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Man's Instinctive Tendencies - Motor Tendencies

( Originally Published 1916 )

SOME readers, including perhaps the majority of those whose interest is a practical one and who take up any book dealing with education with a practical aim, will prefer to glance very casually at the two preceding chapters and to begin their reading at this point. Yet there is a direct connection between the study of instinct upon which we now enter and the preliminary study which has preceded. Immediately that we define instinct, we find that its special feature is that it is a native tendency, wholly unlearned. This at once relates it to the primitive tendencies spoken of in the first chapter. The next thing that we find is that instinct is always of the nature of an active tendency. As such it links portions of our experience together on the lines of the organic tendencies referred to in the second chapter. We find, moreover, that our instinctive tendencies remain with us. Our instincts are thus a first definite showing of the presence of permanent factors in the making or unfolding of our personality. Instinct is at the very foundation of all our experience. None the less it exerts an influence, sometimes an overmastering influence, in all our later experience.

It follows that a knowledge of man's instinctive tendencies is of considerable importance to the educator. In the study of them the theoretical and the practical aspects of our inquiry hold well together; and we shall begin at this point to see with some definiteness that the unfolding of personality may justly be spoken of as the chief work of education. The practical outcome of this part of the inquiry will be to discover 'what we have in the way of native endowments to build upon, and to build with, in our effort to direct the intellectual and moral development of the child.

Child-study has led us far away from the once much-discussed view that the intellectual and moral nature of the child is a something which his experience gradually puts together within him, and that we, his teachers, in co-operation with the rest of his environment, practically make him. The process is not, to quote a time-worn metaphor, like the filling of an empty cabinet. The truth is rather, as Ruskin with characteristic over-emphasis states it, that we cannot manufacture a man, but that the utmost we can do is to "dig him out, nugget-fashion." And Charles Lamb : a Children have a real character and an essential being of themselves." In so far as these are right, it is worth the educator's while to know something of this real character and essential being. Yet we have not to read very deeply into the history of education to find how strong a hold the idea of the mind of the child as a sort of cupboard, which depends for all it contains upon what we put into it, has had of the educational mind.

Indeed, although the master tendencies in education to-day are practically a blending of the two standpoints, extremes are even yet not unknown. For example, one world-famous American school was trying some ten years ago, when the writer visited it, to give the child as free a fling as, with adult interference at its very minimum, school can possibly allow.' Such a school method evidently expresses a firm

' The Elementary School initiated by Professor Dewey at Chicago-a school great in its influence in many valuable ways. See Dewey's "School and Society " ; and Board of Education belief in an original bias within the child towards knowledge and morality. If our motto were to be nothing by prescription, everything by experience, it could only be so because we believe that it is safer to let the child alone—safer, because Nature (a something, i.e., moving and energising within him, his nature) can best conduct him to manhood's goal. Another equally famous American school aims at well-graded moral instruction, and gives such instruction quite admirably alike in the form of direct teaching and indirectly by the bearing of this special instruction upon other portions of the school work. Of the two factors emphasised by Plato, the former school lays the greater stress upon nature, the latter upon nurture. But the two views, Plato already being witness, are not by any means exclusive of each other. And, which-ever view of education more attracts us, we may yet find advantage in being able to answer the question : What is there in the very build or predisposition of the child, which may give us our point of departure and proffer guidance in our efforts to educate him ?

The fundamental dogma of the Rousseau-Pestalozzi Froebel school is that the child is alive. More variedly alive than any other animal, his behaviour is proportionally varied. He is endowed with a brain and nervous system which give him an almost infinite capacity for variations in responsive activity. He is a " behaving organism." An imperative is born within him—to do, to learn by doing, to live by doing.

The terms, familiar by long usage, which have been employed not only in philosophy but in common speech in reference to man's original endowment are " instinct" and "intuition." Partly to show what recent light has been thrown upon these two aspects of our mental life, partly to indicate the part to be assigned to them in the process of education, these are to be dealt with in some detail.

