A guide to everyday psychology

Basics

The building blocks of our psychology: Instincts, natural development and learning.

When we are born we can do almost nothing and we can think almost nothing. We can cry, breathe, feed, feel pain and eliminate waste – but not much else. By the time we die as adults, we can talk, operate mobile phones, write poetry and pollute the planet with all kinds of things other than human waste. We also have complex emotions.

Are human behaviours, thoughts and feelings a product of nature or nurture? Do we inherit them or learn them?

People have argued about this question for centuries. And the debate is still very hot indeed. Do gay and straight people inherit their sexual preferences – or learn them? Is intelligence inherited? Are personality types and mental disorders inherited? The safest answer to most of these questions is to say that ‘nobody knows’ – especially in 2021, when so many of these questions have become very political.

But I’m a mug. So, at the risk of inviting criticism, I will try to answer some of those questions – or at least set out what we need to know if we are to answer them.

However, I’ll do that in other posts. Here I just want to explain what instinct and learning mean – and explain how they work.

Instincts

To say that something is “instinctive” is to say that it is present at the very start of life. It could be an ability to sense things, or a readiness to react to events with emotions or behaviour.

A few human behaviours are instinctive. We instinctively breathe, swallow and feed, for example (and just as well). How do we know that these things are instinctive? It is because they appear before we have had any chance to learn them.  

But almost every other human behaviour and mental capability has to develop naturally over time – or be learned through experience in our environments. And sometimes, as we will see, they need both development and learning.

Every species of animal is different in the amount of ready-formed behaviour that it inherits. In general, animals that inherit the ‘brain power’ needed for complex learning (humans and chimps, for example) inherit very little behaviour that is rigid and fixed. What we do inherit is a set of universal mental processes.

So why are other animals so reliant on instincts? Are they a bit dim?

For many animals (salmon, for example) a set of instinctive behaviours is essential for them to survive – because they hatch from their eggs as orphans. Their parents died last year. And so, with no one to teach them anything, they rely on instincts to ensure that their behaviour ‘works’ effectively at its very first use. For this reason, many animals arrive in the world with their most vital behaviours pre-installed. Newly hatched turtles march towards the sea. Cuckoos instinctively evict rivals in the nest.

A baby rattlesnake is another animal that arrives in the world pretty much ready to go. It lacks the ability to ever learn the difference between a mouse and a vole. But it doesn’t need to be able to learn that difference; all it needs to ‘know’ is that both animals are food. That ‘knowledge’ is inbuilt from the moment it inhales its first breath.

So again, does this mean that snakes and other reptiles are a bit thick?

This raises an interesting question about what the purpose of life is. And in another article, I’ll outline the theory of ‘selfish genes’. What we can say here is this… Despite being unable to learn complex things, crocodiles and cockroaches have survived on Earth for millions of years. Isn’t that how we should measure ‘clever’ – rather than by the ability to invent ways to kill ourselves?

A little wrinkle

The ability to find, recognise and harvest food is instinctive in insects and reptiles. But there is an important little wrinkle here: practice and learning will often improve innate skills. Birds do not need to learn how to fly – but practice helps to refine the skill.

And sometimes we must practise an inherited ability within a ‘critical period’. If we don’t do that, the skill will be lost forever. One of the sad facts about restoring sight to people who were blind from birth is that the innate ‘skill’ that gives us useful sight ‘no longer works properly’. People can never learn, for example, to tell a square from a triangle – without carefully counting the corners with their fingers. Although we are all born with an innate ability to perceive the world, if that ability isn’t used within a ‘critical period’, we lose it.

Good and bad

The advantage of inheriting behaviour is that it is ready for use first time out. A hungry spider doesn’t need to learn what it can eat.

The disadvantage is that it is inflexible. And so, if an environment suddenly changes, an animal with fixed responses might suddenly be making ‘wrong’ responses – and it cannot learn to change them. Instinctive responses can only change when spontaneous genetic mutations happen – and when, by chance, these mutations happen to change the animal’s responses usefully – and giving it a selective advantage.

For viruses and bacteria, which have vast populations and extremely fast life cycles, this evolution at pace is possible. For most other animals, their life cycles are too long. They need hundreds or thousands of years to adapt to a new environment. And so sudden environmental change often means extinction.

If flightless birds were able to breed as rapidly as bacteria, then some now extinct animals might have survived. A ‘version’ might have arisen that, when it saw a human, a cat or a rat, attacked it so aggressively that the predator retreated. The 2.0 beta version might have survived and bred where the old version died out.

But, of course, it doesn’t often happen like that in the real lives of big animals; only in horror films about foolish scientists and intelligent sharks/aliens is there rapid mutation. Few, if any, large species can evolve new instinctive behaviours quickly enough to adapt to sudden changes.

The introduction of dogs, cats, rats (and humans!) to places where no predators previously existed, have often caused ecological disasters. Many animals have become locally or globally extinct because their environments suddenly changed (often as a result of human activity). The instinctive responses that the animals had developed over thousands of years suddenly no longer worked.

