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INSTINCT AND THE UNCONSCIOUS
A CONTRIBUTION TO A BIOLOGICAL THEORY OF THE PSYCHO-NEUROSES
By William H.R. Rivers (1920)
Posted April 2000
Until now I have only been considering the relation between instinct and the unconscious from the standpoint of the individual. Taking the various forms of instinctive reaction to danger as my examples, I have illustrated the need for suppression and the value of the unconscious as means of preserving the life and the integrity of the individual, I have now to consider the additional factors which come into action when danger threatens a group of animals associated together, factors which in the case of Man will contribute to maintain the cohesion of society.
The instinct which has come into existence in order to produce and maintain the cohesion of the group is commonly known as the gregarious or the herd instinct. This is a complicated instinct which, according to the current opinion, is represented in Man by three chief processes according as it is viewed from the three aspects from which we are accustomed to regard mental process. The essential function of the gregarious instinct is that it shall lead all the members of a group to act together towards the common purpose of furthering the welfare of the group. On the motor side this common action is regarded as a process of imitation. The actions of every member of the group are said to be determined by the "imitation" of those of some one member of the group, this process of imitation being especially definite when the group has a definite leader.
Viewed from the side of feeling or affect, the gregarious instinct is seen as "sympathy," which in its most characteristic form is the process which produces in every member of the group [p. 91] any affective state which may arise in one of its number. Here, again, the sympathy is especially important from the standpoint of the welfare of the group when the member of the group whose affect is the object of the sympathy is its leader.
The third aspect from which it is possible, on the lines of human psychology, to view the gregarious instinct is the cognitive, including within the connotation of this word the cognitive aspect of sensation. The feature of the instinct which stands out from this point of view is usually known as "suggestion." Thus, McDougall defines suggestion as "a process of communication resulting in the acceptance with conviction of the communicated proposition in the absence of logically adequate grounds for its acceptance." If I were to use suggestion as a term for the cognitive side of the gregarious instinct I should prefer to define it as the process which makes every member of the group aware of what is passing in the minds of the other members of the group.
The chief object of this chapter is to point out that, though processes derived from the gregarious instinct may enter into the composition of conscious states, just as constituents of protopathic sensibility enter into the fully-developed cutaneous sensibility, they thus lose any individuality they may possess. When they are not thus fused with other later processes, they act unwittingly, and are to be numbered among the processes of the unconscious. When looked at from this point of view it is convenient to use the term suggestion, not as a name for the cognitive aspect of the gregarious instinct, but as a comprehensive term for the whole process whereby one mind acts upon another unwittingly. From this point of view suggestion can be put side by side with suppression as one of the processes of instinct. It is a process or mechanism of instinct rather than part of its content. Just as I have supposed that the process of suppression takes place unwittingly and cannot be produced, though it may be assisted, by witting repression, so do I now suppose that the process of suggestion works unwittingly and is not primarily set in action by voluntary process, though an effort of the will can [p. 92] set in action mental processes which assist suggestion and further its activity.
The unwitting character of suggestion also holds good of its three aspects, the motor or effector, the affective, and the cognitive. Thus, if "imitation" is used as a term for the motor or effector aspect of the gregarious instinct, it must be clearly recognised that the imitation is unwitting. It is this kind of imitation who is especially important in the life of the infant and in all those reactions upon which depend the special characters of the collective behaviour of Mankind. It is in this form that imitation is most effective. Witting imitation can never attain the completeness and harmony which follow the action of the instinctive process.
The use of one term for two processes, one witting and the other unwitting, is unsatisfactory, and another difficulty in the use of the term "imitation" for the instinctive process is that this term as ordinarily used applies especially to the person who, or the animal which, acts in the same manner as another, while in the unwitting process the attitude of the person whose actions are copied is just as important and requires denoting as much as that of the person who copies.
The differences between the witting and unwitting forms of imitation are so important that there is great danger of ambiguity and confusion if one term is used for the two processes. It would be far more satisfactory if a new term were employed for the unwitting process, and I propose in this book to speak of "mimesis" when I refer to it.
