Instincts and the Fate of the Human Race



Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    11-15

ABSTRACT:  Instinctual motives of human beings are enumerated, and the logical conclusion is drawn that if we follow our instincts, the species will ultimately self-destruct.  Survival, then, depends on our willingness to consciously go against our instincts (what we first feel like doing).

KEY WORDS:  instinct, self-control, self-denial, evolution, prosocial behavior

Human beings have built-in behavioral inclinations which we call “instincts,” such as to love babies and to protect our loved ones.  By and large our instinctive response is the one that accords with what we “feel like” doing before we evaluate it and possibly modify it.  We may modify these instinctual motivations, as when we restrain ourselves from being overly possessive with other people’s babies or allow our children to experience some “hard knocks,” instead of protecting them, if we believe that they need those experiences to mature and be able to take proper care of themselves.  We use our conscious predictions about future outcomes to motivate us to make these modifications.  These modifications of our instinctual responses, then, require us not to do what we first feel like doing but instead to do something different.

People vary a great deal in their willingness to make these conscious modifications.  Some males do not restrain themselves from physically attacking other males who seem to be trying to “steal” their women, while some restrain that impulse and handle the situation more peacefully.  Some people are able to cut down on their calorie intakes as they get older and need fewer calories, and some are not willing to do so.  Some are able to modify their diets for better health, while others continue to eat what tastes best.

Here are our human instincts, which seem to have been bred into us over time.  They are things that we do “without thinking.”  (These observations stem from my forty-year career as a psychologist as well as my general observations of people around the world.)

1. to survive at almost any cost (even at the cost of harming others)

2. to enjoy and seek skin closeness (to nestle, to cuddle, to nurse)

3. to have sex

4. to form pair bonds (like marriage)

5. to have children

6. to nurture small living things, including our young

7. to protect and defend our families (and larger groups, such as tribes and countries)

8. to protect our territory (hunting ground, farming area, etc.)

9. to dominate whomever one can (mate, children, groups, employees,  one’s nation)

10. to do what “feels good” and gives us pleasure (choose certain foods, certain music, feel good about ourselves, etc.)

11. to avoid and to minimize pain (and to distort reality if it seems to help us to avoid pain)

12. to minimize anxiety (fears regarding what might happen)

13. to respond positively to our earthly environment (e.g., to appreciate its beauties, to feel calmer when we are out in nature)

Instinctive behavior is not what we would do if we thought before acting.  It is behavior that happens almost without thinking, and if we do think about what we are about to do, we may well choose to alter the behavior to make it conform better to the expectations of others and of society and to tailor it to accomplish our goals better than the instinctive behavior would do.  Instincts are probably “bred into us” through natural selection favoring certain combinations of emotions followed by behavior (e.g., feeling fear or terror at being attacked and then striking out toward the threat), through natural selection favoring certain brain structures or pathways.

It is useful to distinguish instinctive behavior from thinking, from our capacities, and from things that are natural to human beings because of our common experience.  Our cognitive operations—thinking, comparing, imagining–are not instinctive but rather are “natural” to us in the sense that as a result of experience interacting with our particular brain structures and stage of development, we naturally do and then refine these activities and learn to make use of them.  We have many capacities (to think, to conceptualize, to “learn” associatively, to condition emotions to experiences, to move using our muscles), and these are not instincts but behaviors arising “naturally” out of our genetic makeup and our development processes.

Many behaviors that feel natural or seem inevitable, like cooperating with others in working toward shared goals, are not instinctive but learned, by observation and/or necessity.  Cooperating, for example, is inevitable for human beings, since we cannot live adequately without cooperating and since we have the cognitive and emotional capacities to cooperate.  There was no need, therefore, for natural selection to select for instinctive cooperating, and hence cooperating per se is not instinctive.  On the other hand, there may well have been natural selection in favor of those who were better at cooperating, since there was survival value to being better at cooperating, but this selection was for the capacities to cooperate and not for the cooperating itself, which each of us learns very early that we must do to some extent.

Here are some further elaborations of the thirteen instincts.

1. We instinctively seek the conditions that will allow us to continue living, which comes to the fore when we do not have essential supplies (when we struggle to breath in a smoky atmosphere, when we steal to get food, when we kill for water if necessary or kill to stave off a sexual threat from a person outside of our pair bond for genetic survival).

2. Infants seek to feed from the bodies of their mothers, and they find pleasure and safety in being held.  (Seeking to feed is instinctive.  It is not clear whether the pleasure in skin closeness is learned from these early experiences as infants, or has itself become instinctive.)  People enjoy touching those they love or care for.

3. Human beings have awareness from puberty until death of sexual stimuli and objects and of their sexual feelings and desires, and they are in general motivated to pursue sex with every person attractive to them, unless they restrain themselves (modify their instinctive inclination).  The desire for attractive others is the hardest of instincts to modify (viz., the problems that celibate priests have with this, the daydreams we have, our fascination with observing others being sexual through books and movies, our proclivity to have “affairs”).  Who we are sexually attracted to is very close to being unmodifiable, which results in a great deal of emotional pain since attractions are so often not mutual.  Our constant sexual interest often leads to sexual liaisons outside of committed relationships.  Sexual dissatisfaction is a frequent threat to marriages and the homes they provide for children.  Competition for desirable sexual partners sometimes leads to violence.

