The "Instinct" Instinct

Can you override an instinct with deliberate practice?

Posted Feb 23, 2011

First there was Basic Instinct.  It was a movie about a dagger wielding, leg-(un)crossing psycho killer. Then "instinct" got intellectual. 

Ever since Steven Pinker's masterful The Language Instinct, our, ahem, instincts have been aroused with the following books: The Death Instinct, The Art Instinct, The Faith Instinct, The Belief Instinct, The Killer Instinct, The Compassionate Instinct, The Music Instinct, The Puzzle Instinct, Primal Instincts, and soon, I'm looking forward to The Consuming Instinct, by fellow blogger Dr. Gad Saad.

The concept of instinct reintroduces human nature into respectable discourse.  Of course, yawning and blinking are also instincts, but apparently not so newsworthy or controversial.  Maybe The Blink Instinct has a ring to it--at least if it's written by Malcolm Gladwell.

Instincts are a tendency to act in predictable ways: to experience disgust, hunger, fatigue, etc. However, in no way does an instinct require a rigid unchanging or absolute behavioral response.  Take the Westermarck Effect.  If you grow up in a kibbutz with other kids you will probably form an inability to find them sexually attractive later in life.  Apes have shown this same aversion, in a scientific version of a kibbutz.  This instinct serves a genetic purpose--it makes for healthier offspring. 

Can you override an instinct with deliberate practice?

Yes, but the effort required underscores the very power of instinct.  Take disgust.

I have changed my reaction to certain foods when my knowledge increased, and I found that my aversion to fish has morphed from an absolute revulsion when I was a kid (when I compared everything to candy) to a preference for fish, because I know it's good for me in moderation.  What I believe makes all the difference.  Getting over that initial revulsion became a key element to the goal of mastering an unwanted reaction to a stimulus.

Conversely, I once loved sugar. I grew up a pudgy kid, "husky," according to some, but I knew I was chubby and I hated it. My parents came from the Old World and thought that fat equalled health. Then something happened. After learning of the health disadvantages of too much sugar, I convinced myself that sugar was an enemy, not a sweet friend. By looking repeatedly at the evidence, I changed my reaction to it. My newfound belief in sugar's disadvantages powerfully affected my taste sensations. I now find it unpleasantly sweet. I tell myself, "this stuff will rot my teeth and send my insulin skyward," thereby overriding one of the strongest instincts around--the craving for fat and sugar.

Instincts (and revulsions) will be with us forever. But just because an inclination is natural doesn't mean it's good or immutable. Experiment with quashing instincts that you don't want.  Call it your mastery instinct.