And first, as to instinct. As we shall see, "instinct" is far from being a well-defined term. Popular usage has tended to make the words "instinct," "instinctive" almost synonymous with what is- spontaneous and unpremeditated, without considering whether the spontaneity is 'original, i.e., really instinctive, or is the result of habit. Very much in the same way as a village repairer of property spoke of himself as having been a "native" of the village for nine years, has popular speech used the terms "instinct" and "instinctive" in describing what has become habitual through experience. The terms will be here used exclusively to denote the fact of our being natively endowed with certain capacities of responding to the_ outer world ; to the events, the people, the things which constitute our environment. These inherited impulses we call instincts. We possess them independently of any kind of teaching by others or of any kind of learning by our own experience. They are "unlearned reactions," or " untaught ability."

It is customary to emphasise the part which instinct plays in the life of animals. In animals, instinct so predominates that the greater part of their behaviour may be said to be born with them. The bee, for example, takes wing, seeks honey, carries it, makes hexagonal cells in which to store it, and lives the wonderful life of the hive, because it is, so to say, born to it; one bee to- one task, another to another. Another kind of animal is born to come out after dark ;—good reasons lie behind this, of course. Though it has no eyes, it starts away with amazing rapidity at the approach of a light ; incidentally, it improves bad soil and destroys good roots all by instinct. With this display of automatism we have been accustomed to contrast man's prerogative of reason. His very mistakes he can turn to advantage by using his intelligence in learning to do better. Marked though the differences are, our purpose will not be greatly served by pointing a contrast between man and the lower animals, for we shall learn more from the analogies than from the contrasts. It is evident that in speaking of the child and his instincts we are asking : What is the child born to do ? And, at what stage in his development may he be expected to do this rather than that by sheer nature ?

One important thing to notice, however, is that the variety of movement that is possible depends on the complexity of the organism. A child is born to completer and more varied behaviour than a dog. His very make, so much more complex, especially in the matter of nerve development, is the proof and guarantee of this. Yet one of the difficulties awaiting the student of the subject is the apparent contrariness of the statements he comes across. He finds some saying that in man "the number of definitely instinctive activities is few"; that man is distinguished from the lower animals by the fewness of his instincts and by his dependence upon reason. Others he finds saying that "man has more instincts than any other animal, but the variety of action thus made possible, and the modification produced by experience, make it seem as if he had none." The writers who find in man fewer instincts than in animals are those who define instinct as fixed, invariable, unerring response. And it is clear that if we regard man as born to many things that he must do, cannot help doing—fixed, fatal, uniform ways of responding—on the one hand; and if we regard him as gifted with intelligence and as placed in a constantly changing environment, on the other, we may expect collision and confusion. The fixed parts of him will be always clashing with the adjustments he is under the necessity of making to varying circumstances. But allow that instinct is not fixed, invariable, unerring ; noting that even the chick does not direct its aim accurately the first time it pecks, but has to acquire accuracy ; and there is ample room for the statement that man is more highly organised for behaviour than any other creature, and has the greatest number of instincts, i.e., of tendencies born with him towards specific modes of behaviour.

In treating of the range or the child's instinctive tendencies, it may be serviceable (though, admittedly, quite arbitrary) to follow lines which psychology itself suggests ; and, whilst remembering that elements of feeling, acting, and knowing are always together present in all our conscious experience, to consider man's instinctive tendencies in three - groups according as one or other of these elements is specially prominent. This may be done for convenience, although by definition the characteristic quality of an instinct is that it is a reaction, i.e., a form of behaviour. We thus have the three following groups :

(1) Unlearned reactions, in which we trace little more than modes or ways of behaving.

(2) Unlearned reactions, which have large and characteristic accompaniments of feeling ;

(3) Unlearned reactions, which seem to have the gaining of knowledge as their most direct aim.

We may take first the unlearned reactions which, though there are accompaniments of consciousness, are for the most part modes of behaviour.