An interesting example of evolution in action

Until the 1980’s, about 18.5% of female elephants in Gorongosa National Park (Mozambique) were born without the tendency to grow tusks. In animals born since 1990, this tendency to be tuskless has risen to about 33%. This is because poachers did not bother to kill animals without tusks. So these animals survived to breed – and pass on that genetic tendency – where their tusked relatives did not.

If poachers were farmers, it would have worked the other way round. Tuskless elephants would have been killed immediately, in the hope of extinguishing that genetic tendency. Ivory farmers would have only used tusked animals for breeding.

Inheriting a disposition – rather than fixed actions

Although humans inherit only a few instinctive behaviours, thoughts and feelings, we do inherit a suite of psychological processes/dispositions. And these are very important. They restrict and shape our learning – and determine how we learn to respond to the world around us. An example of one of these psychological process is the predisposition to classify and stereotype everything we encounter.

If we didn’t have this inbuilt disposition to classify and stereotype, then every new thing we ever encountered would seem strange. Instead, we can compare new things we come across with the things we already know about. Stereotyping is a fantastic asset. Once you know how to use a pencil, you know pretty much how to use a biro. What’s not to like?

But stereotyping also brings us our prejudices… We don’t just classify ‘writing tools’. We tend to classify and categorise everything – including other people. Things like height, tone of voice, skin colour, accent, clothing, gender and body weight guide us to reach conclusions about people. See: Stereotyping: a source of prejudice – but a priceless asset in life – The Practical Psychologist (psychology4everyone.org)

Natural development through maturity (or predisposition)

Almost every species develops through a process of maturation during its life. There are few (if any?) species where every adult capability and behaviour is present right at the moment of birth. Birds cannot fly at hatching, for example. Humans cannot talk. Almost no animals can mate from birth.

But these animals do inherit a disposition (or blueprint) for those abilities to develop later.

No matter how hard we try to teach them, human babies, infants and children cannot solve complex intellectual puzzles until their brains/minds are sufficiently developed. Their tendency to solve problems is innate… But it also requires steady maturation of the nervous system.

The legendary Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, was first to popularise the view that the development of mental capability progresses through fixed stages. Piaget probably overstated the rigidity of these stages, but his general point is true: we can only learn how to solve intellectual and moral problems once our minds have reached an adequate level of development. Piaget was interested mostly in the development of intellect and morality. But in 2021, we are also keenly interested in the development of emotional maturity.

Development and emotions

Although children often become capable of solving complex intellectual problems by adolescent years, emotional development lags well behind. To put that slightly differently, the world has seen many musical, mathematical and chess-playing prodigies. But there are no emotional prodigies.

Although we experience our emotions very intensely during childhood and adolescence, we cannot easily identify the emotions we experience. Nor do we accurately understand them or see them in context (we rarely think to ourselves: “Don’t worry, I’m going to grow out of this nonsense soon”). Emotional development is often – perhaps always – a ‘work in progress’: well into our twenties, and perhaps beyond. In older age we become less bothered about things that seemed very important when we were young. And we also start to fret about things that didn’t bother the ‘young’ version of us at all. Our levels of emotional response to things – and their points of focus – change throughout our lives.

The societal importance of this is hard to exaggerate – especially for young people. Teenagers often look and sound like adults. But while their intellectual ability (and especially the ability to solve problems at speed ) is peaking around 13-16, many new emotions are only beginning to develop. And children are not being adequately prepared in schools or families to deal with these changes and new challenges .

In my view, neglecting to prepare children properly for the emotional changes that will come with physical maturation is a serious social failure. And compounding the problem, when children fail to develop/display socially desirable emotions as quickly as we would like, we attribute mental disorders to them. See: Children’s and Teenagers’ Brains, Minds and Mental Health – The Practical Psychologist (psychology4everyone.org)

Preparing children emotionally for adult life is far more important than teaching them extra mathematics.

Learning

The third way through which humans and other animals acquire feelings, thoughts and behaviour (or refine existing ones) is through learning. People have always argued about whether our behaviour, thoughts and feelings result from instinct or learning (the nature-nurture debate). And when psychology began, the opposing views polarised into ‘schools’ of thinking.

One group of scientists (the ethologists) mostly studied animals in their natural environments. They believed that all the most important animal and human behaviour is instinctive.

Another group (the learning theorists, or ‘behaviourists’) took the opposite view. They studied animals in laboratories where they could carry out controlled experiments and ‘create’ new behaviour. Pigeons learned to play table tennis. Rats became gamblers. The earliest learning theorists (JB Watson, for example) argued that we are all born as a completely blank slate and that any of us can be taught anything. We are born with a few reflexes (to startle and to salivate, for example). And as these become conditioned to new things (or ‘stimuli’) through learning, our complex lives take shape.

The things that we each learn are different, of course. And that – according to hard-line learning theorists – is the reason why we are all different from each other as adults. We all experience different things within our varied cultures… Some of us will learn to be startled by and scared (reflexively) of spiders. Other people, in other cultures, learn to salivate (reflexively) at the sight of a spider, hoping to eat it.

