A Functional Interpretation of Human Instincts

Jacob Robert Kantor
University of Chicago

Recent developments in the study of human behavior make it possible to begin a reinterpretation of instincts and related phenomena which today admittedly constitute the darkest chapter in psychology. In this paper the writer attempts to suggest a functional interpretation of human instincts and their integration into instinctive conduct. The functional psychologist aims to start from an unbiased naturalistic standpoint and therefore hopes to achieve some progress in the understanding of some of the adaptational equipment of human beings. At the very inception of such a study we observe the imperative necessity for a scrupulous discrimination between the acts which are properly called instincts, and the more complex reactions developed from them which we will call instinctive conduct or behavior.


The Nature of an Instinct.—An instinct is a comparatively simple and direct response to a specific stimulating object or condition. It is in fact the functioning of a connate potential reaction system [1] which is organized from simple psychophysiological dispositions or tendencies to respond to stimuli. That instincts are so highly spontaneous may be accounted for by the fact that the specific way in which the reaction system functions, depends upon the stimulating conditions. It is this moulding of the response by the surrounding con-

(51) -ditions which is the source of the many marvellous tales of intelligence among the lower animals.

An instinct being a primary act and therefore entirely "undebauched by learning," must be looked upon as one of the primary functional elements in the embryological development of the human organism. For the instinctive reaction patterns are functions of animal adaptation developed from the simple functions of organized matter.[2] Owing to this development instincts may be classified as (1) food-getting, and waste eliminating responses, (2) sexual reactions, (3) expressive acts, and (4) protective responses. These classes represent specific adaptations to particular adjustment-situations, that is to say concrete actions, and with the random movements and reflexes form the matrix of the entire series of human behavior.

The function of human instincts is to adapt the person to the various surroundings in which he is found, pending the development of the intelligent responses usually required for such adaptations. These modes of instinctive response develop in the species of organism during its interaction with its environment; consequently there is an entirely natural genesis of the instincts paralleling the growth of the human being in the evolutionary course of the animal species to which he belongs. Every organism possesses a series of these reaction systems which in the presence of adequate stimuli become responses. The response and the stimulus together constitute an act, that is to say, a specific adaptation. From a definitively psychological standpoint the individual at any particular moment is this series of reaction systems.

If we have correctly described the origin and development of instincts, we have sufficiently indicated that the instincts of the human organism are very different from those of the lower animals. The reaction systems, as the units of the organism on the action side, must naturally be just as diverse in dissimilar organisms as are the structural parts. Thus we find differences of a wider or narrower sort in both the mental and physiological factors of the specific functions.

( 52) Obviously, the most striking variation between human and animal instincts is the extreme modifiability of the former. In fact, human instincts are so distinctly transitory in character that they disappear very early from the reaction equipment of the human organism, and in the adult individual are completely absent. These human instincts become integrated into more complex types of responses, while the animal instincts remain as permanent acquisitions of the organism, and change only by becoming more adaptable through practice to the situations in which they frequently function.

The Nature of Instinctive Behavior.—In contrast to the instincts, instinctive conduct comprises adjustments which are essentially acquired tendencies of response, and in most cases constitute intelligent behavior. It must be noted, however, that the reaction systems of instinctive conduct, which, by the way, include the greatest portion of our actual responses, are developed as elaborations of a prominent core of organized innate reaction patterns. In all cases of instinctive conduct we have integrations of concrete human acts; so that if, for example, we start with the walking act of a child, the exigencies of the surrounding conditions may condition that initial act to become a locomotor response to the call of the parents, or to any other stimulating circumstance acting upon our illustrative child. The results of observations of human behavior demonstrate that the rapidity and complexity of the integrations are owing to the responsiveness of surrounding objects; that is to say, a responsive object forces the individual to apprehend the possibility and necessity of varying his response, and therefore to learn to react with a meaningful behavior to the stimulating response of the other object. This sort of interaction with the environment constitutes the basis for social phenomena of various types and is excellently illustrated by the constant interstimulation between two boys during the preliminaries of a fistic combat. In this situation each individual is intently posed in an anticipatory attitude, requiring only the slightest sign of change in position on the part of the opponent as an effective stimulus to bring about a telling response. When

(53) we recall that a single individual can serve both as stimulating and responding object we can appreciate the importance of this self-stimulation as a factor in the rapid integration of the simpler forms of behavior.

Since the natural environment of the human organism consists primarily of responsive objects we see why the human adult has no instincts, that is, performs no acts which are actualizations of exclusively innate dispositions, but always responds with a partially acquired reaction pattern. The view that man has more instincts than the lower animals, for which James [3] is in part responsible, could only obtain credence so long as the precise nature of a conscious act remained unanalyzed. That James did not entirely ignore the facts concerning instinctive conduct is manifested by his observation that human instincts do not remain blind.[4] The physiological viewpoint, which always influenced James, prevented him from fully appreciating the psychological changes which transform instincts into more complex actions. To think of the non-rational activities of the human organism in terms of reflexes which are somehow coupled with impulses, means the capricious disavowal of the variety and richness of the instinctive forms of behavior.

