Reemergence of Human Nature Research

Instinct theory's purpose in psychology's infancy was the same as it had once been in the distant past: to explain motivation of a variety of species, from the simplest creatures up through humans. Unfortunately, it had also served other purposes in the past, purposes which often proved unwelcome to early behavioral scientists. To declare people superior to other animals, or men superior to women, or almost any target group better or worse than another was not a goal of psychology.

Worse than the heritage of centuries of misuse of the concept of instinct, however, was the accumulation of evidence that instincts (as originally defined, as completely unlearned behavior) were limited to simple creatures and were virtually nonexistent in people. Psychology and related sciences virtually eliminated instinct as a motivational concept for decades, yet they could not avoid bringing back similar notions. The term "instinct" was gone, but what it tried to explain was not. For example, social psychologists, working in the 1940's to find alternatives to the belief that aggression is instinctive in humans, proposed that frustration (goal blocking) is a major cause. When pressed to explain why frustration led to aggression, many indicated that this is simply part of human nature. Some years later, it was demonstrated that the presence of some sort of weapon during a frustrating experience enhanced the likelihood of aggression, apparently through a "triggering effect." Instinct as a concept was not invoked, but these ideas came very close.

Even closer was the work of another group of scientists, ethologists, in their explanations of some animal behaviors. Evaluating what might be thought a good example of instinct in its earliest definition, a duckling following its mother, they demonstrated that experience with a moving object is necessary. In other words, learning (but learning limited to a very brief period in the duckling's development) led to the behavior. Many other seemingly strong examples of instinct were demonstrated to be a consequence of some inner predisposition interacting with environmental circumstances. A new, useful rethinking of the ancient instinct concept had begun.

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