Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

ISSN 1492-3173

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By William H.R. Rivers (1920)

Posted March 2000



Instincts my be classified as of three main kinds -- those of self-preservation; those which subserve the continuance of the race; and those which maintain the cohesion of the group, whether this group be a clump or herd of animals, or the more complex mass of individuals which makes up human society with its highly varied forms of grouping.

The instincts of self-preservation are concerned especially with the welfare of the individual. They may be divided into two main groups. One is of the more appetitive kind which subserves the function of nutrition, hunger and thirst being the chief representatives of the conscious states which accompany their activity on the side of attraction, while disgust is the mental correlative of the opposite state of repulsion from the harmful. This group of instincts includes not only the elementary instinct of sucking and the innate awareness of useful and harmful foods, but it is also concerned in the instinctive aspect of such a pursuit as hunting. It also takes a large part in the development of curiosity.

The other group of the instincts of self-preservation, made up of the reactions which serve to protect from danger, will be considered at length in this chapter.

The second main variety of instinct comprises those which subserve the continuance of the race. Here again they may be divided into two main groups-a more appetitive, making up the sexual instinct in the strict sense, while the chief constituent of the other group is the parental instinct with which, and with the sexual instinct, is associated the tender emotion. [p. 53]

The third main variety of instinct is concerned with the welfare of the group. Its main constituent is the gregarious instinct with its different aspects of suggestion, sympathy, imitation and intuition which I shall consider in a later chapter.

As in most branches of psychology, there are no sharp lines between these three varieties of instinct, and in many instinctive reactions more than one variety is involved. Thus, if we recognise acquisition as an instinct, this must be regarded as primarily an off-shoot of the instinct of self-preservation, which manifests itself strongly in connection with the sexual and parental instincts and plays a part in the higher developments the gregarious instinct. Again, if we acknowledge an instinct of construction, this can be regarded as primarily a manifestation of self-preservation, but its most complete and striking developments are connected with the parental occupation of nest-building, and with the social ends of the honey-bee. The gregarious instinct is closely interwoven with members of other two main groups of instinct. The instinct of play, which seems to be connected in some measure with self-preservation, as the practice of activities which will be useful to the individual in later life, manifests itself also in a striking manner in the playful performance of activities which have a strictly social purpose.

I propose to consider in this chapter that group of the instincts of self-preservation, the end of which is the protection or the animal or man from danger. I shall first describe the reactions to danger which can be objectively observed, and then attempt the more difficult task of connecting these with forms of emotion, or other forms of conscious response. Five chief forms of reaction to danger can be distinguished, other forms seeming to be modifications or combinations of these.

Flight. -- Flight from danger is probably the earliest and most deeply seated of the various lines of behaviour by which animals react to conditions which threaten their existence or their integrity. Flight may be regarded as a development of [p. 54] the reaction of repulsion from the noxious which is one of the fundamental modes of response to stimulation in those animals which are capable of mass-motion -- attraction towards the beneficial or useful; repulsion from the harmful. Those instinctive reactions in which animals seek special sources of safety may be regarded as developments, or modifications, of the instinct of flight, while the instinctive cry which so often accompanies flight is probably a still later development arising out of the gregarious habit.

Aggression. -- The second kind of danger-instinct is the reaction by aggression. This may be regarded as the opposite of flight. Since it will only come into play where the source of danger is another animal, this instinct must be later than that of flight, at any rate in its primitive form. Moreover, this kind of reaction would hardly be possible until an animal had reached a degree of development which endowed it with jaws and limbs fitted to act as instruments of offence and defence.

Manipulative Activity. -- I have had great difficulty in finding a term for the mode of reaction to danger I have now to consider. Originally I chose "pure serviceable activity," but since both flight and aggression are also serviceable, I have discarded this term in favour of "manipulative activity." This form of reaction is of great importance in the present discussion because it is the normal reaction of the healthy man. In the presence of danger Man, in the vast majority of cases, neither flees nor adopts an attitude of aggression, but responds by the special kind of activity, often of a highly complex kind, whereby the danger may be avoided or overcome. From most of the dangers to which mankind is exposed in the complex conditions of our own society, the means of escape lie in complex activities of a manipulative kind which seem to justify the term I have chosen. The hunter has to discharge his weapon, perhaps combined with movements which put him into a favourable situation for such an action. The driver of a car and the pilot of an aeroplane in danger of collision have to perform complex movements by which the danger is avoided. The beings which seem to come next to Man in this respect [p. 55] are the quadrumana or other animals with an arboreal habit, for this habit greatly increases the complexity of flight and needs a high degree of delicacy of adjustment of sense and movement. This must have formed a fitting ground for the development of the manipulative skill which forms Man's most natural response to danger.