We are not concerned at this point with any discussion as to the origin of instincts ; but merely to know what instincts the child has and what part they play in the up-building of his personal life and experience. The organs of behaviour, if one may use the expression, are nerves and muscles. Acting conjointly they form the nervo-muscular, or, as it is now more often called, the "sensori-motor," system of the species in question. It is customary to trace three levels within man's nervo-muscular or sensori-motor system. A brief account of these will show something of the way in which the bases of man's efficiency as a practical being are laid in his very build as a compound organism of mind and body. The sensori-motor arcs of the lowest level are the physiological mechanism of all purely reflex actions. These help on the more purely physiological plane to preserve the life of the organism. If, for example, at the first stimulation of the nerve-endings in the hand or foot or some other part of the body by a red-hot substance or a flame I did not instantly recoil, the penalty might be loss of limb or even loss of life. But in order for this prompt reaction to be possible, two distinct steps forward have been taken in building up the nervous system. From the simplest possible form of nervous system, such as that of the jelly-fish, which consists of a few nerves running directly from nerve-endings to muscle (diagram I), we have passed to a structure with a definite centre, the function of which is to receive and to transmit in such a way that the stimulation of in-carrying (or "afferent ") nerves leads to an excitation at this centre of out-carrying (or " e efferent ") nerves, which, through their attachment to the appropriate muscle, effect the responsive movement. The nerve centre connected with reflex movements is the spinal chord, represented in section (s.c.) in diagram 2. The muscle in diagram 2 is supposed to be attached to a bone, say, of the arm, producing a movement in that limb.

The next great step forward in the development of the sensori-motor system is connected with the beginnings of a brain. We may imagine the evolutionary process to have been that after many preparatory stages, the foremost part of the body of the vertebrate became the centre of alertness. Something more than reflex response was demanded.

Hence the head with the attached organs of sense. As an example of sensori-motor activity at this second or sense level, an experiment performed by Mr. Grant Allen with some wingless ants will serve. In the. case of these little animals, whilst their eyes are comparatively undeveloped, smell is their principal sense-endowment. The experiment is described in Mr. Grant Allen's book, " The Evolutionist at Large." By obliterating the track between an ants' nest and the dead body of a worm which they were engaged in removing piecemeal, he almost instantaneously reduced their smell-cosmos to a chaos. They had " lost their scent." Communications and confidence were re-established only when, after active search for the lost track, " head to the ground, exactly as a pointer hunts the missing trail of a bird or hare," the scent was at last recovered. Man's responses at this level are legion. Whilst smell sinks into the back-ground, sight, and hearing, and touch (the whole surface of the body being practically the organ of touch) play a many-sided part. It is at this level that co-ordinations are so deeply ingrained as to have become instinctive. Given the stimulation, the response tends to follow spontaneously. In commenting upon the recent remark of a great physicist that science cannot explain why the particles of a piece of wood hold together so as to form from end to end the same stick, a humorous writer remarked that it is equally in-explicable that the two ends of a man should be so connected that if you tread upon one end of him he calls out at the other. Clearing the mystery and coming to the bare fact, we say that it is instinctive. It is what any child will do. It is born with him, i.e., it is an inbred and not a learned reaction.

But the most characteristic portion of man's sensori-motor system is the brain mass, rising above the lower brain centres of the second level. Comparing the child with the adult, the special importance of this higher brain is seen from its size at birth as compared with the rest of the body. The ratios are given approximately as follows :

Height of head of an adult to that of an infant 2 : 1
Length of body of an adult to that of an infant 3 : 1
Length of arm of an adult to that of an infant 4 : 1
Length of leg of an adult to that of an infant 5 : 1

" The weight of the brain of boys at birth is 12.29 per cent. of that of the body, while at twenty-five years it is only 2.16 per cent. of the weight of the body."

It is hardly possible to exaggerate the importance of the co-ordinations of impression and response which take place at this highest or "third level." This higher brain betokens the child's capacity for mental development ; and it is this which to so large an extent presents him to us for the making. Most of an animal's behaviour, as has been said, is born with it. Its range of response, even in the case of the most intelligent animals, seldom rises much beyond the two lowest levels. But a vast amount of a human being's behaviour is acquired. This is made possible, in a psycho-physical sense, through the presence of the higher brain masses.

