Abridged version of: Theory of Human Behaviour, Chapter two (part one)

All human behaviour is caused by four basic, genetically conditioned drives.

These four basic drives or qualities are found in all organisms that have developed a rudimentary nervous system, enabling them to evaluate their surroundings, stay alive and avoid danger.

Neurologists have named these basic nerve paths ‘the Behavioural Approach System’ (BAS) and ‘the Behavioural Inhibitory System’. These basic functions provide organisms with the ability to find solutions to problems (Agency) and the will to solve these problems (Volition). It is from this primitive beginning that millions of years of evolution have bestowed humans with our ability to survive and our complex functions.

This text will show how the human brain works and executes all these complex functions. To man, the ultimate goals are survival and reproduction of own genes. This is the basis for all our actions, and the urge to reach these goals as well as all underlying goals is controlling our behaviour.

Historical perspective

The notion of unconscious human qualities is far from new. In ‘Passions and the interests’ Albert Hirshman draws a detailed line throughout history from Aristoteles, via Machiavelli to Adam Smith and even further. Scientists and philosophers such as Smith, Locke, Hume and Hobbes named the drives ‘Passions’ or ‘basic qualities’, Darwin named them ‘instincts’. He wrote a great deal about instincts and also about ‘social instincts’. His ideas about instincts were revisited in the 1880s by William James, who many consider to be the father of modern psychology.

William James

The predominant line of thinking at the time was that all behaviour was shaped by experience. But James argued that the brain cannot learn if it does not hold basic knowledge from the beginning. He also believed that humans have more instincts than animals, not less. Humans have all the same impulses as inferior organisms and a lot more than that. This is evident in the fact that no other mammal – not even the ape – has such a wide scope as humans. Therefore, reason cannot neutralise an impulse. An impulse can only be neutralised by an opposing impulse. Reason, however, can disturb an impulse and initiate an opposing impulse to neutralise the first one. Humans, therefore, being the animal with the most instincts, will never react automatically on its own instincts the way inferior animals do.

James made a long list of human instincts, beginning with post-natal behaviour such as sucking, crying, sitting up, standing, walking, climbing. He also noticed highly different preferences among boys and girls when it came to playing.

James ascribed this behaviour to basic native impulses of which he believed that love is the strongest.

Matt Ridley

Matt Ridley summarised the importance of James’ work in Nature via Nature:

James was not a madman working on the periphery. His work has influenced generations of scholars when it comes to consciousness, space and time in memory. Emotions, thoughts, knowledge, facts, the self, moral and religion. Just to mention the headlines of a contemporary book dealing with this work. So why is it that this 628-page book does not even mention the words ‘instinct’, ‘impulse’ or ‘native’ in the table of contents? Why has it been almost indecent for nearly a hundred years to mention the word ‘instinct’ when it relates to human behaviour?

As Ridley points out, James’ ideas about native instincts gained influence right from the beginning. His disciple William McDougall founded an entire school based on James’ ideas that humans have more instincts than animals. The instinctivists – as they called themselves – began making longer and longer lists of instincts, including all aspects of human behaviour. Their big error was to confuse why we behave the way we do with how we behave the way we do. Notice that James’ list of post-natal instincts contain physical movement. This means that babies use their instincts to solve their challenges, but they do not find out which challenges need solving.

This confusion about why and how caused the notion of native drives to be discredited. Ridley summarises it this way:

‘In the 1920s the very empiricist ideas that James had attacked, embodied in the notion of the blank slate, swept back to power not just in psychology (with John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner) but in anthropology (Franz Boas), psychiatry (Freud), and sociology (Durkheim).’

New theorists

Native instincts being taboo continued until 1958 when Noam Chomsky’s work left the door ajar. Chomsky argued that it is impossible for children to learn languages through their parents alone. Children must possess native instincts that provide them with an understanding of grammar and words with which they can adapt the language they grow up with.

This theory has since been backed by several evolutionary psychologists, and science has recently begun to take up the notion of native instincts.

The work inspired, Antonio Damasio, a practicing neurologist, in his now classic work ‘Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain’ Damasio defines drives as follows:

‘Since many decisions influence the future of an organism, it is plausible that some of the criteria on which decisions are made, are rooted in the biological drives of the organism. Therefore, we must assume that the state and emotions of the body are indispensable parts of rationality’.

Scientists in a variety of disciplines are now discussing biological drives under various headlines. The width of the different definitions is informative. Ultimate motives (among the founders of evolutionary psychology, Toobey, Barkow and Cosmides). Epigenetic rules (Lumsden and Wilson) and Value Centers (Edelman). Wilson states that:

‘If rational thinking cannot use emotions as a guideline, eventually it will slowly die’.

Tinker about the brain’s function

‘Intelligence is the search for goals when you face challenges… Emotions are mechanisms that set the highest goal for the brain. Emotions initiate the cascade of underlying goals – and the goals below the underlying goals, which we call thought and action’.

None of the scientists mentioned above, however, have gone so far as to denote particular drives as essential to explain human behaviour. Wilson believes that social sciences must solve that task. Nitin Nohria has accepted the challenge – and in his 2002 book ‘Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices’, he defines four separate drives or qualities:

  • All people have a constant urge to obtain something.
  • Objects, bodily and emotional experiences, maintaining life and improving one’s social status in relation to others.
  • The drive to create relations. Belonging to groups, establishing long-term relationships and caring for others.
  • The drive to gain insight. Understanding one’s surrounding and one self.
  • The drive to control and defend. One self, one’s loved ones and one’s convictions.

The qualities mentioned above are not necessarily the only human qualities. But they are essential in order to understand why humans behave the way they do.


These four qualities explain why we are the way we are, while other brain functions such as our individual skills and memory explain how we do it.

  • The drives are independent of each other – meaning that satisfying one drive will not necessary satisfy the other drives.
  • The drives are always active and they can never be completely satisfied. This often causes the drives to be conflicting. Conflicts like these can only be solved by making deliberate choices, which happens in the prefrontal cortex. James emphasises that an impulse created by an action, can only be counteracted and balanced by means of the other drives.
  • Because the drives are conflicting, they do not work automatically. They actually force us to make deliberate decisions and choices with a certain degree of liberty.
  • The prefrontal cortex is capable of selecting different options for action, test them against the four drives and choose the action that is the best compromise between the drives. The details regarding how the brain performs this complex task is gradually being revealed. If these hypotheses turn out to be true, they will shed light on old mysteries regarding human behaviour such as consciousness, the free will and decision-making processes.