Immobility. -- The three forms of reaction already considered resemble one another in that they involve definite activity on the part of the being, whether man or animal, threatened by danger. The mode of reaction now to be considered differs fundamentally from them in that it involves the complete cessation of movement, complete inhibition or suppression of the movements which would be brought into being by the instincts of flight and aggression, or by manipulation. The instinct which thus leads to the complete absence of movement seems to go very far back in the animal kingdom. It is often associated with purely physiological modes of reaction, such as changes in the distribution pigment, which increase the chances of safety of the animal by making it indistinguishable from its background. The instinctive reaction by means of immobility has the end of concealing the animal from the danger which threatens it, and this end of concealment is often assisted by other means, which may also be more or less instinctive in character.

Collapse. --This last form of reaction to danger is one which has greatly puzzled biologists. The reaction is usually accompanied by tremors or irregular movements which wholly deprive the reaction of any serviceable character it might possess through the paralysis of movement: Haller[1] has suggested that this form of reaction is useless to, or even prejudices the welfare of, the individual, it is useful to the race by eliminating, or helping to eliminate, the more timid members of the species. From this point of view the reaction would be a failure of the instinct of self-preservation in the interest of the continuance of the species. I think we shall take a more natural view of the reaction by collapse if we regard it as a failure of the [p. 56] instinct of self-preservation taking place in animals when instinctive reactions to danger have been so overlaid by reactions of other kinds that, in the presence of excessive or unusual stimuli, the instinctive reactions fail. It is noteworthy that collapse with tremor seems to be especially characteristic of Man in whom all the different modes of reaction to danger found in the animal kingdom are present in some degree, but no one of them so specially developed as to form an immediate and invariable mode of behaviour in the presence of danger.

There is evidence also that collapse and tremor occur especially when there is frustration of an instinctive reaction. Thus, Brehm[2] describes a motionless state, with staring eyes and tongues hanging out of their mouths, in seals which had been surprised in their favourite place of repose and cut off from their usual access to the sea. Again, as an example in Man, Mosso[3] observed collapse with violent tremor in a youthful brigand condemned to summary execution. Emitting a shrill cry, the boy turned to flee, and rushing against a wall, writhed and scratched against it as if trying to force a way through. Baffled in his attempt to escape, he at last sank to the ground like a log and trembled as Mosso had never seen another tremble, as "though the muscles had been turned to a jelly shaken in all directions."

I have mentioned several modifications or complications of these five main forms of instinctive reaction to danger. Some of them serve the end of concealment which may be attained by immobility or by flight to a place of safety, and concealment may serve as the end of a still more complex chain of reactions.

Having now considered certain modes of reaction to danger, I can consider how far it is possible to connect these with definite states of consciousness, positive or negative.

Flight and Fear. -- It is generally assumed without question that the instinctive reaction of flight is accompanied by fear, and human experience points to the truth of this conclusion, though the evidence is not as abundant as might be desired. [p. 57] There seems to be little doubt that fear becomes especially pronounced when there is interference with, or even the prospect of interference with, the process of fleeing, and the possibility cannot be excluded that the normal and unimpeded flight of animals from danger is not accompanied by the emotion of fear.

Aggression and Anger. -- The reaction to danger by aggression is definitely connected with anger. In Man acts of aggression, or acts which have the appearance of aggression, may be expressions of fear. A man in a state of sheer terror may do violence to others who stand in the way of his own safety. There is no doubt that such behaviour occurs, but in the main we may conclude that the primary instinct of aggression is bound up with the emotion of anger.

Manipulative Activity and Absence of Affect. -- There is abundant evidence, probably such evidence could be provided by the personal experience of everyone, that manipulative activity in response to danger is, or may be, wholly free from fear, or from any other emotion except perhaps a certain degree of excitement. Those who escape from danger by the performance of some complex activity bear almost unanimous witness that, while so engaged they were wholly free from the fear which the danger might have been expected to arouse. Highly complex acts designed to allow escape from, or to overcome, the danger are carried out as coolly as, or even more coolly than, is customary in the ordinary behaviour of daily life. There seems to be in action a process of suppression of the fear or other affective state. That there is such suppression is supported by the fact that fear may be present, perhaps in an intense form, if the experience is reproduced later in a dream.

That the absence of fear is due to suppression of the affect, which seems to accompany the primitive reaction to danger, is supported by the insensitiveness to pain which often occurs at the same time. Not only may an injury occurring in the presence of danger fail wholly to be perceived, but the pain already present may completely disappear, even if it depends upon definite organic changes. On one occasion I was in imminent danger of shipwreck while suffering from severe [p. 58] inflammation of the skin over the shin-bones, consequent upon sun-burn, which made every movement painful. So long as the danger was present I moved about freely, quite oblivious of the state of my legs, and wholly free from pain. There was also a striking absence of the fear I should have expected the incident to have produced.