This higher brain is the vantage-ground of the educator ; for it is the seat of the child's capacity for learning by experience. Its presence accounts for the seeming paradox that though the child is endowed with infinitely more intelligence than any other animal, he yet needs for his proper up-bringing infinitely more looking after.

Seeing that the higher brain is the seat of the capacity to learn by experience, and par excellence of, human educability through its presence in man in such massive proportions, we naturally look to the two lower levels for the mechanism of instinct. Not that instinct excludes consciousness. Instinct is not pure automatism. As Principal Lloyd Morgan convincingly argues, the fact that the future actions of a chick in pecking at grains of food are affected by earlier actions shows that the earlier and purely instinctive actions entered in some way into consciousness. "That which is outside experience can afford no data for the conscious guidance of future behaviour."' Yet the earliest actions cannot be guided by consciousness : for such guidance would imply still earlier experience in the light of which they were in part performed. Thus it is the first performance of a re-action, and the first only, which is purely instinctive. The first reaction is purely automatic, because in no way guided by consciousness. All later reactions fall short in their automatic character in proportion as they are affected in intensity or direction or ease of execution by previous experiences. Yet, as Mr. McDougall forcefully says in his latest work, "Social Psychology": "Take away these instinctive dispositions with their powerful impulses, and the organism would become incapable of activity of any kind ; it would lie inert and motionless like a wonderful clockwork whose mainspring had been removed or a steam-engine whose fires had been drawn. These impulses are the mental forces that maintain and shape all the life of individuals and societies, and in them we are confronted with the central mystery of life and mind and will."

Since the actual performances are always before us in the children we observe—indeed more or less present with us throughout our own behaviour—little more is needed than to give a list of the most unmistakable of our instinctive tendencies. They are the things which the child is born to do, with Nature's full endorsement of the imperative that lies behind the doing. Without instruction the child can suck, and bite, and chew ; if any suitable object is put between the lips or gums or teeth, his spontaneous tendency is to set to work upon it : he even seeks occasions of such stimulus and its accompanying exercise. He can grasp ; and throughout childhood his fingers often itch for contact with objects, materials, tools. This is part of the way he is alive, and it is no mild form of repression when he finds, as he sometimes does, that he is alive one way and that those about him want him to be alive in some wholly different way. He can point—instinctively points to things to which he wishes to call attention. He can cry ; smile ; ask, by gesture or by sounds expressive of desire.' He creeps ; clings ; and probably climbs ; walks ; instinctively. As to the last of these, in a sense, of course, the child learns to walk ; but the basis and actual beginning of the performance is instinctive. So soon as the muscles are developed sufficiently --and every healthy child spontaneously sees to their development by kicking and other half-random but in-valuable forms of cradle-exercise—the very contact of the sole of the foot with a flat surface impels to the endeavour to stand erect, and the muscles which swing the limbs begin to be on the strain towards the activity of walking. To try the least bit prematurely to teach a child to walk is one of the surest ways to make him bandy-legged. Then, in the presence of people, without instruction he can reject overtures, and resist interference. In later childhood, he hunts; fights ; is acquisitive—gets things and keeps them ; by instinct. Instinctively, the child emulates ; imitates. He plays ;—partly because the whole organism tends towards activity, partly because it is an instinct with him to gain control over objects.' These are all tendencies to behave, they are the raw elements out of which, by the aid of experience, life's larger behaviours are to be fashioned. They are unlearned reactions—at their first performance practically automatic—yet they first give the child to himself. These actions once performed, by a kind of back-stroke, to use Lloyd Morgan's useful phrase, the child becomes aware of what he has done and of himself as having done it. They are first steps towards control of limb, and much beside.

These are all instincts ; and capable of being distinguished, as Preyer and others distinguish them, from the purely reflex responses—sneezing, coughing, sighing, blinking, starting, and the like. They are accompanied by consciousness, yet there is no need for premeditation. All that is needed is sense-contact or impression, and the necessary strength of muscle : when these are there, the reaction takes place.