4. We seek the pleasures of pair bonds, as in marriage, cohabiting, and friendships.  This helps us in terms of survival and gives us the pleasures of stimulation and of enlarging our psychic worlds.  This instinct is stronger in women, who have need of male protection for themselves and their children.

5. Children are often the unplanned result of sex, but women in particular seem to have an instinctual drive to have children (or at least to be taking care of children).  This seems to be in addition to any practical benefits of having children, such as having additional workers or having someone to take care of parents when they are old.  For men, having children is more of a desired symbol of success as a male or is motivated by wishing to recreate their own early family environments than it is an actual instinct to have children.  When the number of children created is greater than the environment’s capacity to support the group, it can result in starvation and violent competition for additional territory.

6. Both men and women (though women more than men) instinctively wish to nurture small living things—not only their children but small animals as well.

7. We instinctively act to protect and defend our families and other groups that we are a part of, such as tribes and countries, and we are perfectly willing to kill those who pose a threat to these groups (regardless of any moral belief that killing others is wrong).  We are even willing to kill people whom we find threatening who have not attacked us, if we fear attack from them (pre-emptive war).

8. We instinctively act to protect territory that we perceive as “ours” and which we assume to be necessary for our survival.  This is the source of many wars, as neighbors envy our resources and as populations expand and groups “need” more territory to support these populations.

9. We instinctively attempt to dominate those around us, and the cascade of who dominates whom forms our “status hierarchy.”  This ensures that most human societies are hierarchical (which makes democracy unusual and hard to maintain).  Domination operates largely through control—that one can order the ones whom one dominates to do what one wants them to do.  Being in a dominant position brings a bit of a thrill and satisfaction, just as beating up another person physically or winning a war brings considerable pride and satisfaction (at least to males).

Being able thus to control the behavior of others around us obviously has some survival and reproductive advantages (getting the most money, being the last one in the lifeboat, mating with the most reproductive females).  In order for domination to form a stable hierarchy, though, most of us must also be able to be dominated–i.e, to both dominate those below us and allow ourselves to be controlled by those above us.  It might appear that women are more accepting of domination than men, but this may also be simply the result of socialization (for nurturing versus fighting) and the fact that women, emotionally, need men more than men need women (to protect them and their young).

Dominance hierarchies (status hierarchies) serve to minimize violence over how to distribute the goods available to the group (who gets more or less of the available food, money, etc.), but they also result in greater sadness and less self-esteem in those who are further down in the hierarchy, which also reduces the ability of those in lower positions to function optimally and assist the community to thrive.  Slavery and the status of women as property in many societies in the past and the slow “progress” over the centuries toward greater equality in spite of gender and ethnicity illustrate how status struggles by those in lower positions never end.

Dominance is clearly instinctual, but it could be argued that status has become its own separate instinct by now in our evolution, but it is also possible that it is learned as we experience parents and other authority figures favoring either ourselves or others.  Either way, the desire for status (and therefore getting more of the resources available than those lower in status) engenders struggle and conflict (and even violence) as some try to gain status at the expense of others.

10. We are built to gravitate toward experiences that we like (that “feel good” to us).  Thus, we organize our lives around pleasures as much as possible, including as a first priority food and comfort.  We have great difficulty refraining from experiences that feel good but are destructive to us in the long run (drug addiction, extramarital affairs, alcohol, high salt, sugar, and fat foods).  One mental state that we particularly prize is feeling good about ourselves (having positive self-esteem), and we constantly seek to think things and do things that indicate to us that we are valuable and worthwhile, such as seeking attention, seeking social approval, seeking social status, seeking achievements, comparing ourselves favorably to others, and providing well for our families.

11. We are built to avoid and minimize pain, both physical and psychological.  We will do almost anything that we think might help to accomplish this. We respond to fear by efforts to rid ourselves of it, usually by striking out against the source of our fear.  For psychological pain, we learn in childhood various mental “tricks” (psychological “defenses” such as repression and denial) to reduce unpleasant emotions and feelings, most of which involve some distortions of reality.  These distortions, if relied upon in decision-making, can result in unfortunate mistakes for our lives.  In addition, living in general requires some toleration of pain, since human beings make mistakes frequently and often fail in their goal-attainment efforts, which can result in physical injuries and emotional pain.  An extreme attitude regarding pain avoidance leads to over-focus on pain reduction and avoidance, which takes away energies from goal-attainment efforts and thereby makes the person a net liability to the community.

12. In the psychological realm, we particularly try to avoid and minimize anxiety, which is the fear of possible harm in the future.  We do this by ordering our lives as much as possible to provide for our safety and for our survival (e.g., establishing reliable supply chains for food, building houses that will withstand the weather, creating defensive devices such as security systems to minimize intrusion, minimizing threats of various kinds, such as living in gated communities and engaging in pre-emptive wars to make sure that another group will not attack us in the future).  We feel fear and anxiety when we are around those who are different from us and whose behavior we therefore cannot predict reliably, and this particular fear is the cause of much human suffering.  We often deal with this fear and anxiety by distancing ourselves from those who are different, degrading them, or killing them.  As noted above, an over-focus on anxiety avoidance and reduction greatly reduces a person’s productive capacities.

13. It appears that we have evolved to feel pleasure upon perceiving some aspects of our earthly environment.  We enjoy sunsets, pretty clouds, landscape views, and natural “wonders,” and we feel more calm when “surrounded by nature” than when we are isolated from it in buildings and cities.

