed. If the environment has to whip it into shape by means of a habit organization which it superimposes upon it, it is not a thing, a unit process, at all. By calling it a tendency we are describing it in terms of the superimposed habit adaptation instead of in terms of the organization, or lack of organization, determined in the heredity.

The behaviorists conform most closely to the mechanistic or structural definition of instinct. Watson says instinct is "an hereditary pattern reaction, the separate elements of which are movements principally of the striped muscles. It might otherwise be expressed as a combination of explicit congenital responses unfolding serially under appropriate stimulation."[26] Herrick implies essentially the same definition of instinct when, in classifying the three types of action, he makes the following characterization of the first type as "Innate functions of invariable or stereotyped character developed through natural selection or other biological processes, whose mechanism is hereditary and common (with small differences only) to all members of a race or species, typified by reflex action and purely instinctive action."[27] Elsewhere he speaks of this uniformity of reaction in the animal race or species and the hereditary character of the action pattern as the underlying bases of instinct.[28] Woodworth also defines instinct as native behavior.[29] He adds, further, in speaking of the structural aspect of the instinct, "In terms of the nervous system, an instinct is the activity of a team of neurons so organized, and so connected with muscles and sense organs, as to arouse

( 68) certain motor reactions in response to certain sensory stimuli." [30]

Judd holds to essentially the same interpretation. He says, "Coördinated activities of the muscles, provided for in the inherited structure of the nervous system, are called instincts."[31] He further says that the instinctive act is in no way due to intelligence, that it appears in the same form in all members of the species, and that the significance or value of the act is not recognized on the first performance . [32[ Angell says, "Instincts, like reflex acts, rest upon the presence in the nervous system (both central and autonomic) of native pathways for the discharge of impulses into the muscles. Some of the instincts are perfect at birth .[33] . . . Others appear and come to perfection at later stages of the animal's life. But whenever they appear, they involve innate, inherited forms of conduct and are in no sense learned or acquired like the voluntary forms of action."[34] Colvin and Bagley characterize instincts as "inherited paths of preferred conduction between stimulation and response."[35] They declare that instinctive behavior has the following four attributes: (1) is directed toward some end that is useful, (a) is made up of various simple reflex activities, (3) is not subject to voluntary direction, and (4.) is wholly inherited and not learned.[36]

The psychologists are divided in their opinion as to the relationship between instincts and reflexes. Those of one large group maintain that instincts are merely complex organizations of reflexes. Thus Warren says, "The term instinct will

( 69) be used here . . . to denote those complications of behavior which involve a series of reflex activities, where (a) one reflex furnishes the stimulus that leads to the next, and (b) the connections depend upon inherited structure, not upon individual modifications."[37] James says that instinctive acts conform to the general reflex type.[38] Watson says specifically of the constitution of an instinct, "Each element in the combination may be looked upon as a reflex. An instinct is thus a series of concatenated reflexes."[39] Thorndike says, "There is, of course, no gap between reflexes and instincts."[40] Hocking, following the biological interpretation, defines instinct as a serial grouping of reflexes.[41] Herrick speaks of instinctive reactions as elaborations of chain reflexes.[42] Loeb states specifically the same view. He says, "It is evident that there is no sharp line of demarcation between reflexes and instincts. We find that authors prefer to speak of reflexes in cases where the reaction of single parts or organs of an animal to external stimuli are concerned; while they speak of instincts where the reaction of the animal as a whole is involved (as is the case in 'tropisms) " [43]

'Titchener finds little distinction, saying that the "instinctive movement itself resembles the reflex in the certainty and promptness of its performance, and in its serviceableness to ,the organism. It differs from the reflex only in its greater complexity: it is more like a series of reflexes." [44] Yerkes says, "Instinctive acts differ from automatic acts in that ,they are not quite so stereotyped . . . . They vary more. ;—They differ from will acts in being hereditary in their es-