The foundations of practicality are thus laid in the very organism. And it is only when these essentials are provided for, that the self is free to acquire new experience and to deal, as it has to do, with an ever-widening and more complex environment. It is in this way, indeed, that man (if not some earlier progenitor on man's behalf) took the first step towards becoming a self ; and on the presence of these more rudimentary endowments has depended man's capacity for advance.

Quite clearly we in no way assist in the education of a child by damming up his instinctive tendencies. He must behave.. Supposing we say, as most would agree that we are entitled to do, that the child's instinctive tendencies are a selection, from a vast range of possible modes of behaviour, of those which in the experience of the race have been found most serviceable : that, in the child's instincts, the effects of racial experience are " transmitted in some way, at present unexplained, through heredity." What respect do we not owe, however superior our enlightenment, to these inwrought lessons of the past ! Most of these instincts are serviceable. Some need to be directed, and in the process are almost transformed ; but they still act as an impulsive energy behind acquired courses of behaviour—or more truly are integral elements in such courses of behaviour. Some are positive potencies in the direction of morally right behaviour. Probably none need to be wholly inhibited. As has been well said : " In every movement of the mind towards its object there is an instinctive, as well as a conscious or ideal, source of energy." To be guided in his behaviour with full reference and with a certain amount of deference to his instinctive tendencies is the child's biological birthright. And it is his one sure way of attaining to complete and efficient personality.

Behind all these instinctive tendencies, which we have grouped together as ending for the most part in serviceable behaviour rather than in knowledge or marked emotional experiences, is the master impulse of life itself. By its very nature an organism tends to activity. And, further, the characteristic structure of an organism implies a tendency to behave in ways that are in harmony with that structure. We must, therefore, start with the view of the child's instinctive behaviour as the unfolding of his native energies as a living being ; whether manifested in a general tendency to be active, or in such specific tendencies as are more commonly spoken of as instincts. Moreover, the serviceableness of movement to the child, over and above the necessity of the sheer physical exercise to physical development, is seen in the contacts with objects and the multiplication of points of view which are directly due to it. The still child is in danger either of learning too little or of learning too abstractly. As a means of self-expression, also, movement is of absolute importance to the child. The too still child is, from this point of view, in danger of becoming either habitually inert and unmoved or of acquiring the habit of allowing even right forms of feeling to evaporate into sentiment. For these reasons, movement, both on the grand or massive scale and in its more specific tendencies, must be looked for and reasonably encouraged, if we are hoping as parents or as teachers to evoke and strengthen the spontaneous inner life which is the core, and whence is continuously supplied the fibre, of personality. And the younger the child is, the more must we plan for and anticipate his spontaneous movements.

How much this truth has impressed itself upon us is evidenced by the change in our methods of education in the infant classes. Even there the development has probably not reached its consummation. In spite of the juvenile experts—and the fact that there are such shows what fine intellectual material is often passing through our hands—who can before they are seven years of age read a newspaper leader which they have not seen before : in spite of the splendid ingenuity and enthusiasm of inventors of methods of teaching reading to very young children and of the subtle mechanical aids devised for the purpose : in spite even of the fact that teachers in the upper school may not want the labour of teaching the beginnings of the art of reading : the writer ventures the surmise—as he frankly expresses the hope—that in the course of another generation the three R's as formal acquisitions will not be at-tempted before a child is, at least, six years of age.


1. It may be noted that America has not blindly chosen the Kindergarten as the basis of its infant school procedure. E.g., all the conditions of a test experiment being given, the superintendent of the public schools at St. Louis instituted a comparison between children who went for a year to the Kindergarten in which no formal work in the three R's is done, joining the elementary school at seven, and children who went to the elementary school at six without the Kindergarten experience. The result may be given in his own words :

"The present investigation, as far as it goes, bears out the idea that Kindergarten education equips the child well for more rapid progress in the grades. There are a number of schools in our city to which no Kindergarten is attached, and for this reason a comparison is possible. In the schools without Kindergartens children are admitted at the age of six into the primary grades, in the other schools at seven. In the first-mentioned schools the children begin school work one year earlier than in the latter, and they might there-fore be supposed to keep one year in advance of the others that begin the study of reading and writing one year later.

