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How do we explain human behaviour?

Why do we do what we do from moment to moment and can it be explained?

For most of my life I have tried to understand why people behave the way they do and why different people behave differently given the same apparent options. I suspect all people, at least subconsciously, try to understand human behaviour to better get along in life, but it has perhaps been more explicit in my thinking for a long time.

I’d like to record here and in subsequent posts my thoughts on this and anything related to help focus the development of my ideas. I also hope that other people will read these ideas over time and potentially contribute their own thoughts by way of comment.

To start I’d like to propose the idea (hypothesis) that underlying the motivation for all our behaviour are many simple instincts or drives (I will use a broad definition for the word 'instinct' that includes 'drives'). If, as I will assume, this is the case then what are they and can distinct instincts be identified?

Some are clearly beyond dispute such as hunger, thirst, the need to avoid being too cold or hot, the need for sleep, sexual attraction, the desire to avoid pain and the need parents feel to ensure the health and wellbeing of their children. All of these instincts influence the decisions we make and thus our behaviour.

The instincts I will focus most on, however, are less universally accepted. The first is an instinct for compassion that has been suggested by many others (e.g. see The Compassion Instinct). The second instinct I will propose myself and is the need to improve the respect other people have for us.

The first of these, compassion, can be seen influencing our behaviour when we help somebody avoid something bad, sometimes even when our help will not be attributed to us e.g. giving anonomously to a charity. Like all instincts I expect this instinct varies in strength between different people.

The second instinct, the need to improve other’s respect for us, will likely also vary in strength between different people and might also be viewed as the drive to rise in the social hierarchy.

At times, these instincts will conflict and we then have to decide which of our competing instincts we will satisfy. One example of this is deciding whether to go to sleep because we are tired or to finish some work because it might increase the respect our work colleagues have for us.

My long term aim is to help determine whether distinct competing instincts exist and, if so, what they are and perhaps eventually their neural basis. This will not be easy, however one way to test these ideas is to try and explain examples of human behaviour using the definitions of distinct instincts that I use or propose.

For ease of expression I will call this framework of ideas ‘competing instincts’.

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