( 70) -sential features instead of individually acquired."[38] Colvin and Bagley characterize instinctive activity as a synthesis of reflex behavior.[39]

Colvin makes a slight distinction between instincts and reflexes, saying that it is rather a matter of degree than of kind.[40] He says that instinctive activities may have a large consciousness correlation, while reflex acts may have none. He adds that this consciousness "is necessary not for the expression of the instinct itself, but for the direction of the various details in the complex process."[41] He also states that it is difficult to say where reflexes leave off and instincts begin.[42] Angell is of the opinion that, "In general, they (instincts) are to be differentiated from reflex acts in part by their complexity, the reflex involving generally a simple muscular response to a single stimulus, and in part by their being ordinarily conscious, whereas many reflexes are unconscious." However, he finds that the similarities are greater than the dissimilarities and that one merges directly into the other.[43] Ogden says that instincts differ from reflexes in being more complex and less direct, and that the meaning of the instinct is to be found in the end which it serves, that it is not merely an aggregate of reflexes.[44] Ladd and Woodworth admit that reflex and instinct are not easily to be distinguished, although the latter term is not usually applied to the simplest activity processes. Instincts are probably attended by much consciousness and even desire, while reflexes are not. However, it is nowhere possible to draw a sharp line of distinction, either in terms of attendant consciousness or complexity, "and instinct and reflex may best be regarded as synonymous terms, definable as innate react

( 71) -tions to stimuli."[45] Holmes holds that, "while instinct is most intimately related in its nature and origin to reflex action it would be an error to regard it as consisting of nothing but direct responses to external stimuli."[46] He emphasizes both the internal preparedness and the consciousness aspects of instincts in addition.[47]

Perhaps Woodworth makes as explicit an examination of the distinctions as any writer who does not insist upon a clear-cut separation between the biological and the psychological viewpoints. He says, "There is some difference between the typical reflex and the typical instinct, though it is not very obvious what the difference is.[48] He groups the distinctions under three categories: "The typical reflex is a much simpler act than the typical instinct, but it is impossible to separate the two classes on this basis. At best it would be a difference of degree and not of kind . . . . Another distinction has been attempted on the basis of consciousness. Typically, it may be said, a reflex works automatically and unconsciously, while an instinct is consciously impulsive. The reflex, accordingly, would be an unconscious reaction, the instinct a conscious reaction. But this distinction also breaks down on examination of cases . . . . These cases point the way, however, to what is probably the best distinction. It was when the flexion reflex was delayed that it began to look like an instinct, and it was because sneezing was a slow response that it had something of the character of an instinct. Typically, a reflex is a prompt reaction. It occurs at once, on the occurrence of its stimulus, and is done with. What is characteristic of the instinct, on the contrary, is the persisting tendency, set up by a given stimulus, and directed towards a result which cannot be instantly accomplished." [49]

( 72)

For the most part we might well be content to allow the different psychologists to answer each other in respect to this controversy over the relationship between reflex and instinct. However, it might be worth while raising a question regarding Woodworth's third distinction. Does not the very quality of the instinct which distinguishes it from the reflex—the delayed character of its execution—transfer it largely from the category of instinct to that of habit? The very process of delaying the activity or adjustment is a process of modifying that adjustment, of overlaying or transforming the inherited element in it with acquired or habit elements. Finally we may cite Thorndike on this question with approval. He says, "Much labor has been spent in trying to make hard and fast distinctions between reflexes and instincts and between instincts and these vaguer predispositions which are here called capacities. It is more useful and more scientific to avoid such distinctions in thought, since in fact there is a continuous gradation."[50] With this view Meyer also agrees, saying, "It is well to make no distinction between reflexes and instinctive activities."[51] It should be remembered, however, that this gradation in definiteness does not inhere in the types of activity considered as purely instinctive or inherited processes, but that the increasing indefiniteness is due to the entrance of larger amounts of acquired content into the organization of the activity processes.

