Monday, February 23, 2009


Almost all the animals known to humankind have some of their actions dictated by pre-wired instincts. For instance, dogs inherently know that meat is food that they can eat, and have the urge to chase things, to mark territory by peeing (each dog's pee has a different scent that other dogs can detect), and dogs are also born knowing the submission ritual that ends all dog fights (turn over, expose belly and throat. For the more extreme version, also pee on yourself). Dogs also have an instinct not to relieve themselves where they sleep, which we humans can hijack to toilet train them. (Indoors is "sleeping place," outdoors is "bathroom place.")
Cats, too, have urges to chase things, smack things around with their paws, climb, and claw things. Cat owners who want to preserve their furniture buy special, cat-furniture, for kitty's clawing pleasure. Cats also prefer to bury their waste, so a litter box is an essential to avoid them getting...creative...with your sock drawer.
I have also had pet rats, rabbits, and guinea pigs. Since these animals are prey species in the wild, they are more skittish. They have hiding instincts. Most of them chew because their teeth continuously grow, and need to be worn down to avoid overgrowth. Like dogs, they don't relieve themselves in sleeping areas, so they need a "bathroom corner" in their living area.
I've even managed parrots, whose urges include biting wood, throwing things, destroying paper (would be tearing up bark and leaves in the wild), and eating things on edges. (This behavior is very frustrating to the bird's owners, as it leads to much dropped food. However, as far as I can figure as to its purpose, in the wild they would eat on a tree branch, and if a predator were to appear suddenly, they drop the food and run. The predator is often distracted by the falling food and dives for it instead. By the time they realize that they've caught a half-eaten berry, the bird has escaped.) Birds also sometimes freak out for no apparent reason, as being scared is better than being lunch, and show a marked hatred of cylindrical objects (possibly perceived as potentially being a snake in disguise).
These instincts, though often bizarre in the context of being a pet, helps keep them alive in the wild where they developed. One does not get to think "Oh hey, that's a deer, I should probably sneak up on it and eat it before it sees me." Instead "stalk, pounce, bite!" has to do.
Likewise for the prey, "Oh hey, that might be a snake, let me poke at it" is probably a bad idea that will get you eaten. "OH CRAP RUN AWAY" is a better idea, even if it does turn out to be just a moss covered stick. Better safe than lunch.
I'm also fairly sure that we humans have at least some instincts too. Psychological studies have shown that we're actually not aware of a surprisingly large percentage of our actions, and that people are quite known for rationalizing something that they do for subconcious reasons. A study with split-brained patients showed that if shown a message on the left side of the movie screen, they would often take this suggestion, as parsed by the right side of the brain, without realizing it. If interrupted in the task, the left side of the brain, which controls verbal explanations, would construct a rationalization. Shown the message "DRINK COKE," many people claimed to be thirsty, to be "just stretching my legs," or "I always drink coke while watching movies, I just forgot that time. I was busy, you see..."
So, what are human instincts, and are they already being used for social control? Certainly advertisers would like to associate "thirsty" with their soft drink of choice, politicians want you to love them and recoil from their opponent, churches want you to "believe," and so on.

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