The contrast between instincts and instinctive behavior is made clearer by dispelling somewhat the confusion existing in the conception of the differences between the instincts and the more simple reflexes which differ widely from the former in organization and function. The reflex action involves the functioning of a more definite and fixed reaction system than does the instinct, and the result of the stimulation is a genetically simpler form of behavior. The relative rigidity of the reflex response allows comparatively little room for adjustment between the organism and the stimulating conditions while the action system is functioning.

Further, it has been frequently observed that instincts involve a much larger conscious function than is the case with reflexes,[5] since the latter are on the whole much simpler,

( 54) but we must guard against the idea that reflexes are merely neuro-muscular actions.[6] While Stout is entirely correct in his assertion that 'instinctive conduct does, and reflex action does not presuppose the cooperation of intelligent consciousness,' he is mistaken in supposing that the absence of intelligent consciousness implies the complete absence of a conscious factor in the response.[7] Instincts and reflexes imply, then, the functioning of two distinct types of connate reaction patterns, both of which are to be distinguished from instinctive conduct which is never the functioning of a purely innate reaction pattern, although it is to a certain degree developed always from instincts.


The Range of Instinctive Conduct.—The distinction between instinctive conduct and instincts paves the way for the consideration of the large place which the former holds in human life. We have already suggested that most of our ordinary behavior is instinctive conduct, but this does not mean in any sense that complex actions such as we perform are the expressions of a few inborn impulses. Such a manner of thinking represents a vestige of scholastic simplicity which is genuinely subversive of all understanding of human behavior. What is meant is that even our very complex actions are in great measure conditioned by the instincts from which they have developed. To be sure, the simplest instinctive conduct is very largely the functioning of an innate reaction system, although conditioned by acquired factors. The proportion of innateness in the reaction pattern is measured by the directness of the connection between the stimulus and the response, or in other words by the character of the appreciation which the individual has of the meaning or significance of the stimulating object. In the simplest case the meaning of the object does not emerge as a striking factor in the act; it merely represents a modification in the response owing to a previous contact with the stimulating object. In a general way, we may very properly consider

( 55) the simplest instinctive behavior as called out by the environment, and largely controlled by it, and not by the organism. As examples we may quote all those activities usually described by psychologists as subconscious or unconscious, which are very prominent in manual learning, and technical operations of all sorts.

On the other hand, the more complex instinctive conduct is more independent of the stimulating object and includes in its reaction systems a larger component of acquired factors. Here the meaning of the object serving as a definite foresight of the act, functions in a more precise manner, and in still more developed behavior includes an effective appreciation of the consequences of past responses to stimulating objects. The instinctive behavior at this stage may involve an elaborate series of memorial and thought functions, and when so complicated its specific characteristic as an instinctive behavior is the fact that it is perceptually stimulated, that is, the act is not initiated by a problematic situation. In this last class we may place all the involved social behavior which constitutes many of our daily responses. We must conclude, then, that instinctive conduct composes a considerable portion of practically all adjustments from the simplest to the most complex.

The Intelligence in Instinctive Behavior.—We may sum up the essential characteristics of instinctive behavior by pointing out the invariable presence in it of at least the rudiments of intelligence. Thus in many cases the reaction system, although a response to an immediately presented perceptual stimulus, is still carried out by predominantly acquired reaction factors, as is convincingly exemplified by much of our socially restricted behavior. Such acts are spontaneous responses to definite perceptual stimuli, but they are performed in roundabout ways and in many instances tend toward concealment. The openness and frankness with which such acts are originally performed are by virtue of social disapproval more or less successfully repressed.

Distinction of Instinctive from Rational Conduct.—The great variety and complexity of instinctive responses make

(56) it necessary to distinguish them from rational acts, a discrimination which is all the more pertinent when we consider that in the final analysis all of our acquired reaction systems are at some level integrations of elementary instinct acts. As a response to a problematic situation the rational act is probably always initiated by an indirect stimulating object through some highly developed meaning function. Unlike complex instinctive behavior the rational act is not only guided to its conclusion by intelligent functions, but is originated by a reflective consideration of ways and means. Thus it becomes the basis for all transformative conduct, that is, action which remakes the environmental conditions through some function of creative imagination, while in the case of instinctive conduct the result is usually merely an adaptation to those conditions.


The Specificity of Instincts.—Whether or not instincts are specific in their functioning is a crucial inquiry for the understanding of them, and a problem which may throw considerable light upon the distinction between instinctive behavior and instincts. It is important to note that since instincts are simple and immediate responses to specific stimuli which bring innate action systems into function, they presumably must be specific in their results.