We may now turn to the consideration of certain variant or minority conceptions of instinct. Striking among these is the lapsed intelligence theory of Wundt. He says, "Movements which originally followed upon simple or compound voluntary acts, but which have become wholly or partly mechanized in the course of the individual life or of generic evolution, we

(73) term instinctive actions."[52] He uses the term impulse to denote the simpler purposive movements, while he uses the term "instinct to denote the more complex impulsive actions which presuppose a long course of individual or generic practice. Instinctive action, therefore, stands midway between reflex movement and pure voluntary action.[53] . . . By an instinctive action we understand . . . something purposive, but involuntary, half impulsive and half reflex."[54] Titchener, in his early writing, appeared to follow Wundt's lead. After stating that both the reflex and the instinctive actions are derived from impulsive action, he says that associated "ideas have lapsed from consciousness before movement becomes instinctive, as they have before it becomes reflex."[55] As structurally defined there is little criticism to be made of Titchener's view of the nature of instinct. The main objection is to his theory of the origin of instinct. The accepted view is that it is the product of hereditary selection. Angell criticizes the lapsed intelligence theory of the origin of instinct because, in the first place, it attributes by implication intelligence to the lowest forms of animal life and, secondly, it assumes the inheritance of acquired characters.[56]

The theory of instincts set forth by the endocrinologists is interesting. Speaking of instinctive activity, with special reference to sex activity, Berman describes the general process as follows: "Translated into endocrine terms, what happens may be pictured as a series of chemical events. When the activity of a ductless gland rises above a certain minimum, its hormones in the blood sensitize, as a photographic plate is sensitized, a group of brain cells, to respond to a message from

( 74) the outside world, with a definite line of conduct. There is a registration by the brain cells of the presence of the specific stimulus. Then there is communication by them with the endocrine organs. As a result, some of them are moved to further secretion, and others are paralyzed or weakened. In consequence of changes of concentration in the blood of the various internal secretions, tensions, movements and tumescences, as well as relaxations, inhibitions and detumescences, occur throughout the vegetative system—the blood-vessels, the viscera, the nerves and the muscles. Each wires to the brain news of the change in it. In addition, the brain cells themselves are excited or depressed by the new hormones bathing them. In their final fusion, the commingling vegetative sensations constitute the emotion evolved in the functioning of the instinct. To lower the new tensions throughout the vegetative system to the normal range, the instinctive action is carried out. This superficially is regarded as the essence of the instinct. As a matter of fact, it is only the endpoint of the process, the resultant of a drive to restore equilibrium within the organism . . . . The play of an instinct may therefore be analyzed into four processes. They succeed one another as sensation—endocrine stimulation—tension within the vegetative system—conduct to relieve tension . . . . The most interesting factor in the instinct equation is the endocrine, because that is the one that is most purely chemical."[57]

A great many writers insist upon or imply the existence of an element of consciousness in the instinct. The view of Yerkes is interesting in this connection: "In general, it (instinct) has come to mean acts which are not mere automatisms, but which are guided by what the psychologist calls instinct consciousness."[58] Colvin takes much the same view when he says, "An

( 75) instinctive activity may then be defined as a group of reflexes organized toward some definite goal and accompanied in their expression by a conscious correlate of more or less clearness, and attended by an affective tone of greater or less intensity."[59] Stout, of course, insists upon the conscious element in instinct as a part of his psychological definition. He says, " Instinctive activity essentially involves intelligent consciousness. Animals in their instinctive behavior show the capacity of profiting by the lessons of previous experience."[60] Ladd and Woodworth,[61] Pillsbury,[62] Angell,[63] Woodworth [64] and Holmes[65] take the same general view.