The views of the learning theorists dominated psychology for 40 years. But in 2021, few psychologists, if any, believe that learning is the sole cause of human behaviour. And although the ‘learning theorists’ (or behaviourists) made many useful discoveries, these are often neglected or even sneered at. Why is that?

Baby out with the bathwater

The learning theorists often told people things that they didn’t want to hear. And as psychology has become increasingly sentimental and political (and ‘positive’) over the last two decades, the views of the learning theorists have become increasingly hard for some to stomach. Lots of people don’t want to hear that we are all the product of our life experiences, and that we have no free will. That ‘deterministic’ point of view jars horribly with today’s popular mantra that we can all choose to “be whoever we want to be”.

Many psychologists and commentators about human behaviour no longer just disagree with the behaviourists. They dislike their views intensely – and some dislike their views so much that they consider behaviourism and 1950’s culture to be wrong and outdated – something to be dismissed as a product of old white men…

But this dislike for behaviourism, and refusal to engage with it, has come at a price to knowledge. Whether you love or loathe the 20th century’s best-known learning theorists, BF Skinner and J B Watson, there is no doubt that their discoveries are of central importance to understanding human psychology. And although it is surely true that we do not learn everything, the following is also true: If we did not learn things, humans would have no moral values, no superstitions, no phobias – and no culture.

The discoveries of the learning theorists cannot sensibly be ignored. So how does learning work?

Rules of Learning

It is important to realise that learning is not a haphazard process. It operates by inbuilt rules (or psychological processes). These rules were explored by Skinner, Watson, Clark Hull, Albert Bandura – and many other brilliant scholars, who spent their careers trying to establish what the rules of learning are. Here are a few…

If two things happen close together in space or time, we will usually associate them with one another: often thinking that the first one caused the second.

We also learn to ‘do’ more of an action when it is rewarded. And we learn to do less of an action if it is not rewarded or even punished. The role of punishment in teaching is another moral hot potato, of course!

If we stop rewarding a learned behaviour, it will often stop (or ‘extinguish’) over time – but it will often restart spontaneously. Spontaneous recovery is an important reality for people giving up ‘addictions’.

Learning ‘generalises’ from the original thing you learned to things that are very similar (echoing the psychological process of stereotyping). So, if you learn to drive a tractor, you can usually learn to drive a car more quickly. If a French waiter is rude to you, you might come to believe (or ‘learn’) that every French person is rude (or all waiters!)

And we also learn things by simply copying other people. This is called ‘social learning’ and in a media driven age, social learning is immensely important. We will often come back to it in the posts here.

Behaviour without thoughts and feelings

An important point about the behaviourists is that they took little research interest in thoughts or feelings – because these were not observable or measurable. Many of them (especially Skinner and Watson) were very strict about using the methods of ‘classic’ science. Their view was that if you can’t observe and test something, then it isn’t a product of science. i

It’s a fair point. But that apparent dogma has come at a price… People who don’t like the behaviourists are inclined to stereotype their work as ‘the science of lab rats’ – allowing them to dismiss it without bothering to study it.

And that’s a pity.

Learning your feelings

There is every reason to think that the mechanisms through which we learn behaviour also apply to how we acquire our feelings and emotions.

Our feelings are trained, conditioned and indoctrinated into us just as much as our behaviour. The Nazis learned to love their Fatherland. They also learned to hate those people who – they believed – posed a threat to it. There is an almost endless list of examples here.

The learning theorists certainly didn’t have all the answers. But when their discoveries are combined with those from ‘cognitive’ and social psychology a very usable picture emerges.

*****

Instinct, maturation and learning are the keystone factors in human feelings and behaviour. We will come across all of them constantly on this website!

2 Comments

  1. Behaviours are learnt whereas feelings ie: emotions as opposed to physically felt sensations (whether internal or external or both) are acquired.
    Does that mean feelings are secondary processes & behaviours are primary?
    Or is the concept of primary & secondary itself a red herring or a man made invention to gild the cage?
    Really interesting article Chris, thank you. Have you considered approaching Niall Ferguson at Univ of Austin? You may well be brothers from a different mother? I’m sure you’ve heard of him? But if not check him out, he’s on a very similar mission to you…

    • Comment by post author

      Hi Bradley!

      The interaction between emotions and behaviours is so tight that it’s probably meaningless to try to separate them. Without emotions there is no motivation to do anything (‘behave’).

      Conversely, without the option to achieve a change in our experiences by doing things, emotion has no meaning.

      It’s the reason why I suspect that the quest to create sentience in artificial intelligence machines is going nowhere. Machines simply don’t care. The current view seems to be that once computers can count beans fast enough they will become sentient (by some unknown process). In my view, that’s just wishful thinking.

      So yes, emotion and motivation are essential for behaviour – and behaviour is essential if motivation/emotion are to have any meaning!

      Cheers,
      Chris

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