This view, however, is not generally held by psychologists, although some adhere to it so tenaciously that the observation of the indeterminateness and indefiniteness of human behavior influences them to deny the existence of instincts in the human being. While it is entirely demonstrable that mature persons possess no instincts, this must not be interpreted to mean, as Stout does, that human behavior in general has no instinctive foundation in the form of concrete action patterns.[8] To believe in the absence of instincts in the human

( 57) individual because instinctive conduct is contrasted with intelligent conduct is to overlook entirely the facts (1) that we are studying concrete conscious behavior, and for that reason we need not think of an instinct as a permanent spring of action, the absence of which at the present time indicates that it was never present; and (2) that intelligent behavior is developed by the integration of simple types of action, a fact which enables us to understand how the reaction pattern of an instinct becomes elaborated and developed into a complex intelligent response.

An inquiry into the views entertained concerning the definiteness of instincts reveals the fact that what is frequently meant by an instinct is a neuro-muscular function. Thus Stout, for example, describes an instinct as a "purely biological adaptation comparable to the prearrangement of structure and function which in human beings subserves the digestion of food."[9] Upon examining this conception we are impressed with its inadequacy to represent human behavior, although we are in hearty agreement with Stout in rejecting such a view as that of Bergson-Carr, stated by Stout as the belief that there is a special form of psychical activity which requires the technical name of instinct.[10] We insist that not because human behavior has no instinctive basis do we not find instincts, but because the latter have become developed into intelligent behavior in the course of the individual's contact with his surrounding conditions. This fact Stout could have seen had he not been prevented by his general psychological standpoint from appreciating that the psychologist is interested in modes of response to stimuli, and not in expressions of mentality Apparently, Stout assumes the specificity of instincts, and from such a premise he concludes that there arc no instincts in the adult human being because he does not find man performing acts which express a mental process, through innately coordinated motor mechanisms.[11] Stout consequently fails to appreciate the

( 57) large place which instinctive conduct plays in the life of the human individual.

When we turn to the work of Thorndike,[12] who is attempting to investigate the 'original nature of man,' we find much to commend in his description of the specific instinct responses. Beginning with the admirable intention to describe concrete facts of behavior, he scouts the viewpoint which makes of instincts generalized tendencies to bring about some vague result presumed to be beneficial to the organism.[13] Thorndike stands upon firm scientific ground when he looks upon instincts as specific types of unlearned responses to definite kinds of stimulating situations, but his work presents us with grave difficulties. Conceived in neuro-biological terms, it implies that man's 'original nature' remains forever a prominent part of his behavior equipment. From this fact arise several implications tending to misconstrue the actual character of instinctive behavior.

In the first place, such a viewpoint cannot escape the implication that the human individual acts precisely as does the animal, since the former is fitted with a similar sort of neuro-muscular structure, and secondly, a more serious difficulty is that such a position leaves no room for the development of behavior.

The first difficulty must be understood as referring to the obvious faultiness of the attitude that human behavior is permanently like that of the lower animals. It is true that in the case of infants the acts are like those of the simpler organisms, but this is because we are observing simple instincts. In older children and adults the behavior has become integrated into intelligent conduct and is thus qualitatively different.

In answer to the possible reply of Thorndike that a sufficient differentiation of conduct in man and animals is allowed for by the combination of neural elements, we might suggest that such a way out of the difficulty would only result in describing complex abstractions instead of observable behavior. Human conduct is infinitely more complex in every

( 59) phase of adaptational character than can be accounted for on the basis of the combination of neural elements. Obviously the neural connections are essential mechanisms in all behavior, and since the activities of man arc more complex than those of animals, these mechanisms must necessarily be more elaborate, but the nervous function cannot do anything more than mediate the spontaneous movements of the individual.[14] It is because the neural hypothesis was developed in connection with work on animal instincts that it has any significance as an explanatory principle, inasmuch as the animal instincts are very simple activities and so lacking in intelligence as to be almost mere biological functions.

We cannot agree with Drever, [15] who is essentially a follower of McDougall, in his criticism that the lack of differentiation in Thorndike's theory between human and animal instincts points to the nonspecificity of instincts. Drever insists [16] that there is no genuine specificity in Thorndike's instincts, since, for example, the 'instinct to escape from restraint' is so complex as to involve in the case of a little child 'stiffening, writhing, and throwing back the head and shoulders' and in the older child also 'kicking, pushing, slapping, scratching and biting.' Drever declares that the instincts mentioned belong with the six others enumerated by Thorndike [17] under McDougall's heading of pugnacity, and that the precise factor of unity is the accompanying emotion of anger. As a further argument against the specificity of instincts, Drever indicates that in some cases we cannot predict what a specific response will be, and the individual may try many different ones in succession. Thus, for example, under some conditions of stimulation the person may respond by flight or concealment, and in some cases by both reactions in turn.