It is often difficult to ascertain from the text whether the writer holds that consciousness is a part of the instinct or merely follows its initial expression. Titchener declares that "the true instinctive movement has no conscious condition. But it is clear that when a certain instinctive movement has been a few times performed, every later repetition of it will have definite conscious antecedents. Human instinctive movement, performed in adult life, always has a conscious condition, consisting of the ideas of object, result and movement."[66] Warren states much the same fact, but from a viewpoint much more helpful to the sociologist, when he declares that "the human adult seldom behaves in a purely instinctive manner. His activities are largely modified and controlled by individual experiences; they belong for the most part to the intelligent type. Even the basal instincts are partly suppressed and reduced to conventional forms."[67] This statement places the

( 76) more complex and sophisticated activities in the category where they belong—that of habit. The instincts are modified into habits through the pressures of the environment. Or, perhaps, we should not speak of these basic complex activity mechanisms, upon which present habits are built, as instincts, but rather as previously developed habits. As Watson says, man has fewer instincts than the animals, and he has no pattern instincts at all. On the other hand, man excels in habit-forming capacities.[68]

Perhaps the most frequently quoted definition of instinct from the conscious content standpoint is that of McDougall. He says, "We may, then, define an instinct as an inherited or innate psycho-physical disposition which determines its possessor to perceive, and to pay attention to, objects of a certain class, to experience an emotional excitement of a particular quality upon perceiving such an object, and to act in regard to it in a particular manner, or, at least, to experience an impulse to such action."[69] Such a definition applies more correctly to higher than to lower animals and makes an unwarranted distinction between purely reflex and automatic inherited activities and those which develop consciousness in their execution. To introduce consciousness as an essential attribute of instinct is, as suggested before, to run the danger of being betrayed into a confusion of instinct with acquired habit. Even a cursory analysis of McDougall's list of instincts will convince the critical student that he has fallen deeply into this error, including many acquired dispositions and attributes under the title of true instincts. While consciousness in connection with an instinctive activity may be merely the result of its complexity, which involves some friction or conflict (hence consciousness) in its physical or overt expression, a high degree of consciousness is almost

( 77) certain evidence of the modification of the original instinct or instincts into an acquired disposition under the stress of environmental demands.

A review of the definitions of instinct cited above should convince one that the psychologists generally have not faced the question as to what they mean by including the conscious element in instinct. It is impossible to determine from the context whether they conceive of consciousness as functioning as an organic part of the instinct or as a result or product of an instinct attempting to function in the adjustment of the organism to its environment. If they mean the former, they come in conflict with Herrick's account of the origin and function of conscious control referred to in the previous chapter, which separates consciousness from the instinctive processes which are functions of the lower neural organization ascending through the thalamus into the cerebral cortex only for guidance and redirection as habits. If they mean the latter, they neglect the fact that an instinct could thus function in its pure form only once. Consciousness in such a case is the sign of the transformation which takes place in the instinct upon its first attempt to operate, and therefrom we are dealing not with an instinct—an inherited action pattern or mechanism—but with a habit, the essential adaptive elements of which have been made over under the pressure of the immediate environment.

McDougall recognizes such a modification of the original inherited equipment as the common procedure in the development of higher life forms. He says, "While it is doubtful whether the behavior of any animal is wholly determined by instincts quite unmodified by experience, it is clear that all the higher animals learn in. various and often considerable degrees to adapt their instinctive actions to peculiar circumstances; and in the long course of the development of each

( 78) human mind, immensely greater complications of the instinctive processes are brought about, complications so great that they have obscured until recent years the essential likeness of the instinctive processes in men and animals."[70] While thus admitting that these instinctive action patterns are modified in the adjustment process in all higher animals, thus resulting in new activity patterns or complexes, he continues to speak of these reorganized activity complexes as instincts. He admits, it may be inferred, the building up of an acquired habit adjustment on top of an original instinct, but calls the whole resulting adjustment or superstructure by the name of the underlying inherited foundation process.