For the argument in this essay to be convincing, it is important to understand that motivation is a product of emotions and needs, not of thinking.  We may put our goals into words with our minds, we may think about how to reach our goals after we have identified those goals, and we may modify our goals based on whether we think they are achievable, but we do not originate goals in our conscious, thinking minds.  Whenever the goal achievement cycle is initiated, an emotion, feeling, or need starts the process, which can be detailed as [ emotion/need > (possible conscious awareness of emotion/need and cogitation for picking a route to the goal) > goal-oriented behavior (either conscious or unconscious) > goal achievement, or if not, then relinquishment of the goal ].  For many goals and goal-oriented behaviors, awareness is not necessary.  You leave the store “knowing” that you are going home because that is where you want to be, but you are not really thinking about it or conscious, and your behavior in getting home is relatively automatic.  Some recent laboratory research has discovered that the initiation of goal-oriented behavior (starting the behaviors needed to reach the goal) can begin before the individual is even aware consciously of the emotion or need!  The salient implication of this is that quite a bit of our behavior is carried out unconsciously, with little or no thought.


The assertion in this essay is that if we continue to operate mainly from instincts 3, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 without significant modification through greater consciousness, then the human race is going to destroy itself.

3. to have sex

5. to have children

7. to protect and defend our families (and larger groups, such as tribes and countries)

8. to protect our territory (hunting ground, farming area, etc.)

9. to dominate whomever we can

10. to do what “feels good” and gives us pleasure (choose certain foods, certain music, feel good about ourselves, etc.), especially with respect to status and self-esteem

11. to avoid and to minimize pain (and to distort reality if it seems to help us to avoid pain)

12. to minimize anxiety (fears regarding what might happen)

#3/#5  The problems that arise around sex–conflicts and violence in competition for preferred mates, marital unhappiness, and fidelity failure–are so common and well known that we take them as an aspect of human reality that we can do nothing about.  Our constant sex drive and sexual awareness have no doubt helped the species to survive its early difficult times, but it is now moving us toward having insufficient resources to support everyone on the earth and probably, eventually, to mass starvation, epidemics, and/or war to reduce the population.

#5/#7/#8  World population is out of control (even though some data suggest that improving quality of life and more education and work outside the home for women show some hope of controlling population growth).  Over-population has always led to conquests, genocides, and unwanted migrations—i.e., war and other killing on a large scale.  Every time a group gets too big to support itself inside its current territory, it instinctively turns to trying to take territory from adjoining groups.  Since we will all instinctively defend our families and our resource territories, population pressures always lead to gains and losses by different groups.  In the modern world, one non-violent response to over-population would be for all groups to agree to share a lower standard of living, but barring this, increasing populations will inevitably lead to poisoning the environment and war (since group and individual survival will take precedence over all other motives).

#9  The struggle for status and dominance as means to a better life or at least to feeling that one is “better than” those of lower status can be serious and even deadly for some people.  Fortunately the majority of human beings seem to be willing to accept their status level (as well as dominate whomever they can), but the small number who can’t seem to tolerate being without great status and dominance over others create danger for the rest of us when their struggle for status involves violence or mistreatment of others and when as leaders they extend their obsession with status to trying to out-status the leaders of other countries, a behavior that can readily lead to war and destruction for large numbers of citizens.

#10  In our age of relative wealth and more non-work time, our instinct to follow what feels good is leading to dissolution, suffering, and societal disintegration through irresponsibility.  Our species is adapted to hard work for survival, and we are poor at managing leisure.  An indolent life leads to bodily deterioration and ennui.  Eating the foods that taste best to us (sugar, salt, fat) gives us health problems.  Finding altered states of consciousness through substances, whether prescribed or not, in order to reduce physical pain, emotional pain, and anxiety is leading to more addictions, which almost inevitably lead to losing jobs, losing families, and self-hatred.  Engaging in hours every week of enjoyable observation of violence and domination struggles, through TV, social media, and movies, changes our view of reality, leading us to think that violence and domination are normal and therefore OK.

#11  Our instinct to minimize pain has maladaptive results when individuals interpret it to mean that they should have an expectation of having no pain at all, and this view is becoming more common, partly due to advertising of medicines and physicians’ inability to say “no” to patients.  This is the aim of the use of so many pain relieving drugs, both legal and illegal.  (The current epidemic of young people in college demanding not to hear anything from others that upsets them is one of the outcomes of this philosophy.)  Over-concern about pain relief leads to lower levels of functioning for many individuals.

In order to be mature, we must learn to pause before responding behaviorally to pain and to our other painful emotions.  This pause allows us to use our cognitive capacities to evaluate the threat and the situation, as opposed to responding defensively (often aggressively) to immediately do away with the source of our fear or other painful emotion.  This pausing is natural to us, in the sense that we have potential capacities to thus respond more adaptively than simply responding instinctually.

#12  Our drive to relieve ourselves of anxiety can have deadly consequences.  It is probably inevitable that most of us will feel anxious about daily survival-related things that we cannot control (the weather, the crops, finding a mate, keeping our loved ones safe, etc.), but this can become a desire to control as much as we can, which means trying to force others to do as we wish—to be as we want them to be so that they will give us what we want from them, etc.  Control can become an obsession, and those who are highly anxious and have high needs for control are quite willing to harm others in order to quell their anxiety and feel in control.