The writer is satisfied that instead of proving the nonspecificity of instincts, what Drever really shows is that human beings respond only by means of instinctive behavior and not with instincts. To repeat, instead of responding merely with an innately organized reaction system, the individual reacts with a complex acquired reaction pattern, which in the course of his development has had an increased knowledge and affective factor added to it. It is for this reason that the anger or fighting situation' calls out such a wide and varying series of actions. In order to explain such conduct it is entirely unnecessary to invoke a dubious interpretation involving an unwarranted conception of the nature and function of the emotions as Drever following McDougall does.

Drever seems to realize that human behavior is a complex function developed in interaction with stimulating circumstances, when he writes that "behavior will be largely determined, first of all, by the circumstances of the case, by what kind of response will best secure safety. It will be determined, in the second place, by the intensity of the fear aroused, and two individuals may behave in two entirely different ways in response to the same situation, according to the degree of fear aroused."[18] This unimpeachable observation, which certainly controverts Thorndike's position that an instinct (instinctive behavior) is the functioning of a neuro-muscular apparatus, should have led Drever to see that the actions which he quotes from Thorndike's description are phases of intelligent instinctive conduct, and not the expressions of a mysterious 'general' instinct. Were Drever thinking in terms of concrete behavior he would easily see that instinctive conduct is not the functioning of an 'end,' or 'instinctive impulse' with an intelligence entity to carry it out,[19] but that it is a definite response to a stimulus which involves in its specific mode of action the integration of numerous previous experiences. In all cases of actual instinctive behavior the 'end' is gratuitously imposed upon

(61) the situation.[20] What actually happens is that at any particular time certain combinations of surrounding circumstances stimulate the person to perform definite acts, provided that he has the necessary equipment of reaction systems. The adequate consideration of the stimulating auspices of behavior entirely removes the necessity of postulating teleological powers in the organism.

The spectator may profit by Drever's attack upon Thorndike's position by observing that on the one hand in his endeavor to avoid "mystic potencies" Thorndike refuses to interpret behavior as it actually occurs, preferring to lean upon unreal if not mystic potencies, while on the other, Drever,[21] following McDougall,[22] describes behavior in a more acceptable manner, but does not hesitate to explain it as the result of metapsychological agency.

The second difficulty with Thorndike's view of instincts, namely, that it disregards the development of behavior, may be considered as a derivation from the first difficulty. It results in the misinterpretation of human action, which as we have seen has as its primary characteristic the process of integration. A critical study of such behavior indicates conclusively that not a single act of an adult person [23] is an original response, but always a complex development of acquired reaction systems. It appears that Thorndike must think of instincts in the adult as drives or potencies of some sort, that is to say, at this point they have lost their specific character. In his failure to distinguish between instincts and instinctive conduct Thorndike vitiates his original excellent intention to describe actual psychological occurrences. Consequently, his interpretation leaves unfulfilled

( 62) his original functional promise, and ignores therefore one of the extremely important factors in conscious behavior, namely, the stimulating circumstances. In not allowing for an interpretation of the actual responses which an organism makes in adapting itself to surrounding conditions, Thorndike's position results in an inert structuralism which prolongs the intellectual tradition of a permanent self.[24]

The most zealous advocate of the non-specificity of instincts is probably McDougall who approaches the problem from the angle of social behavior. This author, impugns the theory of social action which assumes 'that man is a reasonable being who always intelligently seeks his own good and is guided in all his activities by enlightened self-interest.’ [25] Unfortunately McDougall's easy victory over such a vulnerable position has resulted in his substitution of another absolute spring of action as the basis for all human behavior, namely the series of instincts. The ubiquity and persistence of certain types of action no doubt has influenced him to propound the hypothesis that the human 'mind' is constituted by the sum of innate tendencies which bring about the specific actions of the individual. As will appear in the course of our discussion these tendencies McDougall believes to be permanent psychic entities. The assumption that instincts are the 'essential springs or motive powers of all thought and action necessarily implies therefore that they are general capacities to bring about certain actions, for otherwise there would be required an infinite number to account for all the variety of social behavior. [26] The supposition of the non-specificity of instincts in turn creates a presumption in favor of the perseverance of dispositions as permanent tendencies of human actions.

An impartial investigation of behavior clearly demonstrates the extravagance of assigning any absolute foundation for human conduct. Thus for example, to insist upon instincts as the exclusive springs of action is to lose sight of

( 63) the actual fact that many human actions are in a genuine sense rationally motived. As a consequence of seeking an absolute factor in human behavior, McDougall reaches the same result as Thorndike, namely, a form of abstractionisin which adds little to the comprehension of such behavior.

The impuissance of McDougall's conception of instincts as an interpretation of conduct is instructively intimated in the existence of an uncrossable barrier between his exposition of instincts and his discussion of social behavior. Although he starts out with the assertion that an instinct is a psychophysical disposition, not only to act but also to perceive, attend, and feel, that is to say, a concrete action,[27] he really thinks of it as an enduring condition or faculty of some sort. [28] The fypostatic nature of McDougall's thinking appears in its most overt form in his protest against using the term instinct to denote an action. [29] There is apparently no way in which such instincts can develop into complex social behavior excepting by some form of crude mechanical agglomeration.