In man this complication and even obscuring of the instincts is much greater than it is among the lower animals. Just as the mental life of man is more complex and richer than is theirs, so is his power of acquiring action patterns on the basis of experience greater. McDougall continues, "These complications of instinctive processes are of four principal kinds, which we may distinguish as follows: (1) The instinctive reactions become capable of being initiated, not only by the perception of objects of the kind which directly excite the innate disposition, the natural or native excitants of the instinct, but also by ideas of such objects, and by perceptions and by ideas of objects of other kinds. (2) The bodily movements in which the instinct finds expression may be modified and complicated to an infinitely great degree. (3) Owing to the complexity of the ideas which can bring the human instincts into play, it frequently happens that several instincts are simultaneously excited, when the several processes blend with various degrees of intimacy. (4) The instinctive tendencies become more or less systematically organized about certain objects or ideas."[71] Here he outlines in an admirable way the process by which the original in-

( 79) -stinctive adjustments are broken up and new habit complexes are substituted or added to meet the demands of a new environment which is different from the one in which the original instincts were selected into the organism. These newly formed organizations here described undoubtedly constitute habit or acquired adjustments, since confessedly they do not constitute the original inherited stimulus-response adjustment processes.

A somewhat different conception of instinct, and perhaps one further removed from strictly scientific usage and more closely approaching semi-popular usage, is that set forth by Veblen. This writer loosely defines instinct as a consciously purposive action based on tropisms and reflexes. He says, "As the term is here used, therefore, and indeed as it is currently understood, the instincts are to be defined or described neither in mechanical terms of those anatomical or physiological aptitudes that causally underlie them or that come into action in the functioning of any given instinct, nor in terms of the movements of orientation or taxis involved in the functioning of each. The distinctive feature by the mark of which any given instinct is identified is to be found in the particular character of the purpose to which it drives. `Instinct,' as contradistinguished from tropismatic action, involves consciousness and adaptation to an end aimed at."[72] He continues, "They (instincts) range in this respect all the way from such reactions as are doubtfully to be distinguished from simple reflex action on the one hand, to such as are doubtfully recognized as instinctive because of the extent to which reflection and deliberation enter into their execution on the other hand:"[73] While this definition will be seen to resemble very closely that of McDougall, it is decidedly more vague and elusive and therefore less applicable in close and

( 80) critical thinking. It is to be noted that it insists even more pointedly upon the conscious and selective element in adjustment and thereby lays open the way to the inclusion of acquired habits under the category of the instincts.

Veblen is at especial pains to distinguish the definitely purposive character of the true instinct from the quasi-purposive nature of the tropism and the reflex. On this point he writes as follows: "Such quasi-tropismatic activities may be rated as purposeful by an observer, in the sense that they are seen to further the life of the individual agent or of the species, while there is no consciousness of purpose on the part of the agent under observation; whereas `instinct,' in the narrower and special sense to which it seems desirable to restrict the term for present use, denotes the conscious pursuit of an objective end which the instinct in question makes worth while."[74] In reply to this view it might be asserted that a genuine instinct could never be consciously purposive, but only apparently purposive, just as are the simpler tropisms and reflexes; for where consciousness of purpose enters into the act there is ipso facto modification from instinct into acquired habit, the consciousness of purpose being the registration of the strain involved in the readjustment from the old instinctive to the new learned activity. This fact of modification Professor Veblen would admit, just as McDougall admits it; and like McDougall he would call the resulting adjustment activity, which is primarily learned, an instinct. An example of such usage is his so-called instinct of workmanship, to the discussion of which his definition here quoted forms an introduction.