It is difficult for many people to acknowledge and accept that they are driven in large part through unconscious processes and instincts that they have little control over.  We train people in our society to view themselves as having conscious control over their behavior, which naturally extends to believing that their behaviors are consciously motivated.  Some would even claim that a person should not be held accountable in a legal sense for things he or she has no control over (genetics, family background), but if this is accepted, it will lead to greater lawlessness and irresponsibility.  Of course, most of us already use conscious means to control some of our behavior, including instinctual behavior, and this is going to be increasingly essential for the survival of the species, but this requires purposely not doing some of the things that we initially “feel like” doing, and our consumer society promotes the concept that we shouldn’t have to do this (Have it your way at Burger King, take an Advil).

So, in summary serious problems are going to arise because

unrestrained sex and procreation will lead to resource

countries will compete ever more strongly for remaining

countries will work even harder to dominate other countries,

aggressive instincts will motivate countries to take over the
resources of other countries through war,

and aggressive instincts and fear of other countries and people
who are different will motivate continued development of
weapons and will motivate some group, country, or countries
eventually to use weapons of mass destruction, believing that
it is necessary for their survival.

The result, given the destructiveness of even the weapons we have now, is likely to be a “nuclear winter” (the earth being so cold for several years that everything will die) or the deaths of all human beings from radiation sickness.


Some will advocate for genetic tinkering to make people less aggressive and/or less interested in sex, but lessened interest in sex could disrupt many marriages and child-rearing families.  We don’t know how much sex does to keep couples together, even when the sex is not particularly “good.”  Genetic tinkering, of course, is in its infancy, and since “everything affects everything else,” and we can’t predict all of the effects of gene modifications, it could result in some unanticipated negative outcomes, even if it does reduce aggressiveness.

Other things that can be done to modify instinctual behaviors, when appropriate, fall largely in the personal change realm.  In other words, potential change in behavior comes from changes in insight and attitude.  The reader may question whether his individual efforts to change will make any difference in global outcomes, which is the same question people ask themselves when considering whether to put effort into conserving the world’s resources.  Will my small contribution make any difference?  The answer is of course that your individual contribution won’t change the global statistics but can significantly impact the lives of those around you.  If you raise children who seek first to get along with others by understanding them and taking their needs and feelings seriously, you will have a significant impact.  You are also a model for others, since we all look to everyone around us for clues for the best ways to live.  Aside from the question of impact on the world, making changes within yourself that lead to thoughtfully considering all of the consequences of your actions, including their impact on others, and taking the needs and feelings of others seriously will lead you to feel more calm and peaceful within yourself, to feel happier with yourself, and to be more successful in life in general.

#3  to have sex

Our sexual “drive” cannot be reduced, except perhaps by genetic tinkering, so we can only reinforce the importance (sanctity?) of agreements between partners regarding fidelity, and make more help available to solve sexual relationship problems for people.  Many people won’t go to anyone for help for sex problems, as it seems too embarrassing, so if doing so were to become more common, more people would get the help.  A related issue would be how “good” does sex have to be for it to be satisfactory for both partners, since every person and every relationship have their limits in regard to sexual behavior and roles.  This would challenge all of us to be more accepting of what we have and of these limits, rather than idealizing sex and other pleasures to a point that can never be realized in an endless search for “more.”

Regarding fidelity (which seems to be a permanent issue for human beings, the “open marriage” gambit having proved to be unacceptable to most people), perhaps an expectation could be established in society that before having sex outside of marriage, the individual would inform his/her partner.  This would of course result in immediate efforts to identify and address any problems that were leading to the contemplated infidelity, and this could result in earlier break-ups if that effort led one or another of the parties to realize that the marriage was untenable anyway.  It might also make us more accepting of partners who would rather tolerate a partner’s “affair” than lose the marriage.

With respect to sex, it would help to educate your children about the various forms of sexuality (homosexuality, heterosexuality, autosexuality) and how sexual behavior influences relationships (bonding, trust, pregnancy, family planning, infidelity, expectations of partners, STD’s) so that they will understand the importance of their decisions.  An open and accepting attitude is essential if you are to model a tolerant attitude toward sexual diversity.  If you do not model this attitude, you will be contributing to continued mistreatment of people on the basis of their sexual orientation and identity.

#5  to have children

Human beings will of course continue to have children, but the numbers of those children must be controlled by someone, to prevent mass deaths as groups vie to keep or obtain dwindling global resources.  Many put their faith in science to always come up with new discoveries (and greater crop yields) that will stave off disaster due to unlimited population growth, but even science seems unlikely to be able to do this given recent rates of population growth (doubling in thirty years?).  There is encouraging evidence, however, that greater wealth in general and greater education and decision-making power by women may be sufficient to enable the species to get to a replacement-only level of childbirth without government mandates such as China’s recent one-child-only policy.

To achieve these conditions—greater wealth and more power for women—will be difficult, though, because a large percentage of the world’s people are still poor.  (In addition, undeveloped countries rightly view the developed countries as being responsible for most of the threats to our environment and are unwilling to continue to be poor just to enable us to control such things as global warming.)  Developed countries will probably have to pay considerable amounts of money in investment and development in order to quicken the transition to relative wealth for everyone on the planet.  Unfortunately this development will probably contribute to global warming, and careful calculations will have to be made about balancing wealth-growth and carbon emissions.  Non-carbon power sources will be helpful, though it is not clear yet whether they can supply very much of the world’s energy.  It remains to be seen whether developed countries will undertake this development program for poorer countries, in their own long-term interest, and if they do not, then government mandates regarding having children will end up being necessary.