In all fairness to McDougall it must be said that he realizes the appalling chasm which separates his instincts from the complex behavior of the social type, for he develops a theory to account for the fact that instincts, while substantial elements, can still be the basis for all complex human action. This theory assumes that an instinct can be divided into 'three corresponding parts, whose activities are the cognitive, the affective and the conative features respectively of the total instinctive process.' [30] Now the emotional factor is assumed to be unmodified throughout all the various changes which involve the other two factors; [31] so that not only can you find the same dispositions in animals as in man, but in man they can develop to any possible degree. Unfortunately for McDougall this theory glaringly exposes his indefensible position. For note, he allows for so much development in

(64) the dispositions that he almost gives up the idea that the springs of human actions are innate. In extricating himself from this difficulty McDougall further weakens his position, since in making the emotional aspect of the instinct the sole innate spring of action he runs counter to the fact which he himself admits,[32] namely, his inability to point out definite actual emotions in any but the 'principal' powerful instincts. The precariousness of McDougall's position is not at all mitigated by his highly questionable identification of the affective component of an instinct with an emotion .[33]

The conclusion that we may draw from the imperfection of McDougall's view is that he does not fully realize that he is attempting to interpret instinctive conduct, which is an entirely different matter from demonstrating the function of instincts in all the complex actions of human beings. He therefore starts from the wrong premises and is easily led to the bizarre idea of the substantial mental character of instincts. It is an egregious error for McDougall [34] to think that he is alone in believing that instincts are at the foundation of our mental life. It is almost a universal conviction among psychologists that all human behavior is based upon instincts as a foundation, but the important point is, that this foundation as an actual phenomenon is only a transitory phase of a maturation process.[35] For instance, when we observe the fighting reactions in the child and in the adult we are severely impressed with the qualitative difference of the respective reactions. In the first place, the specific responses in each case are different, implying that no enduring nervous basis can be inherited for the purpose.[36] Again, the stimulating situations may be absolutely different not only in the developing individual at different stages, but also in the same stage of growth at different moments, and in different individuals at the same moment. Not only will a fear situation in any of these cases call out different sorts of

( 65) responses in the individual, but it may call out the same sort as an anger situation. In all cases the response of the individual will depend in part upon the multiplicity of circumstances immediately surrounding him. The fighting reactions, for example, will depend upon the presence or absence of onlookers and the regard one has for them if they are present, as well as upon the thing at stake in the contest. Such reaction will also be conditioned by all sorts of technical information and convictions one has acquired relative to fighting in general or to fighting under these specific circumstances. When we observe a complex social action we are convinced that even such elaborate and significant suggestions [37] which the penetrating students of human conduct enumerate, cannot fully cover its conditioning influences, although of course for some definite purposes not all of these influences are relevant.

McDougall's discussion involves the gratuitous assumption that the substantial instinct entity can be aroused under very different kinds of circumstances. For instance, at one time the instinct can be aroused by a natural stimulus and at another by a complex social situation, all through the medium of an emotion entity. There is apparently more than a smack [38] of the old faculty psychology in McDougall’s thinking, a fact which is genuinely surprising when we consider that at certain points he almost realizes the distinction between instincts and instinctive behavior, as for example, in differentiating between the specific and general tendencies.[39]

McDougall's insistence upon the generality of instincts is based therefore upon the dubious premise that there are a few innate springs of all human conduct, rather than upon the observation that human behavior is a complex interaction of an experienced and intelligent person with a multiplex environmental situation. It is the very complexity of the total situation that seems favorable to the arbitrary analysis of it into a few constant factors. This is familiarly illustrated in the case of the complicated social and institu-

( 66) -tional circumstances which are reduced to a few simple activities of the 'economic man.' McDougall [40] has gone only a step farther than Cousin, whom he severely criticizes, in the interpretation of the conditions of human activity, because the former fails to see that the dispositions to human action are all complex acquired functions and not a compound system of original sensori-motor arcs,[41] plus some type of antecedently functioning mental activity.[42] The explanation of McDougall's doctrine of generalized instincts seems to be the fact that he stands for a theory of psychological predestination,[43] and so he makes of the human individual a machine fitted with definite powers which require only an indifferent stimulus to make them perform whatever seems necessary to be done.[44] Although he condemns the practice in others, McDougall ascribes to the functioning of an instinct any frequent or constant form of action. Thus, the acquisition and building up of large estates are attributed to the acquisitive instinct.[45] It is a queer doctrine of magical potencies which can describe the development of such elaborate institutions[46] as we have in our complex life to the functioning of a dozen or so of instincts. And more anomalous still is the presentation of such a doctrine in face of the overwhelming facts pointing to the shaping of our instinctive behavior, by the lives and acts of persons and institutions.[47]

The entire controversy concerning the specificity of instincts is made possible only by an inclination toward a structural psychological position. When we take concrete

( 67) human behavior to be the province of psychology we are very soon impressed with the fact that instincts are necessarily specific in their functioning, but that the adult individual has no instincts. Furthermore, the obvious generality and unpredictability of adult behavior should lead us to observe that instinctive conduct is general because the environing conditions to which it is responsive are incessantly variable in their stimulating capacities.