In the case of the affective aspect of the gregarious instinct the current term "sympathy" is more appropriate, for it implies the reciprocal and unwitting character of the process. It is generally recognised that, to be effective, sympathy must be spontaneous and wholly free from any voluntary forcing. It is the more real and the more effective the more unwittingly it comes into being.
In the case of the cognitive aspect of imitation the need for a new term is essential if the term hitherto used for this aspect is to be employed is a more general sense. If, as I propose, [p. 93] the term "suggestion" is to be used for the sum-total of the processes by which one mind acts upon, or is acted upon by, another unwittingly, it will be necessary to have another term for the process by which one person becomes aware unwittingly of any cognitive activity taking place in the mind of another. I propose to use the term "intuition" in this sense. Intuition will thus rank with mimesis and sympathy as one of the three aspects from which it is possible to view the comprehensive process of suggestion. It may be objected that this nomenclature leaves undenoted the cognitive activity which is intuited. This objection will come from the physician who, when he uses the term "suggestion" in a definite sense, usually has this active aspect in mind. He will object that the kind of suggestion he knows best is that which takes place in the consulting-room where he "suggests" and the patient reacts. From the standpoint of this book the process of the consulting-room is a specialised and artificial variety of the general process of suggestion, the artificiality lying in its witting use of a process which normally takes place unwittingly. If, as is probable, the physician prefers to continue to use "suggestion" in this limited sense, it will be necessary for him to find some other term for the more general process by which one mind acts upon, or is acted upon by, another unwittingly.
It may be remarked here that the uncertainty, if not confusion, which is so general concerning the meaning of suggestion is due to the failure to recognise that it belongs to a category of mental process widely different from the cognition, association, imagination, volition, and other concepts derived from the study of conscious mental states. As soon as we recognise that suggestion is essentially a process of the unconscious, and that its different aspects also have this nature, we have to renounce the clearness of definition which is possible in the case of the processes and products of consciousness. We have to be content with a concept which has a certain vagueness when considered from the purely psychological standpoint, while still remaining capable of exact use from the standpoint of biology. In the following argument, therefore, I propose to [p. 94] use suggestion with its three constituent processes as a term for a mechanism of the unconscious, for that aspect of the gregarious instinct whereby the mind of one member of a group of animals or human beings acts upon another or others unwittingly, to produce in both or all a common content, or a content so similar that both or all act with complete harmony towards some common end.
Assuming that animals whose common action is thus determined possess something we call mind, the effect of suggestion is to produce in all the members of the group a mental content so similar that all act with complete harmony towards some common end. There is reason to believe that the harmony so produced is more complete than is ever produced by the common possession of an idea or other form of intellectual motive. It is no great assumption that the more gregarious is a species of animal, the more perfect is its gregarious instinct. Since Man is very far from being completely adapted to the gregarious life, it will follow that the harmony produced by the action of suggestion in fully gregarious animals is more complete than is ever produced in Man, either by suggestion or by the presence in the social group of a common idea or other form of intellectual motive.
There is reason to believe that this superiority of the unwitting process of suggestion over intellectual process remains good among the different varieties of Man. Existing families of Mankind differ greatly in their degree of gregariousness and with this there seem to go different degrees in the potency of suggestion as a means of producing uniformity of social action. Thus, the Melanesian is distinctly more gregarious than the average European. His whole social system is on a communistic basis, and communistic principles work throughout the whole of his society with a harmony which is only present in certain aspects of the activity of our own society, and even there the harmony is less complete than in Melanesia. As an example of such harmony I give the following experience. When in the Solomon islands in 1908 with Mr. A. M. Hocart we spent some time in a schooner visiting different parts of the island of Vella [p. 95] Lavella. Whenever we were going ashore five of the crew would row us in the whale-boat, four rowing and the fifth taking the steer-oar. As soon as we announced our intention to go ashore, five of the crew would at once separate from the rest and man the boat; one would go to the steer-oar and the others to the four thwarts. Never once was there any sign of disagreement or doubt which of the ship's company should man the boat, nor was there ever any hesitation who should take the steer-oar, though, at any rate according to our ideas, the coxswain had a far easier and more interesting task than the rest.