The views of these two writers on instinct have been set forth at some length because they are representative of the current thinking in the social sciences. That these views are incorrect and largely uncritical, belonging to the semi-popular rather than to the scientific, critical usage of the term in-

( 81) -stinct, must be apparent to one who analyzes the matter carefully. To the above definitions of instinct we may add two others by way of illustrating the growing transition to a more critical usage. Trotter more nearly approaches a scientific formulation of the meaning of the term when he says, "The word `instinct' is used here to denote inherited modes of reaction to bodily need or external stimulus."[75] Nor is the following distinction drawn between instincts and reflexes wholly incorrect. He says, "Reactions which should be classed under the head of instinct (as distinguished from reflexes) are delayed . . . complex (. . . acts rather than mere movements), and may be accompanied by quite elaborate mental processes."[76] The New Standard Dictionary offers a more satisfactory definition of instinct, as follows: "Reactions that are merely reflex or automatic, in the purely physiological meaning of these words, are not properly spoken of as instinctive. Instinct implies at least a low degree of consciousness; but its reactions are not learned or directed by conscious process of reasoning. The following characteristics are, therefore, attributable to every form of instinct:—(1) It is adaptive, or directed toward some end; (2) that end is somehow connected with the welfare of the species or of the individual as a member of the species; (3) the reaction is psycho-physically complex; and (4) it is native or inherited and not learned. No other animal is so full of instincts as man." [77]

There are certain rather patent errors in the two definitions last quoted, as well as corresponding statements cited earlier in this chapter. It is difficult to understand why delayed response should be regarded as characteristic of an instinct. Delay in response indicates, on the contrary, that the instinct is

(82) not working smoothly and that it is being modified into an acquired habit response. That it is complex may be accepted without question, although, as stated above, it may be doubted if a distinction on the basis of complexity has any appreciable value for an understanding of the nature of instinct. To characterize it as an act rather than a mere movement seems too much like taking refuge in a mere meaningless phrase, unless it is meant thereby to indicate that it is consciously controlled. This distinction between instinct and reflex on the basis of a conscious content is insisted upon in both the definitions last quoted and many of those previously cited. But surely this distinction cannot be applied to the lower animals also, where conscious control is at a minimum, nor indeed in any rigid way to man. A great many human responses, such as breathing, swallowing, perspiring and the response of rapid blood flow to excitement, are unconsciously initiated, yet are highly complex and may be delayed. That the instinct is necessarily directed towards some end, except in the general and anthropomorphic sense that all activity represents some sort of adjustment or adaptation, is not true. "It cannot be said that every instinctive action is purposeful, for instance, the flying of the moth into the flame."[78] If by adaptive or being directed to some end is meant a useful end or even a conscious end, the absurdity of this contention becomes immediately apparent. The assumption that the instinct is in all cases necessarily connected with the welfare of the species or of the individual is also not tenable. Aside from the possibility of the development of purely pathological instincts or inherited reactions (the existence of which might be questioned), it is entirely conceivable that an instinct may be both harmful and helpful. For example, the tendency of insects to fly towards a light is doubtless very useful to them in a majority of cases,

(83) but it is also destructive in many other instances, even under natural conditions. As man comes increasingly to dominate the earth and to produce artificial conditions in place of the more natural or primitive historical ones, he frequently makes use of his knowledge of the instincts of lower animals and of his own species to lure them to their destruction or hurt for his own profit or pleasure—sometimes even to the point of exterminating them.

Yet it may possibly be contended that in their origin instincts were always adaptive in the sense of being useful either to the individual or to the species; but we must be careful not to confuse as identical these two types of utility, the social and the individual. The interests of society may be quite incompatible with the interest of the individual. For example, it is to the interest of the owner of the textile mill to employ child labor, but such a policy is decidedly harmful to the state. Most social legislation registers an attempted solution of some phase of this conflict between social and individual interests. The contention that man has appreciably more instincts than other animals, especially those immediately below him, is at least not self-evident. By way of contrast, it is correct to say that man's activities are less under the control of his instincts than are those of any other animal. He has an infinitely larger fund of acquired directive traits and he also has a much larger development of mental technique, by the aid of which he may create new directive traits of an acquired character. To those who do not readily distinguish instincts from these acquired traits it might easily appear that man has more instincts than have the lower animals. With the statement that instinct "is native or inherited and not learned" it is possible fully to agree.