Relation of Instincts and Emotion.—The study of instinctive conduct has in recent years resulted in the almost universal agreement of psychologists that a very close relation exists between such behavior and emotions, although there are several doctrines as to the precise details of this relationship. It is held, on the one hand, that emotions are of instinctive origin and occur when the instincts are checked or in I conflict, while on the other, it is believed that emotions are the correlates of instincts in some form. It must be granted that both these views are based upon observable conduct, and especially the fact that in many cases of instinctive behavior a powerful feeling element is involved; the importance of the data, however, intensified by the lack of uniformity in interpretation, demands a more adequate analysis.

The view that emotions are correlates of instincts is ably championed by McDougall, who, as we have seen, believes that the primary emotion is the affective element of the instinct. The primary objection to such an interpretation, as we have also seen, is that many instinctive actions do not involve emotions,[48] and that many emotional situations do not have such instinctive associates as are so convincingly discussed in the cases of anger and fear. As we have remarked above, the insistence upon the invariable presence of an emotion in every instinctive act is to reduce emotions in many cases to simple affective states. [49] It is significant that Drever, who closely follows McDougall, is forced to the

( 68) conclusion that only some instincts have emotional accompaniments.

The conflict theory, insofar as it insists upon a conflict situation as the basis of an emotional behavior, meets with few if any exceptions in fact, but the question arises whether the conflict is in all cases a conflict of instincts. The critical analysis of the emotional situation indicates that this is not true. Before proceeding to such an analysis of emotional behavior it is well to describe its chief characteristics.

An emotion is an interrupting form of response to a suddenly presented stimulus in which various organic processes are put into function, which in turn facilitate the immediate performance of a new act. Among the outstanding features of an emotional action are the confusion and excitement which pave the way for a new act by inhibiting the behavior which is taking place when the emotion-exciting stimulus is presented. Naturally such an act is replete with affective and organic resonance, and here we find the clue to the relationship between the emotional and the instinctive types of behavior.

What happens in the case of the emotional situation is that a dissociation of the reaction systems of the person takes place; so that in the most violent type of emotion the person is left only with the capacity to act with almost purely physiological (reflex) behavior. From this extreme case we find a gradation of emotional conduct in which the disorganization leaves free to function a series of reaction patterns ranging from the simplest to the most complex instinctive behavior. The fear and anger situations offer excellent examples of the disturbances of behavior which leave comparatively simple forms of instinctive response to adapt the individual. A person may be walking along through a wood, perhaps thinking over some problem, when suddenly there is a cessation of the thought activity and the person finds himself in a state of great excitement and unpleasantness, and in readiness to run from a tiny creature madly scurrying through the brush. In this illustration, the simple instinctive, danger-avoiding response might appear, as the

( 69) most serviceable form of behavior under the circumstances. We see, therefore, that not because an emotion is a component of an instinct or a conflict between instincts is it closely related to instinctive behavior, but because under certain conditions of stimulation the reaction systems are so disorganized as to leave only some instinctive mode of behavior to function.

Upon the basis of such an interpretation we can understand the more refined emotional responses, namely, those in which no violent instinctive reaction is involved. In the functioning of the more subtle emotions [51] the environmental circumstances are such as to disturb only the most elaborate and definitely focused acquired reaction systems, for example, rational conduct, and thus leaves free to function such complex forms of behavior as almost entirely to dispel the appearance of a shock or conflict. The resumed activities in such cases are of course only slightly different from those interrupted.


In conclusion we might point out three cognate obstructive tendencies, which persistently hinder psychological thinking concerning instincts, and which prevent the scientific interpretation of instinctive behavior, namely (1) metapsychological speculation, (2) biological abstractionism, and (3) psychological simplification.

Metapsychological Speculation.—This motive has always been a prominent factor in discussions of instincts, and strangely enough is still responsible for the many inaccuracies and trivialities of those studies. The unmistakable theological implication of this attitude is manifested by the explanation of instinctive behavior in terms of a mysterious original force implanted in animals to carry out some primary end of life, as for example, the preservation of the species.[52] We have already had occasion to refer to the hardly less objectionable aspect of the metapsychological view, which makes

(70) instinctive behavior stand for everything that is considered unknown or persistent in conscious behavior.[53]

Much the worst disservice of the metapsychological attitude is precisely that it maintains unknowables which prevent the adequate investigation of psychological phenomena. To assume that instincts are ultimates of animal nature and to seek to describe these putative elements, precludes the conception of instincts as definite forms of concrete responses.