It is possible that there was some understanding by which the members of the crew arranged who should undertake the different kinds of work, but we could discover no evidence whatever of any such arrangement. The harmony seems to have been due to such delicacy of social adjustment that the intention of five of the members of the crew to man the boat and of one to take the steer-oar was at once intuited by the rest. Such an explanation of the harmony is in agreement with many other aspects of the social behaviour of Melanesian or other lowly peoples. When studying the warfare of the people of the Western Solomons I was unable to discover any evidence of definite leadership. When a boat reached the scene of a head-hunting foray, there was no regulation who should lead the way. It seemed as if the first man who got out of the boat or chose to lead the way was followed without question. Again, in the councils of such people there is no voting or other means of taking the opinion of the body. The people seem to recognise instinctively, using this much misused word in the strict sense, that some definite line of action shall be taken. Those who have lived among savage or barbarous peoples in several parts of the world have related how they have attended native councils where matters in which they were interested were being discussed. When after a time the English observer has found that the people were discussing some wholly different topic, and has inquired when they were going to decide the question in which he was interested, he has been told that it had already been decided and that they had passed to other business. The [p. 96] decision had been made with none of the processes by which our councils or committees decide disputed points. The members of the council have become aware at a certain point that they are in agreement, and it was not necessary to bring the agreement explicitly to notice.
I am aware that the explanation of these examples of the great harmony of social life in savage peoples as due to suggestion rests upon evidence of doubtful value, and might be explained on other lines if our knowledge of the people, their language and behaviour, were more complete. It may be noticed, however, that this explanation has much to support it in our own society. The examples I have given are similar to the so-called process of thought-reading among ourselves. It is noteworthy that these processes are especially exemplified in the minor everyday behaviour of our community, behaviour comparable in some measure with the harmony of the boat's crew which so excited my wonder in Melanesia. A speculative Melanesian who watched the traffic in the streets of a great English town would be greatly struck by the harmony of the passage of people on the pavements in which the rarity of jostling is to be explained by an immediate intuition of the movements of others which takes place unwittingly with all the signs characteristic of instinctive behaviour. In the case of the roadway, the Melanesian would on inquiry learn the existence of definite regulations, but they would seem to afford insufficient explanation of the harmony of the traffic and the rarity of collisions. These examples are peculiarly appropriate to the present argument in that they have a definite relation to the welfare of the group and, at any rate in the case of the roadway, promote its safety as well as its comfort.
Another example among ourselves of suggestion, in the sense in which I am using the term, is social tact. This is of exactly the same order, though on a higher level of behaviour, as the social adjustments which are necessary in traffic or even [p. 97] in the ordinary intercourse of the home. Tact depends essentially on processes which take place unwittingly. It is a process in which one person becomes aware of what is passing in the mind of another or others, and it is noteworthy that this tact comes especially into play when the mental content thus intuited has the affective quality which, according to the argument of this book, is so strongly associated with instinctive reactions.
Having made as clear as its nature allows the sense in which I shall use "suggestion," I ran proceed to consider its functions, in relation to the danger-instincts. When a group of animals react to danger by means of flight it is certainly for the welfare of each individual that it shall act with the rest, but it is not so clear that complete uniformity is necessary in this mode of reaction. It may even be that in some cases individual safety, as well as the safety of the greatest number, would be promoted by flight in different directions rather than by the absolute uniformity which would result from a perfect process of suggestion. In the reaction by aggression again, absolute uniformity is not imperative. The safety of the greatest number may even be promoted if some members of the group adopt an aggressive attitude while the rest save themselves by flight.
It is when we come to the reaction by immobility that we meet with the most imperative need for uniformity of behaviour. It will, of course, be to the advantage of the greater number if a few members of the group take to flight while the rest become motionless, but among those who adopt the latter reaction, uniformity is essential. If the reaction by immobility were absent, or even imperfect, in only one member of the group, it would endanger the safety of the whole. The factors, such as the high degree of visual sensibility for movement, which make the avoidance of all motion so essential for the safety of the individual, would be equally necessary for the safety of the group. The function of suggestion is to ensure the absolute uniformity which is essential to the welfare of the group. There is thus an especial reason for the close association [p. 98] of suggestion with the instinctive reaction to danger by means of immobility, and for its special potency in this association.
