Instinct, Learning, and Emotion

Instinct, Learning, and Emotion

Theories about human instincts belong in two camps. “Nativists” believe our minds are complex problem solvers inherently; “Evolutionary” psychologists believe the mind is not general purposed, but an incorporation of “separate, modular, instinctive ‘calculators’.” To illustrate this, we can point to language which comes so naturally to humans. In the 1950s it was believed that language developed in children through conditioning (B.F. Skinner); Noam Chomsky argued that young children learn language instinctively with minimal input from the environment. He believed that human genes were responsible for the development of language, unique to humans (Hinshaw, 2010). More recent research has shown that children actually do learn language through modeling, verbal input and other environmental influences, not only through an innate instinct for language.

The debate between inborn capacities and instincts vs. the belief our minds develop through learning is not settled as is the debate over whether our minds are modular vs. general purpose. Another area of the mind under debate is the reconsideration of emotions. For at least 100 years, emotions were almost considered beneath the use of higher intellectual functioning of the human mind. We prided ourselves on rationality, reasoning and our thinking abilities. Spock-like, purely rational qualities were considered superior on the popular 1970s show Star Trek. But rather than mere obstacles to progress, emotions are now considered “action tendencies,” organizing our behaviors and responses to the environment, motivating action and letting others know our frame of mind. It is helpful to us and others to know if we are angry, sad, fearful or happy and inviting. Emotions are more than just our own subjective experience; they signal intention (Hinshaw, 2010).


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About the Author

Mary McFaddenMary has lived in the Sacramento, California area her entire life. Her undergraduate degrees were in Journalism and Music. Upon graduation she worked for small regional newspapers which launched her career in Sacramento’s city government. She worked several years as an aide to a city councilmember, then moved to the Sacramento Police Department where she worked for over 20 years. Mary worked in a unit providing community policing training to law enforcement throughout California and participated in several curriculum development meetings with the Department of Justice in Washington, DC. She then went on to be a creator and editor for many years of the Police Department’s publications, annual reports and website. While working for the City Council, Mary received her Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from The Professional School of Psychology (PSP). She is currently pursuing her Doctorate degree at PSP. Mary’s husband is also a graduate of PSP and they have two grown children. Her education in psychology has been an invaluable part of her professional and private life.

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