Better birth control behavior is obviously essential for population control, and resistance to and ignorance about birth control methods are then impediments to achieving population control.  Continued efforts to educate people around the world about birth control methods is essential in the coming decades.

It would help to educate your children about the realities of population (the results of over-population, the realities of caring for children (without romanticizing it), and available birth control methods.  You may not be taken seriously if you have more than 2.2 children!

#7  to protect and defend our families (and larger groups, such as tribes and countries)

This instinct is probably not one to alter, but the world would be more peaceful and people would get along better in general if we could train ourselves not to defend ourselves so automatically.  It would be helpful if we could learn that every dispute between groups can be settled through understanding and compromise, and that most of the time giving up something to get something else (compromise) is a more profitable and peaceful approach to differences.  The instinct for survival is part of the motivating power behind defending ourselves and our families and nations, but the killing involved in violent solutions to conflicts may be worse in most cases than the losses involved in compromise.  The instinct to respond violently may have aided the survival and expansion of the species in early times, but it now results in more harm than good.  It is a special challenge for males to modify this instinct.

It will help everyone in the future if you educate your children to look first to understanding others and compromising in regard to conflicts, before turning to violence as a last resort.  You can achieve this by showing them in your behavior that you yourself make an effort to understand the needs and feelings of others and then use this knowledge to help you to negotiate acceptable compromises around matters of dispute.  In only a few cases (usually in holding the line with children) is an uncompromising stance the most appropriate choice (and then only after assessing what you wish to teach your children by your stance).

#8. to protect our territory (hunting ground, farming area, etc.)

This instinct will never be nullified, but it could be better directed.  All of the world’s land territory is now claimed by some country or other, so even though the distribution may favor some and not others, it is probably more useful to make current boundaries inviolable.  A worldwide pact could be established in which every country pledges to aggressively defend any signatory country from territorial incursions or thefts, similar to the current NATO arrangement.  If any country elected not to sign, it would make clear that country’s maintenance of its “right” to take someone else’s territory if possible.  That country would then be treated differently from other countries, and various sanctions could be considered as well.

It will help to train your children to think that any effort to take the territory of another group is not just “bad” or dangerous but is actually immoral, including such efforts by one’s own group.  This is a sub-detail of a more general attitude that it is wrong to steal.

#9  to dominate whomever we can

Dominance hierarchies can be useful as one way of minimizing conflict and violence over the distribution of available resources (those higher up in the hierarchy get more), but they are not necessary for the peaceful and productive functioning of a society.  As noted above, a fair amount of interpersonal interactions is aimed at establishing or maintaining dominance (bowing to the king, taking criticism without responding, getting a close parking spot, having more expensive clothes or a more expensive car, etc., etc.)–claiming that one is “better than” certain others and demonstrating that “fact” by these behaviors.  The only alternative is a system of basic equality of worth of all individuals, and the best response to dominance attempts is to voice or demonstrate that view.  We may still accord the President some “perks” and an exaggerated respect, but we should be clear in our minds every moment that he or she is no “better than” the homeless people in the park next to the White House.  The important point is to separate the immediate value of someone to us from that person’s basic worth as a human being.  The President may be more important to us at the moment than the homeless person, but this is because he or she performs some important functions that affect our lives.  He or she does not have more basic worth than the homeless person, and how we treat others should be determined largely on the basis of their basic worth rather than how important they are to us at the moment (which will change over time).  This does not mean treating everyone exactly the same, and members of one’s immediate family will of course get more attention and love from us than the homeless person we do not know, but we can treat everyone, including the homeless person, with the same basic respect, courtesy, and fairness.

It would be a great help to give your children the attitude that everyone is worthwhile and that basically everyone is of equal worth (regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, country of origin, criminal history, etc.).  This means that you make and accept no justifications for mistreating others on the basis of presumed value, that you believe that no one “deserves” any more than anyone else in life, and that you treat all people with equal respect in your daily life (and your home life).  If you don’t do this, you will be supporting the idea that it is OK to take advantage of others if they are perceived to be of less value.

#10  to do what “feels good” and gives us pleasure (choose certain foods, certain music, feel good about ourselves, etc.), especially with respect to status and self-esteem

To preserve the well being of all, we must always consider our impact on others before acting.  The most fundamental moral principle is not to harm others, and this naturally extends to our pleasure-seeking behaviors that could cause harm to others, such as crime and addictions that we enjoy, and our tendencies to try to “win” and be better than others.  Seeking to feel good without taking others’ needs and feelings into account at all is selfishness.  Seeking our own good at the expense of others will always cause conflict and violence in society.  This extends to actions of nations, too, so that if one nation tries to gain something it wants at the expense of another nation, conflict will result and possibly war as well.

In order to have a peaceful and orderly society in which everyone is relatively happy requires that we always assess the impact of our behavior on others and make this a factor in deciding whether or not to proceed with the behavior. Knowingly proceeding with behavior that we know will harm others is always “wrong” if we have alternatives, and it always leads to conflict and may lead to violence.  (It is possible to have a society structured in such a way that it is peaceful and orderly on the basis of oppression, but many in such a society will not be happy.)

