instinctive behavior

On What the Founding Father of Ethology, Konrad Lorenz Has To Say On Human Instinctive Behavior

“One asks, which is more damaging to modern humanity: the thirst for money or consuming haste… in either case, fear plays a very important role: the fear of being overtaken by one’s competitors, the fear of becoming poor, the fear of making wrong decisions or the fear of not being up to snuff.”

Every mother knows this fear of which Konrad Lorenz, one of the founding fathers of ethology, speaks. In a highly competitive world, mothers everywhere want to know that they are doing everything possible to insure their child’s ability not just to survive, but to thrive. Unfortunately, this fear is often expressed by mothers competing rather than co-operating with one another to achieve maximum benefits for themselves and their children. Conflicting guidelines offered by “experts” often result in more stress as parents struggle to differentiate instinctive behavior from learned behavior.

Too often, this stressful competition takes the form of using general developmental guidelines established by experts to compare themselves with others. For example, if the guidelines say that the average child learns to walk at a year old, mothers whose children learn to walk at ten months may imagine that their children are extraordinarily gifted, while those who don’t learn to walk until 15 months of age are considered developmentally delayed. Mothers often suffer unwarranted shame as well as pride in comparing their child’s development to both the guidelines and the development of their friends’ children.

Konrad Lorenz is best known for his study of instinctive behavior in Greylag geese and his elaborate description of the principle of attachment, called imprinting. Born into a family of physicians, after completing his M.D. degree at the University of Vienna in 1928, he earned a Ph.D. in zoology in 1933. He observed that certain behaviors of ducklings and goslings were triggered by visual and auditory stimuli from the parent object. Further, he observed that the following response elicited by either the parent or a foster parent continued to affect their adult behavior.

His observation of the interbreeding of species of birds and the resulting hybrids led to his belief that similarly, human racial interbreeding could cause dysgenic effects. These scientific beliefs helped justify Nazi eugenics policies against “race mixing”. Of his writings during that time, he later said

“I regret those writings not so much for the undeniable discredit they reflect on my person as for their effect of hampering the future recognition of the dangers of domestication”.

After the founding of the German Society for Animal Psychology in 1936, Lorenz became the editor of the ethology journal “Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie”. From 1937 to 1940, he lectured in animal psychology and comparative anatomy at the University of Vienna. He was head of the psychology department at Albertus University in Königsberg, Germany from 1940 to 1942. His lectures on instinctive behavior included his theories on the function of positive and negative social feedback mechanisms that serve to help override impulses.

Lorenz is equally well known for his extensive research on the roots of aggression and wrote the book “On Aggression”. He had the opportunity to personally experience the effects of aggression when he was drafted into Hitler’s army. While there, he served as a psychologist in the Office of Racial Policy from 1942-1944 before being captured by the Soviet army and being held as a prisoner of war until 1948. Upon his return to Austria, he served as director of the Institute of Comparative Ethology in Altenburg until 1951. He became a co-director at the Max Planck Institute for Behavior Physiology in 1954, and remained there as director from 1961 to 1973.

In 1973, along with his colleagues Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch, he was honored with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for “for discoveries in individual and social behavior patterns”. Today, the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, relocated in 2013 from the family mansion in Altenberg to Klosterneuburg, near Vienna, still plays an important role in the university research community. A second institute named for Lorenz is located in Grünau.

In addition to his gift for detailed recording of the instinctive behavior of animals, he also rigorously avoided any form of animal cruelty during his research. He was also one of the first to warn of the ecological dangers of market economics. His thoughts upon receiving the Nobel Prize reveal that perhaps because of the role that his research played during the Nazi regime, he recognized the moral and ethical problems associated with the misuse of scientific research.

He concluded that

“The competition between human beings destroys with cold and diabolic brutality…. Under the pressure of this competitive fury we have not only forgotten what is useful to humanity as a whole, but even that which is good and advantageous to the individual….”

Perhaps that’s why he advocated choosing mates based not on looks or wealth, but the quality of kindness, as the best hope for the future of mankind. His research proved that while we, like animals, possess instinctive behavior, as humans we also have the capacity to override our instinctive behavior and choose cooperation.