2. That allowance for the tendency to do what seems just right to them may be carried to an extreme in the children's school experience, American education has also proved.

3. The author of the parable quoted at the end of these suggestions says : " In a sense, a child or a man is the sum total of his movements or tendencies to move ; and nature and instinct chiefly determine the basal, and education the accessory parts of our activities."

4. The following observations might be made of children's behaviour : (a) Instinctive movements of head or body in the direction of an object exciting attention ; (b) The fact that young children especially, but all children more or less, are specially interested in moving things—live things, models; also in making things move. Hence "occupations," and the general method of "learning by doing"; (c) Their pleasure in sheer sense and muscle activities ; (a) Any of the specific instincts mentioned above, e.g., the a playing with " things in class as showing the craving for actual contacts ; (e) The children's pleasure in massive movements, such as marching (especially to music introducing an added consciousness of rhythm) ; (f) The difficulty with which non-instinctive co-ordinations are acquired, e.g., catching a ball by children of from five to six, and so on ; (g) The imitative impulse.

One or two methods are found specially serviceable.

(1.) Visiting schools where the children, as in Demonstration Schools attached to Training Colleges and in American schools universally, are so accustomed to the presence of visitors as to ignore them ; in such schools general observation of the life of a class will always be fruitful ;

(2.) Visiting the same class regularly, say from week to week, and, whether the visiting is done in groups or individually, each selecting one scholar for more immediate observation. (At discussions and comparisons of notes after such visits by groups of students, highly interesting points are brought out as to differences of temperament, the effects of differences of earlier experience or of home experience—only child or one of many and the like—variations in the strength of instinctive tendency, and so on) ;

(3.) At home or elsewhere, but without the child's knowledge, to note down all that a child does in ten or fifteen minutes ;

(4.) Not so much to experiment, because that at first gives us a pose which puts the child on his guard, but in friendly and natural ways to seek inter-course with children and recall afterwards what passed. (One young teacher, e.g., heard some young children at play on the other side of a hedge and much wanted to join them ; but she waited patiently till she had learned their play language and had entered into the spirit of the game and into their spirit in the game, and then joined them—a welcomed comrade.)

5. For further reference : Lloyd Morgan's "Animal Behaviour," and " Habit and Instinct"; Thorndike's "Notes on Child Study"; King's "Psychology of Child Development."

6. Compare the fact (noticed on page 4.2) of the permanence of the effect of instinctive factors in our experience with the truth stated on page 73 that intelligence may accelerate the lapsing of instinctive tendencies into disuse. The extinction of an instinct is, as stated in the last-named context, a more or less prolonged evolutionary process.

7. A highly apposite illustration of the main points in the preceding chapter is here reproduced with the author's and publishers' permission. It is from the pen of President G. Stanley Hall, and is contained in a chapter contributed to a volume published by Messrs. Longmans & Co., on " Principles of Religious Education." It is a parable of the Tadpole and its Tail.


I sometimes used to ask my students how many of them believed that the tadpole's tail ever fell off when it became a frog ; and most of them thought it did. But every naturalist knows that there never was a tadpole's tail in the world that fell off : and that is the point of all we have to say. Never a tadpole lost his tail. It was absorbed : and the very matter and blood that went to make tail was simply made over again into legs. And if the tadpole's tail is cut off, then the legs never grow, and the frog is condemned to pass his life in a lower aquatic stage. He never becomes an amphibian, and never gets on the land. That is the parable of the tadpole's tail. . . . You may say, " To develop the frog nature of this tadpole, I will clip off this tail, so that the energy will go into the legs and he will get mature a little earlier, and the legs will be strong." This is what we do in the training. We forget that Froebel was right when he said, "Every child must live out completely every complete stage of childhood, or he can never develop into complete maturity."—G. STANLEY HALL.

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