The other requirement for a peaceful and orderly society in which most citizens can feel happy is the principle that all of us are basically equal.  This does not mean that everyone receives the same resources or rewards but that every person deserves the same respect, courtesy, fairness, and consideration as everyone else.  This should apply no matter the person’s status or history, so the poorest and those with a criminal history deserve the same basic respect, courtesy, and consideration as your family members.  (They may also receive significant negative reinforcements from us for their behavior, of course, but this does not have to include loss of basic respect.)  This does not mean treating everyone exactly the same, and members of one’s immediate family will of course get more attention and love from us than the homeless person we do not know, but as noted above we can treat everyone, including the homeless person, with the same basic respect, courtesy, and fairness.

Human survival is not easy, even if it appears to be so to some of us in this day and age, in which our communities are organized for meeting all of our needs (food stores, electric service, sewers, etc.).  We are approaching a time when all the necessary work of society will be done without everyone having to “work,” which means that some people will be without jobs (due to greater efficiency and the use of computers and robots).  Human beings have not evolved to thrive in this kind of life.  Every adult human being can take better care of himself than any other human being can, so acting to meet one’s needs and wants produces a better life than being simply passive and taking what is given by others, both because doing good things for ourselves (including working for our benefits) conditions us to like and appreciate and feel good about ourselves and because others cannot know our wants and needs as well as we do ourselves.  Thus, it is important for our emotional health that we be working successfully to produce at least some of our desired outcomes in life.  People who do not contribute to their welfare by working usually end up being either relatively passive or relatively self-centered, and they do not like or appreciate themselves, which often leads to depression and ennui.

Even though every adult can take care of himself better than any other individual can, at the same time it is also true that we need others (many others) to survive and have a decent life.  Societies include people doing many different functions, from leading the country to collecting refuse, and we could not have the quality of the lives we have without all of them.  In order for large groups of people, all of whom are different and unique in their constellation of priorities, needs, want, and beliefs, to live together harmoniously, each individual must give up some personal freedom and the expectation of having things just as he or she wants them to be.  We can’t each have the exact mix of television programs that we would like, so we choose from a conglomeration of the most commonly desired programs.  We can’t have a President who agrees totally with us, so we choose the candidate whom we believe will represent our interests the best.

Acting in our own interests without viewing others needs and wants as important, too, produces conflict and violence, and not working to produce some of our own good outcomes leaves us purposeless and often depressed.  Citizens who are purposeless and/or depressed are not contributing to the health and welfare of the community and are likely to act in ways that harm others and the community.  If you do not take care yourself of yourself and those dependent on you, you will be illustrating for your children that it is OK to live off of others.

It will help if you raise your children to be able to pause before acting in order to consider carefully all of the consequences of their intended behavior, including their impact on others.  Help them to understand that taking others’ needs and feelings into account will aid in figuring out what is truly best for themselves.  Showing them how to do this by your example is the best way.

#11  to avoid and to minimize pain (and to distort reality if it seems to help us to avoid pain)

Human life necessarily involves pain, since emotional and physical pain are our warning signals to ourselves that something is wrong and that we may be in danger.  We cannot function properly without our pain responses, so our attitude toward pain should be to evaluate it as a warning and take steps to protect our bodily integrity and our functioning (e.g., supporting our bodies in healing, taking fewer physical risks, getting another job if our present one is driving us crazy, keeping a firm hold on our sense of reality so that we don’t try to deal with fear or other emotions by blaming others and don’t pretend that the pain doesn’t exist).  It is not in our best interest to think that all pain should be removed from our lives.  Small pains are better tolerated than for us to spend time and effort to get rid of them, as long as tolerating them will not jeopardize our future, so the American quest for pain relief from every pain is misguided and will result in worse emotional health and resilience.

One of the pains that often results in negative interactions is the pain of receiving verbal criticism, but this need not be a cause for violence (verbal or physical) if we could establish the general expectation that everyone should assess the truth of the criticism and evaluate the potential implications (will it make any difference in our lives?) before responding in any way.  This could easily be taught in schools, which these days are giving more attention to how children get along with each other.

Many people grow up being trained to respond to any criticism (and the emotional pain it triggers) immediately and forcefully, probably with the aim of silencing the criticizer or “putting him in his place” and by implication asserting that the criticism is not true.  A calm assertion (non-verbally and verbally) of our basic worth in the context of the content of the criticism is the most productive response, since it undercuts any implication of devaluation intended in the criticism, and it permits an examination of the truth or falsity of the criticism.  We should establish an expectation and train our children to deal with a true or justified criticism by accepting it, and, if desired, to indicate what they wish to do about it, if anything.

Many people are especially sensitive to criticism of their parents or their country, but we would be better off in response to such criticisms if we evaluated the truth of the criticism before responding.  No parents and no country are perfect, and criticism does not always equate to attack.  Automatic defense or counterattack makes it clear that we do not operate on the basis of reality but on the basis of feelings alone, and people who do this cannot be trusted.

Often criticism is used to establish dominance, and the content of the criticism is unimportant to the criticizer.  This should be responded to with this same calm assertion of value and worth, since that directly counteracts the dominance claim.  Societally, the correct (most useful) stance for nullifying dominance attempts is to assert the basic equality of all people, so that dominance is denied its importance.

