Term Paper: William Mcdougall Problems With Instinct Theory

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William McDougall: Problems with Instinct Theory

William McDougall was an experimental psychologist and theorist who believed in a holistic psychology that integrated all of the tools available to help understand the human psyche. "He was the first to formulate a theory of human instinctual behavior," Margaret Alic notes, "and he influenced the development of the new field of social psychology" (p. 1). McDougall was born in Lancashire, England in 1871, and his early pioneering work on the subject of instinct helped to secure him much recognition at the time, more so than did the work of the previous psychologists (Alic, 2001). In his biography of McDougall, Chris Brand reports that McDougall held lectureships in Cambridge (St. John's College) and Oxford (Corpus Christi College) by the close of the 19th century; he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1912 and was Professor of Psychology at Harvard from 1920 to 1928. "As might be expected from a man of such achievement," Brand says, "McDougall was a near-complete polymath" (p. 37). After securing a medical degree, McDougall's interests turned to anthropology and philosophy and his erudition knew no bounds. According to Brand, McDougall's studies ranged from a one-year Cambridge University expedition to Borneo, perceptual and animal studies, to investigations in parapsychology. In fact, "[McDougall's] writing spanned the entire tough-to-tender dimension of psychology, from physiological through to social psychology. He was a fine figure of a man - strongly built, with great dignity, a penetrating gaze and a sensuous mouth that still speaks through photographs of the passions that he experienced, studied and propounded as key features of the human condition" (Brand, p. 37). Given these broad ranges of important contributions, it was not surprising that McDougall enjoyed a degree of popularity during the early 20th century; however, few people outside of psychological circles may have even heard of him today (Brand, 1997). According to Ronald Fletcher (1957), three factors may help to account for McDougall's popularity during the early 20th century:

1) His account of instinct was very largely a psychological account; i.e. framed mainly in experiential terms, which involved more points of controversy than the mere statement of the biological facts of instinct in the lower organisms would have done.

2) His treatment, especially in his book Social Psychology, was directed predominantly to the study of human instincts, and it is, of course, in connection with the question of instinct in man that most of the controversy has arisen; and, 3) His views were presented in a compact conceptual scheme, the very simplicity of which may, on the one hand, have made his work readable and popular with lay readers, and, on the other, may have aroused the ire of professional psychologists who, confronted with the great complexity of human experience and behavior, were rather chary ["discreetly cautious"] of simple answers (Fletcher, 1957, p. 47). Notwithstanding the controversies surrounding McDougall's early observations concerning human nature and instinct, or the criticisms that were directed against them, the theory of instincts has in fact frequently been misunderstood and misrepresented, and many of the criticisms directed against McDougall's work were not only incomplete but some were completely irrelevant (Fletcher, 1957). McDougall simply maintained that, "The human mind has certain innate or inherited tendencies which are the essential springs or motive powers of all thought and action...', and these innate tendencies he termed 'Instincts'" (1923, p. 20). To help develop a better understanding of McDougall's instinct theory and its impact on the school of psychological thought, this paper provides a review of the relevant literature, followed by a summary of the research in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Background and Overview of Instinct Theory. From a general biological perspective, instincts are regulatory principles that, functioning automatically, help to secure the continued survival of the organism (Arieti, 1974). Cannon (1932) defined instincts as being "coordinators of internal regulatory systems which maintain adaptive stabilization" (p. 14). The instinctual processes that provide for the survival functions of an organism are the vital, primary instincts. "[Instincts] serve the regulation of breathing, water balance, food intake, elimination, and maintenance of tissue substance," Arieti notes, and "This sequence is indicatory of the difference in the urgency of the need that the instinct represents; it shows the physiological time interval between the need and its gratification" (p. 570). In this regard, McDougall (1923) pointed out that every human sensation and every single perception, no matter how primitive or simple in nature, represents a level of cognition and therefore also represents an awareness of "something there" (p. 260). According to McDougall, the term "instincts" represents.".. certain innate specific tendencies of the mind that are common to all members of any one species, racial characters that have been slowly evolved in the process of adaptation of species to their environment and that can be neither eradicated from the mental constitution of which they are innate elements nor acquired by individuals in the course of their lifetime" (1948, p. 20). These are clearly more sophisticated characteristics than, say, a sunflower bending toward the sun; indeed, without these inherited instincts to survive, it is unlikely that any species could. Sentience suggests that an organism is sufficiently aware of its environment to take the requisite steps needed to ensure an appropriate response to a given stimuli. In this regard, McDougall maintained that consciousness stood for and "implied some one who is conscious of some thing" (Bentley, p. 228). Citing the example of a mature wasp, McDougall (1912) pointed out that, "The handling of her prey by each individual in the manner characteristic of her species on her first encounter with it, similarly implies the possession of a corresponding innate conative disposition. And the fact that each wasp reacts in this specific fashion to her specific prey, and to that alone, implies that this conative disposition is innately linked with the cognitive disposition that enables her to recognize her prey" (p. 160). This process is in fact the nature of instinct in all animals in that it is a mental structure that establishes the condition required for instinctive action. The manner in which these nature and nurture factors contribute to the behavior of a given species is the basis for McDougall's explanation of a majority of all animal behavior, including humans. "All those purposive reactions imply perceptual discrimination of the object without previous experience of it. Well-nigh the whole of the behavior of some animals conforms strictly to this type," he says (1912, p. 161). As noted above, as an early member of the psychological community, McDougall's contributions to the schools of thought that have emerged since that time have been profound, despite his relative anonymity today. The research that subsequently emerged in the field based on McDougall's instinct theory is discussed further below.

Research Based on Instinct Theory. Research based on instinct theory has been applied to many fields, including business, education, and religion, showing its usefulness for understanding and predicting patterns of human interaction (Smith, 1993). The early investigations by McDougall and others in the realm of psychology compelled a reformulation of the approach from one focused solely on the mind to one that integrated a behavioral component as well. In his book, Personality Structure and Human Interaction: The Developing Synthesis of Psycho-Dynamic Theory, Harry Guntrip (1961) reported that, "The need for psychology to take account, not only of the individual and his 'mind', but also of his world, was responsible for the discarding of the old definition of psychology as 'the science of the mind' and the adoption of the definition of 'the science of behavior'" (p. 28). Sigmund Freud's explorations into instinct and human behavior, as well as other behaviorists are all related to McDougall's early work on instinct theory (Guntrip, 1961), but Freud remained nebulous on the issue of the "psychic representation" of human instinctual drives ("An instinct can never become an object of consciousness -- only the idea that represents the instinct can") (Lifton, 1979, p. 39). In their essay, "Race-Ethnicity and Measured Intelligence: Educational Implications," Lisa a. Suzuki and Richard R. Valencia report that McDougall was one of the paramount figures in the psychological community who helped to shape the current framework in which the human condition and experience are understood:

The appearance of Galtonian biometrics, close ties between Galton and American psychologists, the development of the correlation coefficient (Galton and Karl Pearson), the eugenics movement, the development of the Binet-Simon intelligence scales in France, the appropriation of the Binet-Simon scales by American psychologists H.H. Goddard and Lewis Terman, individual intelligence testing, mass intelligence testing in World War I, Mendelian genetics, and instinct theory (William McDougall) all combined to help heredity become entrenched as a powerful explanatory base of human behavior in the nature-nurture controversy (p. 1105).

According to "Motivation and Emotion" (2005), though, some of the problems that have emerged with the instinct theory perspective include:

1. Theorists have never been able to agree on a list of instincts; many instincts are NOT universal and seem to be… [END OF PREVIEW]

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