An Introduction to Social Psychology

Chapter 14: The Instincts of Acquisition and Construction

William McDougall

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THE two instincts last mentioned in Chapter III., namely, those of acquisitiveness or cupidity and of construction, are not directly social in their operation, but indirectly they exert important effects in the life of societies, of which a few words may be said.

The importance of the instinct of acquisition, from our present point of view, is due to the fact that it must have greatly favoured; if it was not an essential condition of, that accumulation of material wealth which was necessary for the progress of civilisation beyond its earliest stages.

There are still in existence people who support them-selves only by hunting and the collection of wild fruits, having no houses or fixed places of abode, nor any possessions beyond what they carry in their hands from place to place.[1] Among them this instinct would seem to be deficient ; or perhaps it is, that it never is able to determine the formation of a corresponding habit owing to their wandering mode of life. Among pastoral nomads the working of the instinct is manifested in the vast herds sometimes accumulated by a single patriarchal family.[2]

( 330) But it was only when agriculture began to be extensively practised that the instinct could produce its greatest social effects. For grain of all sorts lends itself especially well to hoarding as a form of wealth. It is compact and valuable in proportion to its bulk, can be kept for long periods without serious deterioration, and is easily stored, divided, and transported. Most of the civilisations that have achieved any considerable development have been based on the accumulation of stores of grain. Besides being a very important form of capital, it was one of the earliest and most important objects of trade, and trade must always have exerted a socialising influence.

Although in highly civilised societies the motives that lead to the accumulation of capital become very complex, yet acquisitiveness, the desire for mere possession of goods, remains probably the most fundamental of them, blending and co-operating with all other motives; this impulse, more than all others, is capable of obtaining continuous or continually renewed gratifications; for while, in the course of satisfaction of most other desires, the point of satiety is soon reached, the demands of this one grow greater without limit, so that it knows no satiety. How few men are content with the possession of what they need for the satisfaction of all other de-sires than this desire for possession for its own sake! It is this excess of activity beyond that required for the satisfaction of all other material needs, that results in the accumulation of the capital which is a necessary condition of the development of civilisation. It might be plausibly maintained that the phenomena with which economic science is concerned are in the main the out-come of the operation of this instinct, rather than of the enlightened self-interest of the classical economists.

The possession and acquisition of land affords satis-

( 331) -faction to this desire in a very full degree, land being a so permanent and indestructible form of property. And this instinct has played its part, not only in the building up of large private estates—the tendency to the indefinite growth of which everywhere manifests itself —but also in the causation of the many wars that have been waged for the possession of territories. Wars of this type are characteristic of autocracies; for the de-sire to possess is more effective in promoting action when the thing to be acquired is to become the possession of a single individual, than if it is to be shared by all the members of a democratic community. Accordingly, one of the most striking effects of the democratisation of States is the passing away of wars of this worst type.

The principal social effects of the instinct of construction are produced by the necessity for co-operation in works of construction that surpass the powers of individuals, especially architectural works. Among all peoples, this tendency to co-operation in large architectural constructions, huge totem poles, monoliths, temples, or massive tombs like the pyramids of Egypt, shows it-self as soon as they attain a settled mode of life; and these works tend to confirm them in the settled mode of life, and to strengthen the social bonds.


  1. One of the most interesting of such peoples are the Punans of Borneo, a remarkably pleasing, gentle-mannered, handsome, and fair-skinned race of forest-dwellers.
  2. See "Comment la Route crée le Type social," by M. Ed. Demolins.

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