Many writers have contended that we must have a sound theory of the instincts. Such soundness cannot be obtained

( 84) from observations and classifications of half-analyzed automatisms on the one hand and by counting and classifying recurrences of phenomena in the social world on the other. We must supplement this general or speculative social analysis with an experimental analysis, such as is undertaken by the neurologists and experimental psychologists, if we expect to get at the truth of the nature of the instincts. Our present-day usage of the term instinct includes too many of the sophisticated and learned activities of man. Some of our writers apparently purposely include the acquired traits, especially those which are most closely related to the inherited automatism. On this basis there can never be any valid distinction between instinct and acquired character, and the more an attempt at accuracy in the definition of instinct is made under these circumstances the greater will be the confusion resulting. Other writers define instinct properly, as an inherited automatism or stimulus-response process, but they deviate from their definition in their actual usage. Our immediate goal must be to make definition and usage in this regard correspond. An instinct is an inborn (in the sense of inherited) activity process which has remained intact, that is, which has not been remade through the process of learning or of making new adjustments by means of the substitution of new stimuli or responses for the old which were inherited. This definition is well illustrated by the following characterization of the instinctive capacity of the fly: "The nervous mechanism is perfected, and when hatched and dry the fly makes its first circuit as accurately as if it had practiced the movement for days."[79]

If, however, it be insisted that instincts are not perfect without learning,[80] this may be admitted, at least as far as the vertebrate] are concerned. Perhaps even the lowest organisms

( 85) modify their movements in response to new situations, as Jennings suggests.[81] One explanation of this, however, may be that the structures of the lower organisms are less definitely formed and, since protoplasm is extremely sensitive and impressionable when not organized into stereotyped forms, we would expect highly flexible lower organisms to be unusually responsive to variable situations in their environment. The insects, however, have that degree of fixity of structure which renders them better subjects for comparison with higher forms of life than are the lowest forms. The insects have relatively fixed modes of response, as in the case cited by Gamble above, and these we call instinctive. But the vertebrates show an increasing flexibility of action pattern the further up in the evolutionary process we go. The same is true of the incompleteness of structural adjustments at birth. It is said that the chick's first attempts at pecking are successful in only fifteen per cent. of the cases.[82] The human infant is even more helpless in its first adjustments. The fact is that the instincts, without practice, do not care for the adjustments of the higher animal types. They must first be overlaid with habit, whipped into shape by experience.

The obvious inference to be drawn from this fact would seem to be that instinct deteriorates in the higher animals, and especially in man, in that proportion in which the increased flexibility of the nervous system—made possibly by an increasing number of unclosed synapses at birth—tends to substitute habit organizations or mechanisms for the instinctive in functional adjustment to the environment. Habit organization is so much more efficient as an adjustment mechanism for higher forms that it soon comes to replace instinct organization ontogenetically ; likewise, through the process of selec-

( 86) -tion, it is slowly replacing instinct mechanism for adjustment purposes phylogenetically. Instinct, at least in the sense of complex and elaborate mechanisms, is a diminishing, if not a disappearing, category in higher animal forms, especially in the human. The only complex instinctive mechanisms which remain intact in man are those which are connected with the vegetative, reproductive, excretory and similar primitive processes, particularly those controlled by the older autonomic and glandular adaptations. These function where the organism is most standardized and least subject to change. Elsewhere the complex instincts are being broken down or selected out and the organism is being thrown back upon the simpler instincts or reflexes for its native equipment. These, in turn, are being organized into acquired habit complexes.

These facts may be made clearer by means of an account of the evolution of psychic processes. This will be undertaken in the following chapters.