It is evident that the occurrence of either pain or fear would interfere with the success of manipulations or other activities by which a creature escapes from danger. If a man or animal is to escape from a dangerous situation by means of delicate manipulations or other complex form of activity, success would be seriously prejudiced by the presence of fear or pain. When, as in arboreal animals, successful flight depends on a highly delicate adjustment of hand and eye, the occurrence of pain or fear would inevitably interfere with its success.

The complete suppression of pain and fear, even in the presence of imminent danger, may also take place when any form of serviceable activity is impossible. The best known case of this kind is that of the missionary and explorer, Livingstone, who experienced neither pain nor fear while his arm was being devoured by a lion, and others who have been mauled by animals while hunting have had a similar experience.

Immobility and Suppression. -- The suppression which occurs in the manipulative activity of Man, and may safely be assumed to occur in many of the higher mammals, seems also to afford the most natural explanation of the immobility which forms the chief instinctive reaction to danger in so many animals. If immobility is to be useful in the presence of danger, and especially in dangers threatened by other animals, it is essential that it shall be complete. It is a well-recognised character of animals that their vision is especially sensitive to movement. The perception of movement probably forms the most primitive form of vision,[4] and concealment by means of immobility would be of little use unless it were complete. If an animal capable of feeling pain or fear, in however crude a form, were to have these [p. 59] experiences while reacting to danger by means of immobility, the success of the reaction would certainly be impaired and would probably fail completely. I suggest, therefore, that the essential process underlying the instinct of immobility is the suppression of fear and pain. It is possible that the instinctive reaction to danger by means of immobility may have furnished one of the earliest motives for suppression. It may be that the suppression of the immediately painful or uncomfortable, the process by which the highly complex experience of Man becomes unconscious, is only a modification of a process going very far back in the animal kingdom, which was essentially the safety of animals in their reaction to danger by means of immobility.

Collapse and Terror. -- There is little doubt that the collapse, associated with tremor, which forms one mode of reacting to danger, especially in the higher animals, is accompanied by that excess of fear we call terror. This association, based on the experience of Man, may also be ascribed to animals. Though immobility and collapse resemble each other superficially, I suppose them to be poles apart so far as the accompanying affect is concerned. In dealing with collapse as a mode of reaction, I pointed to interference with flight or with some other form of serviceable activity as one of its most important conditions. In this obstruction to normal instinctive modes of reaction by which danger would be avoided, we have a satisfactory explanation of the excess of affect by which it is characterised. The conflict of different instinctive modes of their consequent failure would furnish an alternative explanation of the excessive affect. In most animals there is a special disposition towards some one of the various forms of reaction to danger, so that in them there is little room for conflict between alternative tendencies. Conflict leading to collapse occurs when the tendency proper to each is obstructed. In Man, on the other hand, all the different tendencies found throughout the animal kingdom seem to be present. Man may flee, become aggressive, or adopt some other form of serviceable activity in the presence of danger, and there is reason to believe that he may show, at any rate in pathological [p. 60] states, the reaction of immobility. The conflict between tendencies in these different directions is probably a definite reason for his liability to collapse or other non-serviceable states, such as trembling, in the presence of danger. This is the penalty Man has to pay for the pliancy of his danger-instincts, for their failure to become systematised or fixed in any one direction.

In the sketch I have just given of the modes of reaction and associated mental states which make up what I have called danger-instincts, the feature I wish especially to emphasise is the suppression of affect which certainly accompanies the manipulative activity of Man, and has been assumed to accompany the immobility of the lower animals. These two modes of reaction differ from one another in one important respect. The suppression of pain and fear in the manipulative activity of Man is not necessarily accompanied by any failure of memory of the events which produced the reaction, or of the nature of the reactions themselves and their accompanying mental states. In some cases, however, as has not uncommonly happened in war, there is partial or complete amnesia for the period of activity. Soldiers have carried out, so skillfully as to earn the special commendation of their superiors, highly complicated processes of giving orders, directing operations, showing personal skill in attack and defence while afterwards their memories have been a blank for the whole series of events and their own behaviour in relation to it. Moreover, there is abundant evidence that the experience which had thus lost direct access to consciousness is still present and may show itself in some indirect manner.


[1] "Elementa Physiologicæ corporis humani," Lausanne (1763), t.v., p. 568.

[2] A. E. Brehm Thierleben, Leipzig (1877), vol. iii. p. 601.

[3] A. Mosso, Fear, London (1896), p. 145.

[4] W.H.R. Rivers, Schäfer's Textbook of Physiology, Edinburgh, vol. ii. (1900), p. 1146.