Biological Abstractionism.—We may consider the historical rise of biological abstractionism as a protest against the extreme vagaries of the speculative psychologists. The biological influences in psychology transformed instincts into simple psychological phenomena explicable in terms of the nervous structure of the organism. Thus we find the statement that the instinctive factors in behavior depend entirely on how the nervous system has been built up through heredity under the mode of racial preparation which we call evolution.[54] Instincts are consequently considered to be specific arrangements of neural mechanisms; so that James, following Spencer, spoke of them as conforming to the general reflex type.

An unacceptable issue of physiological abstractionism is the tendency to overlook actual phenomena to such a degree as to allow for no difference between such widely varying behavior as we find in man and animals. Our study of instinctive conduct has afforded sufficient intimation that much of the unsatisfactory interpretation of such behavior can be traced directly to the fact that it is the animal type of reaction that is uncritically employed as an exclusive basis of description. As a consequence this comparatively simple behavior is resolved into hypothetical neural elements which can in no way account for so conspicuous a variation as the rapid development of human instincts into intelligent conduct, and the practically stationary condition of the

(71) animal instincts. It is small wonder, then, that the upholders of the physiological view fail to observe that the human individual merely passes through the stage of animal conduct just as he passes through the stage of simpler structural developments, and that the mature person is equipped with an entirely different series of reaction patterns than the animal or child. And so we find that, contrary to our expectation, the fact that the complete absence of instincts in the human individual forces us to resort to animal behavior in order to study them, does not influence the biological abstractionist to reflect upon the differences in the two kinds of behavior, but instead he is led to interpret human conduct in the same abstract terms as the simpler kinds of behavior. Incidentally, the failure to distinguish between the instinctive conduct of man and the instincts of animals results in the ascription of a degree of intelligence to animal conduct which is really not found there.

Probably the most serious defect of biological abstractionism is that it obscures the extremely dynamic character of human behavior. The principle of rigid neural functions is entirely inapplicable to the spontaneous and developmental aspects of our conduct, and favors the neglect of the stimulating circumstances which greatly modify it.

Psychological Simplification.—The unfortunate phase of the protest against biological abstractionism is the psychological simplification of human behavior, which reduces instinctive conduct to the functioning of psychical dispositions or impulses. As represented by McDougall and his followers, this view stands as a justifiable criticism of physiological abstractionism, but in its espousal of the subjective position as over against the objective, that is to say, the position of action and behavior,[55] it is hindered from interpreting instinctive conduct as it actually functions. Psychologists who are influenced by this viewpoint are unable to depart from a structural or content description of human behavior; they are prevented from conceiving of the complex non-rational conduct of man as the product of an intricate give and take

(72) process between persons and the social institutions which constitute their milieu. When such complex behavior is interpreted as an empirical consequent of numerous human conditions, we can readily see that religious conduct [56] cannot be 'a very complex and diversified product of the cooperation of several instincts,' that is to say, a 'compound' of simpler emotions. To describe religious behavior as the manifestation of a complication of simple mental elements is to forego the scientific advantage of observing the ramified interaction of persons with their surrounding political, economic and cultural institutions. The unwarranted simplification of human behavior means that instead of analyzing the social process in which are developed the deep-seated action patterns, the latter are gratuitously assumed as permanent elements of human character. The situation is not at all improved by asserting that complex 'impulses' are developed from simple 'impulses. [57] To deny that instinctive conduct is socially formed reaction systems is to revert to the simplicity of the rustic who protests against the daylight-saving law as an interference with God's time.

A functional viewpoint of behavior, we submit, avoids completely the three insidious tendencies which we have just examined. Since the functional psychologist assumes the data of psychology to be concrete adaptational responses to surrounding things, he can whole heartedly reject all putative powers and elements, and confine his labors to the analysis of verifiable materials, such as human reaction systems are. Abiding by such a policy, a psychologist is ipso facto barred from an impatient out of hand solution of difficult problems. Especially in the matter of instinctive conduct, a functional viewpoint may lead to a scientific and significant, if tentative interpretation of an important series of psychological adaptations.