A particular pain worth mentioning is the pain (which is actually shame) of not upholding one’s honor or the honor of one’s family.  Honor is one way that human beings have devised to ensure that we all conform to the community’s rules (because dishonor and the resulting shame hurts), but this method encourages over-emotional responses and often violence rather than reflection about the rules themselves, which may be at fault, or understanding and considering forgiveness, which may be more adaptive.  A family being “dishonored” by the non-virginity of a daughter is better dealt with in the modern world with understanding and forgiveness than by killing the daughter.  Killing the daughter does nothing about virginity (except scaring other girls about it), while its main effect is reducing the shame felt by the head of the family and others in the family, something that they should be able to do within themselves (since group relations work better when each person is responsible for his or her own emotions).  Perhaps the rule itself should be questioned, since there is little adaptive value for men to marry only virgins.  Marrying only virgins may protect the husband from raising another man’s child and may reduce slightly the likelihood that the woman will be unfaithful in the future, but these problems have other, more humane solutions than killing.

Youthful street gangs give another good example of excessive concern for honor.  Any insult, no matter how small, “must” be met with counterattack or one loses one’s honor and “cred” (credibility) and becomes more vulnerable to attack by others.  Because of this, words or gestures used by others with no intention of insult can get them killed.  The gang member reacting with violence actually has fragile self-esteem and a fragile position in the group and so is reacting strongly and precipitately, and in the long run the better reaction would be to recognize these fragilities and do something about them (get help, leave the gang).

When we are in pain, if we can’t deal with it quickly, there is a great temptation to identify someone or something as the cause, blame them, and try to get them to take away our pain by doing something different themselves (stop annoying us, give us what we want).  Often this identification is false and is done simply for the sake of identifying a cause, which makes us feel more in control.  We are also tempted to exercise the “defenses” we have learned (repression, denial, etc.), which in many cases creates a liability for us in the future.  It is difficult to refrain from blaming and defending, but this is absolutely essential for achieving the best possible solutions and outcomes, since dealing with reality is always better in the long run than avoiding it.

Symbols of uprightness or value, such as those involved in honor, are only symbols, and real value comes from fulfilling basic purposes.  An adequate sense of value and purpose can be had by individuals if they do all they can reasonably do to take good care of themselves and those who are legitimately dependent on them.  Nothing is more honorable than this.

It will help if you show others by your example that small pains can be tolerated without disruption of functioning and if you show people how to find the real cause of the pain (particularly psychological pains) and then take responsibility for doing whatever can be done about it.  Once again, personal example is the best way.

It will help if you also teach your children that truth is more important than protecting our emotions and that the truth should be faced even if it is unpleasant.  You must demonstrate this in how you respond to challenge and criticism in order to make it convincing.  If you do not believe these things, then you will be contributing to violent reactions to criticism and to differences of opinion.

#12  to minimize anxiety (fears regarding what might happen)

The pain of anxiety could be included in #11 (avoiding and minimizing pain), but it is so central to human functioning that it is useful to consider it separately.  Human beings are blessed with the ability to envision various possible futures and choose among them, but this ability also gives us the awareness that things can go wrong in the future, even leading sometimes to injury or death.  Naturally we are afraid of these possible negative outcomes, and if our expectations that in general things will turn out OK and we will be OK are not strong enough, then we lead lives of constant anxiety, because we know that things may go wrong, and we are unable in the present to guarantee that they will not go wrong.

The solution to this problem is to accept the true (not the exaggerated) probabilities that things could go wrong and decide what if anything to do in advance about those possibilities.  Human existence means living with many possible future problems (Southern California may run out of water, your next airplane ride might end in a crash, your next car ride could get you injured, etc.), so we live with these possibilities, mostly by not paying attention to them (which is basically denial), and the better response is to face our fear and accept some of these small chances.  Accepting small risks doesn’t change the probability that bad things will happen; your chance of things not turning out well are exactly the same if you accept the risks and don’t worry about them or if you worry about the risks and live a life of anxiety.  (Some people believe that worrying about something gives them at least a small amount of magical protection against it, but this is wishful thinking.)  The key to accepting these risks is giving up control.  If you require that you know for certain that things will be all right in order to relinquish your anxiety, you will never relinquish it (and you will cope only through denial and lying to yourself).

It will help the world if you model for everyone around you a thoughtful evaluation of the true risks you face, followed by a “rational” response (either change your behavior or life so as to make the risks smaller or simply accept responsibility for engaging in behaviors that could turn out wrong and let the chips fall where they may).


The key skills needed for effectively modifying our instinctual behavior are (1) recognizing in advance the likely consequences of all behavior (including instinctual behavior); (2) pausing before acting, to give oneself the opportunity to think of all of the consequences; (3) assessing the results of the modified (conscious rather than instinctual) behavior to be greater or more desirable than the gratifications stemming from the instinctual behavior; and (4) being willing to be satisfied with these alternative gratifications (or with doing nothing, if there are no feasible alternative behaviors).

Recognizing the likely results of our behavior is a naturally developing skill for human beings, since we all use it to choose the behaviors most likely to get us to our desired goals.  We sometimes fail in recognizing the likely results of our behavior, however, in those circumstances when we don’t want to give up the behavior in question, and we distort our awareness of consequences so we won’t have to modify the behavior.  It is easier for a parent to simply protect a child rather than give the child graduated learning experiences, many of which involve some frustration and even failures by the child during the learning process.  Some parents want to avoid the emotional pain that they would experience watching their children have frustrations and failures, so they hide from themselves that it would really be better for the child to have those experiences and hide from themselves that they want to avoid their own emotional pain more than they want to help their children prepare for adulthood.  So, the key to having adequate awareness of the consequences of our behavior is being willing to recognize when we are fooling ourselves or telling ourselves lies.