The close association between suggestion and the instinct of immobility also furnishes a clue to the continued activity, or potentiality for action, of the suppressed tendencies to other forms of reaction. If the reaction by immobility fails, it is essential that it shall be at once replaced by some other mode of reaction, such as flight or aggression. The potentiality for one or other of these reactions must be there ready to come at once into play if the need arises. It is essential that suppression and the potentiality for full readiness of the suppressed activity shall go hand in hand. If, therefore, the association between suggestion and the suppression of the instinct of immobility is especially close, there will also be an association between suggestion and the potential activity of suppressed tendencies. We should expect to find suppressed tendencies to be especially prone to independent activity when they are derived from, or connected with, the reaction to danger by means of immobility. Moreover, the activity of animals who suddenly replace immobility by another kind of reaction has some similarity with the process of dissociation. The change from the reaction by immobility to that of flight is so great that animals practising the two kinds of reaction might be regarded as two personalities. One activity, when compared with the other, has some similarity with a fugue or other example of dissociation.
In an earlier chapter I have considered how far the "all-or-none" principle applies to the process of suppression to which I ascribe so great an importance in relation to instinct. I have now to inquire whether this principle applies to suggestion which I regard as the characteristic process of the gregarious instinct.
It will be evident at once that the examples I have given of suggestion imply a high degree of delicacy of appreciation of the states to which an animal or human being reacts, together with a corresponding graduation of the activity in which the reaction consists. If we regard suggestion as an instinctive [p. 99] process, it becomes necessary to give up completely the idea that the "all-or-none" principle is a character of instinct in general. The nature of suggestion shows with certainty that the principle cannot apply to all the processes or mechanisms of instinct. When considering suppression from this point of view it was found that though this process seems originally to have been characterised by the "all-or-none" principle, its reactions have ceased to show this character as the process became adapted to more complex conditions. Until now I have assumed that this process of adaptation depends upon the influence of the factors we group together as intelligence. The fully graded character of suggestion raises the question whether this process may not provide another means for giving a discriminative and graded character to suppression, the discrimination and graduation differing from those associated with intelligence in that they belong to the sphere of instinct and take place unwittingly.
It is important to note in this connection that suggestion belongs to an instinct which is concerned with collective as opposed to individual needs. This suggests that the protopathic forms of instinct characterised by the "all-or-none" principle are especially concerned with the welfare of the individual and that this principle had to be modified as soon as the collective or social life gave birth to new needs. As soon as it became necessary to adjust behaviour to that of other members of a group, the original "all-or-none" reactions had to be modified in the direction of discrimination and graduation. The presence in Man of both suggestion and intelligence shows that the early protopathic forms of instinctive behaviour were modified in two directions, one leading towards intelligence and the other towards suggestion and intuition. In Man the former has become, or perhaps more correctly may be gradually becoming, the more important, but suggestion still remains as a factor of the greatest potency in determining human behaviour, especially under certain conditions. In an earlier chapter I have suggested that the grading mechanism by which the protopathic reactions of the insect, or other exemplar of pure instinctive [p. 100] behaviour, have been graded are of a different order from that which has been effective in Man, and that it is the business of the student of insect behaviour to discover the nature of this grading principle. I have now to suggest that this grading principle may belong to the order of suggestion. It is noteworthy that the highest examples of innate discrimination and graduation occur in animals, such as ants and bees, in which the social life is especially developed. I now put forward the idea that we must look to suggestion and intuition for the clues through which we may hope to understand the nature of the powers by which the discriminative and graded character of the innate behaviour of the insect has been produced.
 I use "thought-reading" as a name for the unwitting transmission of ideas from person to person in the presence of one another as distinguished from the problematical telepathy or distant thought-transference.