  1. A reaction system is a complex function involving cognitive, conative, affective, muscular, glandular and neural factors. Cf. Kantor, 'Conscious Behavior and the Abnormal,' J. of Abnorm. Psychol. Aug., 1918. An example of a reaction system is the response, 'August, 1914' (with all its accompanying organic resonances) to the stimulation, 'when did the hostilities of the great European War begin?' This response is potential in all those who have acquired the informational reaction.
  2. These are usually described by the zoologist as irritability, metabolism, reproduction, motility, etc.
  3. Cf. 'Principles,' pp. 393, 441.
  4. Ibid., 390.
  5. Stout, 'Manual of Psychology,' 1915, p. 343.
  6. Cf. Stout, Brit. J. of Psychol., 3, p. 244.
  7. Stout's separation of the conscious and movement components of a response clearly exemplifies the difference between his position and a functional viewpoint.
  8. Our interpretation of Stout's position is in no wise invalidated by his reluctant inclination, expressed in the third edition of his 'Manual' (p. 360), to make the term instinct refer to general capacities, such as 'innately organized interest,' 'attention,' and 'power of learning by experience in certain directions.' On this basis he asserts that 'the whole development of human minds has its root in connate tendencies of this sort and is inexplicable apart from them.' From our standpoint in appears that Stout is here avoiding the essential problem of instincts.
  9. Brit. J. Of Psychol., 3, 243.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Cf. McDougall, Brit. J. of Psychol., 3, 269 ff.
  12. Educational Psychol., 1913, VOL 1.
  13. Cf. James ('Principles,' 1890 II., 183), whom Thorndike follows.
  14. It is unfortunate that psychologists appear to overlook the fact that constructive biologists do not think in terms of isolated nerve functions, but in terms of neuro-musculo-glandular systems. In this connection it appears that if Thorndike has avoided 'mystic potencies' ('Educ. Psychol,' p. 11) he has done so only by translating them into neural terms.
  15.  'Instinct in Man,' 1917, p. 155.
  16. Op. cit., p. 166.
  17. Op. cit., p. 68 ff.
  18. Op. cit., p. 163.
  19. Ibid., p. 122 ff.
  20. In this connection it is extremely edifying to observe the highly moral ends that are sometimes imposed upon the instincts, such as 'heavy and unremitting toil on behalf of the offspring' in the case of the parental instinct. Cf. McDougall, 'Soc. Psychol.,' 1916, p. 269.
  21. "Instinct is the 'life impulse' becoming conscious as determinate conscious impulse," op. cit., p. 88.
  22. "For I hold that the instincts are essentially differentiations of the will to live that animates all organisms and whose operation in them makes the essential difference between their psychophysical activities and the physical processes of inorganic nature." Brit. J. of Psychol., 3, p. 258.
  23. Excluding the reflexes, of course.
  24. As a series of physiological mechanisms.
  25. Soc. Psychol, p. 11.
  26. "Lightly to postulate an indefinite number and variety of human instincts is a cheap and easy way to solve psychological problems." 'Soc. Psychol., p. 26 ff.
  27. 'Soc. Psychol., p. 26 ff.
  28. Brit. J. of Psychol., 3, 253. It seems clear that McDougall does not hold that the enduring condition of an instinctive act is a definite potential reaction system, that is to say, a concrete response pattern which will function when stimulated.
  29. Brit. J. of Psychol., 3, 253.
  30. 'Soc. Psychol.,' p. 32.
  31. Ibid., p. 34.
  32. Ibid., p. 46.
  33. Cf. Drever, op. cit., p. 156 ff.
  34. Brit. J. of Psychol., 3, 260.
  35. In the same sense as the foetal structure which is the foundation for the adult physique is integrated in the course of development.
  36. Cf. 'Soc. Psychol.,' p. 29.
  37. Such as are found in Veblen, 'The Leisure Class,' etc.
  38. Cf. Drever, op. cit., p. 16.
  39. Soc. Psychol.,' p. 20.
  40. Ibid., p. 12 ff.
  41. ‘Soc. Psychol.,' p. 29.
  42. Conative tendency—cf. Brit. J. of Psychol., p. 261 ff. "The instinctive impulses determine the ends of all activities and supply the driving power by which all mental activities are sustained." 43 'Soc. Psychol.,' p. 44
  43. "I hold to the reality of teleological determination of human and animal behavior." 'Soc Psychol.,' Preface, second edition.
  44. The writer wonders whether McDougall considers the instincts as such absolute springs of action that they function either as determining the ends of all acaions or merely by being suppressed. Cf. McDougall's discussion of the parental instincts, 'Soc. Psychol.,' p. 267 ff.
  45. Cf. 'Soc. Psychol.,' p. 323.
  46. "These impulses are the mental forces that maintain and shape all the life of individuals and societies." 'Soc. Psychol.," p. 44.
  47. Cf. Woodworth, 'Dynamic Psychol.,' p. 72 ff.
  48. Cf. Shand, 'The Foundation of Character,' p.. 6, 370
  49. Cf. Drever, op. cit., p. 155 ff.
  50. Not the diffused feelings.
  51. Represented in psychology today by McDougall and Drever, who stand in the von Hartmann-Bergson line of development, cf. Drever, op. cit., p. 89.
  52. So that the success of 'a politician or business man is attributed to the presence of political or business instincts, the desire of a nation to govern itself to the functioning of a self-governing instinct, and the building of cities to the presence of a gregarious instinct.
  53. Morgan, Brit. J. of Psychol., 3., p. 220.
  54. Cf. Drever, op. cit., p. t6.
  55. Or religious emotion, cf. McDougall, 'Soc. Psycho'.; pp. 81-82, 89.
  56. "If we accept the doctrine of the evolution of man from animal forms, we are compelled to seek the origin of religious emotions and impulses in instincts that are not specifically religious."—McDougall, Soc. Psychol,’ p. 89.

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2