Being more accurately aware of what we are doing takes both the willingness to sometimes see things about ourselves that we don’t like and a habit of noticing what we are doing.  Being honest with ourselves about ourselves must seem more beneficial to us than hiding part of our behavior and motives from ourselves.  We must believe that making decisions while taking all of reality into account leads to more effective behavior and greater success in life than fooling ourselves and hiding from ourselves.

The habit of noticing what we are doing comes with practice, particularly with asking ourselves why we are doing what we are doing.  It helps to be curious about behavior in general and to be convinced that knowing accurately why we do what we do will help us have better lives.  Each of us is a complex and interesting person, if we take the attitude that seeing our foibles and errors does not have to lead to shame or guilt if we can be more accepting of ourselves.  (See my book “How To Feel Good About Yourself:  Twelve Key Steps to Positive Self-Esteem” (2003) for how to accept everything about yourself and still see yourself as a good person.)  Meditation and mindfulness are concepts and activities that help one to be more self-aware, and they can be practiced in a “Western way,” without any reference to Buddhism.

Pausing before acting is another naturally developing skill of human beings, analogous to the instinct of many animals to freeze in the presence of possible enemies.  We identify this in the advice to “count to ten” before acting on anger.  The reason that we sometimes do not pause before acting is that we want the immediate emotional pleasure and other results of carrying out the behavior, such as the pleasure in hitting back instead of using communication skills to solve a problem.  Again, the keys to developing better pausing are to be willing to see the truth about ourselves instead of obscuring it and giving ourselves excuses (“I couldn’t stop myself,” “I had no choice,” “He made me do it,” etc.), and to believe that a habit of pausing before acting will pay off in the long run in terms of fewer behavioral problems and better overall success.

In order to effectively modify instinctual urges it is necessary for one to believe that he or she ends up better off as a result of the modified behavior than with the unmodified instinctual behavior.  For example, if one discusses a marital problem with one’s spouse (the modified behavior) instead of hitting or verbally degrading the spouse (the instinctual response), the premise advanced here is that this will lead to overall better outcomes (potentially a “better” marriage, greater trust, more intimacy, versus the satisfaction that comes from expressing anger overtly toward the spouse).  This of course is a matter of valuing.  One must value the former outcomes over the latter, and one must be satisfied with the outcomes of the modified behavior.  The benefits of modified behavior tend to be longer-term than the benefits of instinctual behavior, so one must be able to take that longer-term view of outcomes and be satisfied with those outcomes, even though they require some waiting (“delay of gratification”).

In those instances where there is no active alternative to the instinctual behavior, and the better course of action is to do nothing, the outcomes of the modified behavior, in this case, doing nothing, will be seen in avoiding otherwise negative outcomes (physical injury, being arrested, losing friendships, etc.), and one must value avoiding these as much as one values the gratification of the instinctual behavior.  If it is true that the outcomes of the modified behavior are greater, then over time it should become clear to one that this is preferable, although there may be some persons for whom the emotional gratification of the instinctual behavior continues to be greater than the assessed outcomes of the modified behavior, and they will not form a habit of pausing (even though they may be able to pause in certain instances and will benefit in those instances).


You already modify some instinctive reactions so as to make them more socially acceptable, as when you hold your tongue instead of saying everything you feel out loud, so the urging here is to expand this choicefulness consciously, as far as you wish to.  We will always have instinctive reactions, and some of them are useful, like the impulse to defend oneself from immediate attack, but extending or generalizing these to every level of threat and to every group is leading us in the direction of apocalypse.  We need at least to modify the instinct to defend our larger groups, usually our nation, from every threat, so that we can decide carefully whether there really is a threat and what reaction will be best.  Here are some questions to ponder.

Are you willing to commit to not having a sexual liaison outside your marriage before telling your partner in advance, so that both can decide whether to work on or continue the marriage?

Are you willing to commit to never trying to convince or manipulate anyone to have sex with you and to simply take “no” or hesitance at face value, acknowledging that the other person really doesn’t want to engage?

Are you willing to commit to only having the children that you are already prepared to support and that will not represent a further drain on the environment?

Are you willing to decide rationally whether one of your groups needs defense, rather than acting on your immediate reaction to defend by counterattacking without appropriate consideration?  Are you willing to admit the wrongs your group has committed (your parents, yourself, your country), instead of denying them in order to justify defending?

Are you willing for your country to sign a pact never to take territory from another country and to come to the defense of any pact-signing country that is having territory taken from it by force by another country?

Are you willing to commit to never seeking advantage by trying to assert higher status than someone else (to claim that you are better than him or her or to claim that you “deserve” more than him or her because you are higher in status)?

Are you willing to commit to doing what is best for yourself, regardless of how much you might “like” or prefer the more instinctual behavior?  (This is not an urging never to have fun or enjoy anything but rather an urging to maximize your fun and enjoyment in the long term by not doing anything that harms yourself.)

Are you willing to commit to accepting small amounts of reasonably expectable pain, so that your life does not constrict in an effort to be pain free?

Are you willing to commit to making your peace with the ultimate unpredictability of human life, so that you can consciously choose which risks to truly accept?

If you move toward these goals, you will be doing your part to ensure the long-term survival of our species!