Robert F. Port
(April 28, 2000. First draft, fall, 1998)

Quick jump to The Instinct List


In The Language Instinct (1996), Steven Pinker tries to convince us that language is an instinctual behavior of human beings. Most readers tend to be convinced by his arguments; certainly I am. However, he did not give us much idea what other human activities he would also call instincts. This situation moved me to make a list of human behaviors that might be instinctual by similar criteria to those used by Pinker. Such a list would give us a place to start in trying to understand all of human behavior - both linguistic and nonlinguistic behavior.

Pinker proposed that an instinct is "an urge and a competence" (p. 18). That seems like a useful definition. It is an ability to behave in a certain way coupled with a tendency to behave that way at appropriate times. Pinker mentioned a few human instincts and William James mentioned a few others (in the quotation on p. 20). So I began with these and added some , then kept refining my list. I suggest looking through the list first, then to learn more about the criteria I used for selecting them, see the companion essay:

Recognizing Human Instincts


Time Scales. Notice that these instincts may operate over a wide range of time scales. Some, like blinking operate over a very short time scale. But others, like love the cute and defend your resources are reflected in behavior that lasts over much longer time scales up to many years. Where one sex or agegroup seems to display the trait to a stronger degree than the other, it is noted.

Instinct Competition. You will notice that some of these purported instincts can contradict each other. For example, keep yourself alive may conflict with obtain and defend resources; sometimes in order to obtain new resources, one must risk one's own life and one's family too (eg, if you start a military campaign). People seek to bond with their own family and yet also compete within the family. And, of course, the instinct to imitate others sometimes conflicts with explore new places, make sense of things and find new methods. Some of the most poignant sources of contradiction can arise around the issue of "Which group should I maintain allegiance to and defend?": Options include my nuclear family, my clan, my language or religious community, my country or the whole human race! Very often what is best for one of these not so good for the others. Thus these various instincts frequently conflict with each other.

Obviously, one of the challenges of each human's life is the reconciliation of all these competing instincts. This is where individuals exhibit the greatest differences and where communities, cultures and families may bias our behavior in distinctive ways.

Physical Size Effects. There is one other genetically determined property of humans that also plays a major role in human interaction that is probably not an instinct. This is the fact that males are bigger than females and that adults are larger than children. It seems to me that most of the widespread dominance of males over females in human communities can be attributed simply to the fact that males are larger and stronger, and, in a dispute, can impose their will over females. (We might also mention the greater tendency of males to be aggressive to get their way.) But I see no reason whatever to blame specific cultures or religious traditions for male dominance and patriarchy. Parents dominate their children, don't they? At least until the children are as big as the parent. Bigger individuals tend to dominate smaller ones - in either sex. There is no need to seek any further explanation.

One of the goals of this course (Language and Style) about language and its manifestations in human communities is to clarify how our everyday use of language is influenced by these instinctual, species-wide properties of human behavior. Here is my tentative list:

Port's Instinct List

Of course, the list does not pretend to be exhaustive. Many of the lines above contain several instincts, and some, like, eg, blink, flinch, flee, are only suggestive of a longer list of instinctual `microbehaviors'.

Some References:

Barkow, Jerome, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby eds. (1992) The Adapted Mind: Evoplutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. (Oxford Univ Press).

Brown, Donald E. (1991) Human Universals. (McGraw-Hill)

Diamond, Jared (199n) Why Sex is Fun.

Eckman, P. (1975)

Pinker, Steven (1994) The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. (Harper-Collins)

Wright, Robert (1994) The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are (Vintage-Random House).

RFP, Copyright Indiana University