  1. R. M. Yerkes, Introduction to Psychology, 378. 2 System of Psychology.
  2. Psychological Principles.
  3. The Psychology of the Other One.
  4. Titchener does not define instinct in his older work entitled An Outline of Psychology (1896). See Text Book of Psychology, 462 ff.
  5. G. F. Stout, Manual of Psychology, 334.
  6. For an example of the Scotch treatment see J. Drever, Instinct in Man, 18.
  7. Op. cit., 340.
  8. Ibid., 343.
  9. Ibid.
  10. W. B. Pillsbury, The Fundamentals of Psychology, 422.
  11. Ibid., 421.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid., 422.
  14. Ibid., 423-4.
  15. Ibid., 424.
  16. J. Loeb, Forced Movements, Tropisms, and Animal Conduct, 156.
  17. See Comparative Physiology of the Brain and Comparative Psychology, 6.
  18. Ibid., 187.
  19. Ibid., 7.
  20. Psychology, Il, 383.
  21. E. L. Thorndike, The Original Nature of Man, 5.
  22. Ibid.
  23. J. B. Watson, Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist, 233.
  24. Op. cit., 5.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Op. cit., 231-2. See also Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology, 106.
  27. C. J. Herrick, An Introduction to Neurology, 335.
  28. Ibid., 341.
  29. R. S. Woodworth, Psychology: A Study of Mental Life, 105, 109.
  30. H. C. Warren, Human Psychology, 102.
  31. Op. cit., 384.
  32. Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology, 106.
  33. Op cit., 5.
  34. W. E. Hocking, Human Nature and its Remaking, 38.
  35. Op. cit., 343.
  36. 'Comparative Physiology of the Brain and Comparative Psychology, 7-8.
  37. E. B. Titchener, An Outline of Psychology, 250.
  38. Op. cit., 378.
  39. Op. cit., 127.
  40. S.S.. Colvin, The Learning Process, 34.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Ibid., 35.
  43. Op. cit., 215; also Psychology, 339.
  44. R. M. Ogden, An Introduction to General Psychology, 163.
  45. Ladd and Woodworth, Elements of Physiological Psychology, 146.
  46. S. J. Holmes, The Evolution of Animal Intelligence, 107.
  47. Ibid 108, 113.
  48. Op. cit., 107.
  49. Ibid., 107-9.
  50. Op. cit., 6.
  51. M. F. Meyer, The Psychology of the Other One, 196.
  52. W. Wundt, Lectures on Human and Animal Psychology, 388.
  53. Ibid.
  54. Ibid., 395
  55. Op. cit., 250. Titchener revises this view in The Essentials of Psychology (1920), 267-286.
  56. Introduction to Psychology, 222. See also Woodworth, op. cit.,113-114.
  57. L. Berman, The Glands Regulating Personality, 1171-2. See also Bandler, The Endocrines, ch. XII.
  58. Op. cit., 378.
  59. Op. cit., 35.
  60. Op. cit., 344
  61. Op. cit., 146.
  62. Op. cit., 422-4.
  63. Introduction to Psychology, 215.
  64. Op. cit., 108.
  65. Op. cit., 113 ff.
  66. Op. cit., 252-3. Compare I. King, The Development of Religion, 26.
  67. Op. cit., 104.
  68. Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist, 254.
  69. Wm. McDougall, Introduction to Social Psychology, 8th ed., 29.
  70. Ibid., 31.
  71. Ibid., 31-32.
  72. T. B. Veblen, The Instinct of Workmanship, 4.
  73. Ibid., 5.
  74. Ibid., 5. Compare McDougall, op. cit., 28.
  75. W. Trotter, Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, 94.
  76. Ibid., 94, 95.
  77. This last statement is in direct contradiction to the views set forth above from Watson and Warren.
  78. J. Loeb, Comparative Physiology of the Brain and Comparative Psychology, 177-8.
  79. F. W. Gamble, The Animal World, 225.
  80. J. L. Mursell, Psy. Rev., 29:166. See also Holmes, op. cit., 96 ff., C. A. Ellwood, Sociology in Its Psychological Aspects, 203 ff .
  81. H. S. Jennings, The Behavior of Lower Organisms, esp. ch. 13.
  82. F. S. Breed, Behavior Monograph S., No. 1, p. 31 — See also Thorndike's studies in animal behavior for similar results.

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