Historic Misinterpretations

Modern science reaches conclusions based, to the greatest extent possible, on evidence gathered and interpreted along lines suggested by theories. Traditional instinct theory is especially weak in suggesting such lines; usually it put early psychologists in the position of trying to support the idea that instinct had caused a behavior by demonstrating that nothing else had caused it. Rather than supporting one possibility, they were attempting to deny dozens of others. Even worse, they were forcing thought into an "either-or" pattern rather than allowing for the possibility that a behavior may be based on inherited influences interacting with learned ones.

For example, to try to evaluate the possibility that people are instinctively afraid of snakes, one could begin by finding a number of people afraid of snakes, followed by an attempt to discount all the ways in which those individuals might have learned their fear—that they had never been harmed by a snake, never been startled, never been told that snakes are dangerous, and so on. The task is all but impossible, almost guaranteeing that a researcher will conclude that there are several ways that the fear could have been learned, so there is no need for an instinct explanation. The fact that people who fear snakes can learn not to fear them can be offered as further evidence that they had learned their original fear—not a particularly compelling argument.

When behaviorism became the predominant theoretical stance of psychology in the 1920's, the problems with instinct as an explanation of motivation were "resolved" simply by sidestepping them. Instincts were discarded as unscientific, and other concepts—such as needs, drives, and motives—were substituted for them. Psychology's dropping of the term "instinct" from itsjargon did not eliminate, either for lower animals or for peo ple, the behaviors it had originally labeled. Dropping the term did, however, separate even further the popular views of instinct from the scientific ones.

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