Are There Any Instincts?

Knight Dunlap
The Johns Hopkins University

THE conception of instinctive activities is a fairly definite one in general psychology, and we may without hesitation accept it as it is generally understood; namely, as designating any responses which have not been learned.

The conception of an instinct, or of instincts is however a very confused one, and recent texts show great vacillation in the application of the term. Some authors apply the term to what Warren in his recent classification[2] lists as instincts, and also to what Warren lists as reflexes. Some authors restrict the term to groups of activities which are unconscious: others insist on consciousness as one of the specific differentia of "instinct," In most cases, it is assumed that "instinct" does not involve volition : but I do not think all authors would agree to this restriction. I refrain from introducing pertinent illustrations solely because I do not wish it supposed that I have more pointed objections to certain methods of treatment than I have to a great many others.

The greatest confusion of all results from the failure to distinguish between the instinct as a group of activities teleologically defined, and the instinct as a physiological group. It makes consider-able difference whether, for example, we consider the "feeding instinct," as made up of the activities which result in food being secured; or consider it as a certain physiological group of activities which we may name from its most characteristic result, but which is defined by its actual reaction characters, and in that way distinguished from other physiological groups.

The confusion may perhaps not be an important matter for general psychology in its present state of development. Certainly, the presence of the confusion in some general texts seems to have no particular bearing on the further work in these texts. In social psychology however, the term is capable of great abuse, and is decidedly dangerous unless applied in a carefully considered and standardized

( 308) way; and it is from the point of view of social psychology that I am here approaching the topic. I am not concerned for the present as to whether the "instinct," as defined, shall turn out to be conscious or unconscious; or whether if conscious, it is volitional or non-volitional: I am concerned simply with the question of the definition itself; whether it is to be teleological or physiological.

The term "instinct" might be applied consistently, as it is applied at times, to a certain definite group of muscular and glandular performances—a form of behavior, in one of the various meanings of the elusive term "behavior"—resulting from a definite stimulus or complex of stimuli. The concatenated movements of the muscles of the face, throat, and viscera, with attendant glandular changes, which make up the sucking reaction of the infant: or the disposition to make these movements upon certain stimuli : might very well be designated as "instinct," regardless of whether consciousness or volition is, involved, and quite apart from the fact that the reaction may be useful. That there are "instincts" in this physiological sense of the term, I suppose no one could deny: certainly I shall not deny it. But it is very difficult to adhere to this meaning of the term, if we may judge by the procedure of the various authors who deal with the topic, and I am very strongly convinced that it is not at present possible to secure agreement to confine the term to this meaning.

At any rate, I propose to join in the neglect of the physiological use of the term, and formulate the inquiry to ask whether there are "instincts" in the teleological sense—the sense in which the term is used in McDougall's Social Psychology.

In the teleological use of the term, as I have already indicated, the activities are grouped and classified in accordance with the results obtained in the outer world, physiological and psychological groupings being largely neglected, and where introduced, being always subsidiary to the teleological groupings. Thus; the "instinct of flight" includes all those activities which result in a get-away from a dangerous locality : the "instinct of repulsion," all those activities which re-move something from the animal's environment: the "instinct of curiosity" includes the activities leading to examination: "pugnacity"' includes the movements which eventuate in combat: the "parental instinct" is the sum of the activities which result in the care and protection of the child: the "instinct of reproduction" includes those activities which result in the propagation of the species: The "gregarious instinct" is the composite of activities which result in forming a herd and

( 309) holding it together, and so on through the list. (Of course I mean that the tendency to these activities constitute the "instincts," but the shorter expressions are not misleading).

This teleologic 1 grouping of activities under the concept of "instinct," so forcibly represented by McDougall, is apparently widely accepted, and so thoroughly fixed that there is little possibility of using the term in any other way. In discussing the question whether or not there is an "instinct, as a usefully discriminable entity, we are therefore not denying the physiological grouping previously mentioned. Nor are we denying the possibility of a psychological grouping: such may be discoverable, although no one has so far made any serious search for it. New terms will have to be found for these groupings.

The grouping of activities into "instincts" may be admitted to be a useful procedure, if it be clearly understood to be a device of convenience only, similar to the arrangement of documents in a well ordered filing system. Just as there may be different filing systems for different purposes, so different classifications of "instincts" are useful, if they are not misunderstood as being anything more. We may classify "instincts" under two, four, twenty, or a thousand headings, according to the particular purposes we have in view, and may then use another classification for another purpose.

