Originally Posted By: hope
I taught psychology for several years at a university level. The question of whether humans have "instincts" is not cut and dried, yes or no.

If one considers instincts to be fixed action patterns produced by specific stimuli, which are not learned or affected by learning, no, humans don't have them, and there aren't many in animals either -- many things which seem to be "fixed" can be affected by learning.

We have lots of inborn tendencies, having to do with eating, drinking, safety... Babies don't need to learn how to suckle, or how to cry for attention. However, how we channel these as we age and gain experience is enormously affected by learning. Sexual and aggressive motivations are not learned, but if and how we channel or display them is culturally dependent.

And, we can train some animals to display or channel their motivational states as well. Think of trained attack dogs.

If we call motivational states instinct, yes indeed we have them. If we say instincts are patterned behavior unaffected by learning, we don't have them.

(Reflexes are not usually considered instincts. Many are simple nervous system responses, which may not need brain processing. Responses that need some brain processing may potentially be affected by learning).

That said, how instinct is defined becomes a political question, and it goes in and out of fashion whether or not humans are considered to have instincts.

Hope this is helpful and not TMI!


Interesting, I've been taught that the fact that learning or conditioning can affect them doesn't mean they aren't instincts necessarily because they are still inborn and not learned behaviors and that's what instincts are (I'm talking about behaviors not motivational states alone).

"We have lots of inborn tendencies, having to do with eating, drinking, safety... Babies don't need to learn how to suckle, or how to cry for attention." By the accepted definitions of instincts I've seen, those are instincts. I guess you learned a different definition of the term instincts though and there's apparently variation in psychology still. It always was largely dependent on culture and what happens to be politically acceptable though, nothing has changed about that it seems. In psychology I've learned that we do have instincts, or inborn behavioral/emotional tendencies but those are acted on by experience (nature AND nurture), whereas sociology teaches that basically we are purely products of environment (I consider sociology to be the annoying baby of the family that tries to suck up to the political side of things). Skinner's behaviorism has fallen out of vogue but it's still relevant.

In any case, the whole point was whether or not we have inborn (genetic) behavioral traits, instincts or otherwise, and we do, you said so yourself. I was taught that those are instincts whether or not they can be changed at all with conditioning. You learned otherwise. But the point still stands that we do have those unlearned behaviors (as well as patterns of motivation and emotional tendencies).
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