If you are intrigued by Konrad Lorenz, like I am, you can find here another article posted earlier on Konrad Lorenz and how he proved the “biological mother” can be utterly ignored.

instinctive behavior
Lorenz and Tinbergen. Source: Wikimedia Creative Commons

September 23,2015  |

Ethology and Parenting: Can Instinct be Learned?

Ethology is the study of non-human animal behavior under natural conditions with the goal of learning about more about how species develop adaptive traits in response to changing social and environmental conditions. Charles Darwin’s work was instrumental in the development of the field of ethology. His theory of evolution enabled scientists to begin viewing mankind as a part of the natural world rather than a uniquely separate species. The knowledge obtained from studying animals and their behavior has contributed a great deal to understanding human behavior. Separating the myths surrounding the concept of mother’s natural instinct from fact has been an important aspect of this research.

The concept of imprinting was first studied by Nobel prize-winning ethologists Konrad Lorenz, Nikolaas Tinburgen, and Karl Von Frisch. By studying the behavior of birds, it was concluded that baby birds emerged with the ability to bond with their mothers within a matter of hours. In the 1960’s researchers began to apply ethology to research on child development. One of the most interesting questions ethologists have attempted to answer is whether a human mother’s natural instinct is a biological reality or a social construct.

Mother’s Natural Instinct and Biology

Research methods used in ethology were used to learn more about the human mother’s natural instinct and whether the same imprinting process took place in human infants. According to ethological theory, which focuses on genetics and biology, babies are biologically prepared to behave in ways that establishes a bond with their caregivers. Ethologists believe that these behaviors are evolutionary adaptations that improve the chances for survival. The ethological school of motherhood is one that subscribes to attachment theory.

Rather than imprinting like birds, human bonding has been termed “attachment”, a term used by John Bowlby to describe the process. He agreed with the ethological view that human babies are biologically programmed to form attachments that will ensure their survival. He stressed the importance of successful bonding with the mother above all others and theorized that the quality of the mother-child bond would serve as the model for all future relationships.

While Bowlby’s research and theories proved invaluable, later research revealed that biology may play a larger role in what is considered mother’s natural instinct than he realized when forming his attachment theory. Developmental psychobiologist Myron Hofer conducted experiments that challenged Bowlby’s theory of the internal working model of attachment. When rat pups were separated from their mother, they exhibited both physiological and behavioral changes. Changes were found in heart rate and body temperature, as well as exploratory behaviors. Hofer concluded that mother-infant interactions can actually control vital regulatory functions apart from cognitive factors.

Rat pups that received high levels of maternal licking and grooming had milder responses to threat and increased exploratory behavior – effects that lasted into adulthood, and more importantly, resulted in genetic changes that were passed on to the next generation. Individual differences in maternal behavior contributed to differences in the gene expression of their offspring. These findings proved important in changing the scientific view of mother’s natural instinct.

Mother’s Natural Instinct Versus Maternal Behavior

What has historically been viewed as the human mother’s natural instinct is actually a complex set of interactions between a number of biological and environmental elements. Bowlby’s original concept of attachment security has been expanded upon to show that attachment security is influenced by both biology and maternal temperament. Studies in which children have developed emotional attachments to various objects such as a blanket or a cuddly toy with which they comfort themselves when a parent is not available have provided further evidence of the human instinct to form attachments to that which represents safety as a means of survival.

The concept of mother’s natural instinct has resulted in a belief that all women are biologically equipped to provide adequate nurturing to their offspring. Effective parenting, rather than being the result of natural instinct, is in fact a complex set of learned behaviors. Future parenting behaviors are influenced by the type of parenting an individual has received in the past. Research that identifies the types nurturing behaviors that are most beneficial to children provides women with the opportunity to learn and practice those behaviors. Positive genetic changes result from those behaviors and can then be passed to the next generation. Providing information with the potential to improve the quality of life for future generations is perhaps the most important contribution science has made to mankind.

mothers natural instinct

January 6,2014  |