The constant tendency in social psychology is to consider these convenient groupings arbitrarily made, as if they were series of natural and generic distributions on the psychological level, and to deduce a set of important deductions from the classification adopted. Having posited a "pugnacious instinct," for example, one writer proceeds gravely to infer that war is forever a necessity, as the expression of this "instinct." Controversy over the hypothetical "moral instinct" is another illustration of confused procedure. As a matter of fact, ,there is or is not a "moral instinct," according to the plan of the author. If it is deemed useful to segregate, in the outer world, certain effects which are to be named "moral"—and this segregation can un-questionably be made--any unlearned tendencies which contribute to these effects, legitimately make up a "moral instinct." If the classification of effects as "moral" is not chosen, then of course there is, for the author choosing, no "moral instinct." Again; if it is advisable to distinguish between the mere process of copulation and the processes of conception and birth, there is an "amatory instinct," distinguishable from the "reproductive:" otherwise there is not.

The impossibility of considering the teleological classification of

( 310) "instincts" as more than a matter of convenience, is shown by the overlapping of the "instincts." Even the teleologists point out that "pugnacity" arises from other "instincts." As a matter of fact, there are very few actual responses of the animal which do not form part of a number of "instincts," whatever the system of classification. The same physiological activities, and in part the same conscious processes, are involved, in primitive man, in pursuing a deer for food, and in pursuing a female for amatory purposes. In other cases the same reactions may now be classed as mere "flight," now as manifestations of "gregariousness," now as manifestations of "self abasement." The same fears and perhaps the same desires may be involved in several cases.

I am sure that all the activities, physiological and psychological, of which the animal is capable, participate at some time or other in the expression of the "reproductive instinct." By taking the teleological "instinct" as if it were a psychological or physiological entity, the Freudians accordingly arrive at the grand conclusion that there is nothing in the animal world but "sex instinct." The reactions shown by a child may later be utilized by the "sex instinct." Hence, it is assumed that in its first appearance, the reaction is "sexual." In stating that serious results flow from the confusion of the teleological and the psychological points of view I am not theorizing, but referring to plain and deplorable matters of fact.

The present tendency to develop social psychology on the basis of a classification of "instincts" results in as many kinds of social psychology as there are classifications: and the possible number is legion. By assuming that some preferred classification represents an ultimate list of essentially different units, a psychologist is enabled to develop a system which is in reality nothing but a logical deduction from the assumptions made in the list adopted. Each system may be as logically perfect as any other. In the same way, Euclidean geometry, hyperbolic geometry, and parabolic geometry, each legitimate and exclusive of the other, are built up, each on its definite postulates. As. an illustration of this sort of construction in social psychology we may compare Trotter's Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War with McDougall's Social Psychology, and with the Freudian system. One might go further, and consider the less sharply drawn systems resulting from the assumption of moral and religious "instincts." If an "instinct to imitate" be assumed, still different systems result.

The consequences of carrying over to psychology the teleological

( 311) conception of "instincts" are much complicated by further assumptions concerning the role of consciousness, and of volition. We might examine the deplorable consequences of this complication in child psychology, where, if possible, the confusion is even worse than in social psychology: but it is better to deal with the more fundamental fallacy, and settle it in such a way as to abort the fallacies based upon it.

With teleology as t method, we need have no quarrel, and we should not lightly underestimate its importance. Perhaps it may be of far greater value than psychology. Perhaps there is no such a thing as social psychology. But if so, let us call the topic by some other name, and cease to delude ourselves into accepting it as psychology. Personally, I am inclined to favor the belief that a social psychology may be developed. In such a science, teleological methods may legitimately be employed, if properly labeled, just as physiological methods may be. One must however beware of a teleology masquerading as psychology, even though: it utilizes a great deal of psychological material, and employs some psychological methods.

Accepting the term "instinct" in the sense in which it is most emphatically used at the present time, we must conclude that for psychology there are no "instincts." There is a great deal of instinctive activity, both conscious and unconscious, and probably both volitional - and non-volitional: instinctive perceptions and thoughts no less than instinctive acts and emotions. These activities may well be considered in their physiological groupings, and possibly in their psychological groupings, if such groupings are discoverable. I am at present inclined to think that the possibility of discovering social psychology rests upon the possibility of discovering psychological groupings of instinctive activity: and neither of these discoveries is likely to be made until we cease talking of "instincts.[3]


  1. A paper presented before the American Psychological Association, Cambridge, Mass., Dec. 29, 1919.
  2. Psychological Review, 1919, Vol. 26, pp. 197-203.
  3. There is of course no objection to the use of the term instinct in the general sense, just as we use the general term intelligence. The objection is to using the expressions an instinct or instincts to indicate anything except a classification for purposes of convenience, or else in a distinctly teleological sense.

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