No. 2: Instinct

Scenario 1

What a beautiful day. The trail is clear and dry. The air is crisp. Fall is really starting to show itself on the trees. SNAP! What was that, a twig? It sounded more like a small tree. Why have all of the birds gone silent? WHOOMPH! Oh my! Something huge is moving in the gulch below me. This doesn’t feel right. I better trust my instinct: It’s time to get out of here and head back down the trail.

Scenario 2

My heart is pounding! Of course I’ve noticed him around the office, but this is unbelievable—this attraction is overwhelming. Oh my! I’m touching his shoulder. His hand is on my waist! We’re going on instinct now, moving closer with each heartbeat. This is it! We’re kissing! How did we get here? What am I doing? This is wrong. My stomach is in knots.

I hope my husband doesn’t find out. It would destroy our marriage.

Human instincts are defined by drives and patterns of behavior that occur automatically, requiring little to no thought on the part of the person taking action. The hiker’s survival instinct told him to flee from danger, an action that is part of the fight or flight response. The woman’s instinctive sexual desire led her to kiss her coworker, putting her marriage at risk.

Where Do Our Instincts Come From?

Many in the popular media would have us believe that human instincts are entirely defined by our genes. When viewed through this lens, our instincts are inescapable drivers of human behavior and we are powerless to overcome or reshape them. When genes are the sole dictator of human behavior, people are no more responsible for what they do than my computer is responsible for what I write in this blog. This understanding of human instinct is overly simplistic and inaccurate.

The emerging picture of human instinct is complex. Numerous scientific studies going back decades have revealed that human instinct, and all human behavior for that matter, is the result of a complex spectrum of genetic and environmental influences that shape how we interact with the world around us. The relationship between our genes and the environment is so powerful that identical genes are not necessarily expressed in the same way in different people. For example, when it comes to how our bodies respond to stress, there is evidence that people raised in both highly stressful and overly protective environments are more reactive to stress (i.e., unhealthy) than people raised in less stressful and appropriately protective environments (Boyce & Ellis, 2005; Ellis et al., 2005). This is one of many examples that supports what is widely believed amongst scientists: all human behavior, including instinctual behavior, is the result of an intricate web of genetic and environmental factors.

Mixed Messages

Humans have instincts that compete for a person’s attention. In the beginning of scenario 1, the hiker’s curiosity and exploration instinct would have encouraged him to take in all of the sights and sounds of the trail because curiosity craves the beautiful and new. However, in the presence of danger, the hiker’s survival instinct overpowered his curiosity, sending the hiker back down the trail. The woman in scenario 2 also had competing instincts. Even though she’s like most people and believes infidelity is wrong (see Blow & Hartnett, 2005 for a review), she found herself kissing a man who was not her husband. Her conscience was driven by one desire and her behavior by another. This is because people can want a monogamous relationship and still be sexually attracted to multiple people. Thus, competing instincts make it hard to know what to do and can sometimes lead us to make life-altering decisions.

When Instincts Cause Problems

Many of the struggles my clients learn to manage are greatly influenced by their instincts. For example, when couples fight, it is instinctive for people to attack the ideas of their partner and to defend their own. This attack/defend conflict style leads to relationship-damaging behaviors like name-calling, belittling, criticism, and blame. In the most difficult cases, couples will not only verbally attack one another, but they will also become physically violent during fights. Even though verbal and physical aggression are instinctive responses to conflict, they are harmful and unacceptable. This should tell us that our instincts should not always be trusted. If we blindly trust our instincts, we can get into serious trouble.

Learning When to Trust Your Instinct

Fortunately, research shows that we can learn to be more aware of our instincts, and in many situations, decide if we should act on them. Couples who replace an attack/defend conflict style with a thoughtful, empathic, and tolerant one have learned to ignore their instinctive desire to retaliate against their partner during an argument. If the woman in scenario 2 came to me for therapy looking to be more faithful to her husband, I would suggest that she avoid putting herself in situations where her instinctive sexual desire would tempt her to behave in ways that would threaten her marriage. Ideally, this would mean that she no longer worked with the coworker she kissed. If that was not an option, she could work with him in a group that included one or two additional coworkers. If forming a work team wasn’t an option, she could work with him at a location where she was not likely to act on her attraction (e.g., at her home office when her husband is around). The goal of therapy would not be to eliminate her sexual instinct (that would be awful), but to reduce its control over her life. By helping her learn how to think and behave in ways that no longer fed her sexual desire for other men, she would likely find that it no longer had such a powerful influence on her life.

Our Instincts are Here to Help

We should remember that over the course of our lives, our instincts help us far more than they hurt us. We should all be grateful for them. The key is to learn what instincts to listen to in any given moment because mistakes happen when we trust our gut without asking ourselves whether or not we should.