nature's wisdom for today's woman

Animal Secret #2:
Instincts Rule; Intellect Just Plays Catch-Up

Camilla Gray-Nelson

Camilla Gray-Nelson

Once you begin seeing human behavior through the lens of animal instinct, everything will begin to make more sense! 

We only think we’re different because we’re human! The fact is, we humans are animals and special only in terms of the number of legs we walk on and the size of our brain. Other than that, for all practical purposes we are dogs (or horses, or cows or goats, if you prefer.) By that I mean our actions are motivated and driven by our deepest, undeniable and irrepressible animal instincts. We humans are unique in the Animal World not because we’ve evolved beyond our animal instincts, but because we have developed the intellectual ability to override the instinctive forces that push our buttons.

When we understand the everyday instincts that subconsciously drive our Inner Animal, we cannot only appreciate their importance but navigate around them or use them to our advantage. We can communicate more effectively and ultimately get what we want from others instead of running into the hidden obstacles that they can create. The list of instincts is long, so pour yourself a cup of coffee and settle in for a might be a brow-raising read:

Grouping: We’re social beings

Humans are wired to be social mammals, because we survive best in groups rather than alone. Grouping is also why we pair up into couples, families, towns and nations. It is why we have social clubs and cliques at work. The urge and need to “group up” are in our DNA and that of our family and co-workers.

Flocking, Similarity and Attraction: They Look Like Me. We’ll Hang Together!

Just as dogs may be drawn to other dogs that look like them because that might indicate a safe, familial connection, your husband, kids and co-workers will flock to those with similar appearances or beliefs. Scientifically, it is referred to as Similarity/Attraction Theory, and it affects every one of us to some degree socially, whether we realize it or not. Take a moment and think about this and its profound effect in human culture, then and now.

Fear: Distrust of the New or Unfamiliar

You may have a dog that instinctively distrusts new people and to your embarrassment, barks uncontrollably when that new friend comes by to visit; or have a staff member that stubbornly resists change at work. It may make no logical sense – your new friend is lovely and you try to tell your dog that he is “OK,” and you tell your staff member that the new policy change at work will make the company more profitable and their job more stable. We may think their reactions are silly, but don’t you, when walking alone at dusk, cross the street when you see an unfamiliar character dressed in an intimating manner approaching? Or feel a bit nervous when encountering an unfamiliar detour when driving alone at night in the middle of nowhere?

Distrust of the Unfamiliar can help keep us safe but it can also complicate relationships. Our instinctive fear of the new or unfamiliar is why we feel uncomfortable if someone we have just met gets too familiar too soon. It “feels” creepy, even though you might end up the best of friends later on. Like it or not, our survival instinct to distrust anyone or anything unfamiliar is the tune to which we all dance – including your husband, kids and co-workers.

Classification: Profiling and Why We Make Snap Judgments

Animals survive through instinctive profiling and we do it, too – not because we are inherently racist or phobic or intolerant or mean-spirited – but because we are instinctively wired to survive.

Animals in their raw and undomesticated state survive on a thin thread. They must make split second decisions of friend or foe, and they are experts at recognizing patterns. Your pet dog shows this ability to recognize patterns when he barks excitedly whenever you pick up his leash. He has learned that whenever you pick up his leash, a walk around the neighborhood follows. He has already recognized the pattern before it happens and has predicted the outcome. In another situation, your dog may have been attacked by a white dog with pointy ears. The first time, your dog recovered from the incident but probably had some uncertainty when he met the next white dog with pointy ears. But if he is attacked again by a white dog with pointy ears, that is a pattern and your dog will recognize it. Now he is on high alert for all white dogs with pointy ears and when one is encountered, your dog either exits stage left or goes into full self-protective mode, even if the next white dog with pointy ears is a Service Dog. Profiling is one of Nature’s most powerful survival instincts.

Think about this next time you feel embarrassed or upset when someone makes a sweeping generalization about someone else. It does not necessarily mean they are intentionally prejudiced or bigoted or anything else that is mean or bad. It may just be their Inner Animal talking before their intellectual filter kicks in. Certainly, we do not have to accept hurtful or intolerant comments, but knowing their source helps us address them calmly and effectively. Luckily, instinct drives behavior initially but human intellect can override them when it needs to.

Hierarchy: Understand It at Home and at Work

In every group, hierarchy is the first order of business. All members of the group seem to instinctively ask, “Who is in charge here?” “How are we organized and what is my role?” In our daycare and other dog groupings at my kennel, a ballet of power redistribution occurs immediately as any new dog is introduced into the “pack.” At this moment, all play ceases and will not resume until this process of hierarchy redistribution and acceptance has taken place. Even when training with a group of just two – the dog and me — we must sort out our roles before obedience can begin to happen. It’s the same in any ad hoc committee, for example, where people get together for some immediate purpose, whether it’s to save the local library or organize a birthday party for the office manager. After some initial fluttering about, the most assertive and confident in the group starts to delineate ideas for action and usually ends up being appointed chairman. The chairman breaks the big goal into manageable chunks of action and asks certain people to make sure those “chunks” get done. These individuals, in turn, recruit helpers from the rest of the group.   It is this instinctive hierarchical organization of the group that allows a variety of people and personalities to work together, get along and above all, be effective and productive. Its why Hierarchy is a basic and important instinct in all social mammals.

In families, traditional hierarchical order is pretty clear. Generally, parents are the leaders and the children the followers. For millennia, parents have assumed status and authority over their children and their children have been shown what is expected of them. With any luck – children have accepted their roles as subordinates and deferred to parental control accordingly.

This simple way of prioritizing and organizing our instinctive needs and acknowledging hierarchy has worked as well for us as it has for other animals. That is not to say that if your company embraces “co-management” or egalitarian groups of workers with no formally designated leader that that system cannot succeed, but try as you might to make everyone in your department unnaturally “equal”, you can expect the instincts of Jealously, Rivalry and others to rear their ugly heads and ad hoc leaders to arise from within the group whether or not this unofficial hierarchy is reflected on an organizational chart.

Loss Aversion/Resource Acquisition/Guarding: Stay Away from My Stuff!

Parents routinely have to remind their children not be “selfish” and to share some coveted object when tensions arise over it.   And don’t tell me you haven’t stashed away a little secret “fun money” for yourself from time to time so your spouse couldn’t claim it.   The kids aren’t being “bad” and neither are you. It’s simply that pesky instinct to Acquire and Guard things that we consider valuable. Teaching kids to share and any guilt you might feel for hiding money is just intellect playing catch-up with your instincts.

Rivalry: Alive and Well in All Relationships

Any dog owner with more than one dog and any parent with multiple children can vouch for this instinct being universal. There is Rivalry and Competition for your attention, for toys, for success and a whole host of things. There is Rivalry between adults, too. My father had a healthy rivalry with another local dairyman for years. They were friends, but always one-upping each other in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Interestingly, it was Rivalry that propelled each to great achievements and success in their field. It would be hard to deny that Rivalry in humans is anything less than hard-wired from our animal core, related to our relative success and most probably to our very survival. A healthy rivalry does not mean each party dislikes the other or harbors ill will. It is just instinct.

When you experience Rivalry at work, understand the Inner Animal from which it comes, so that you can calmly work to either lessen it or harness it, instead of reacting emotionally to it. Know that Rivalry will no doubt happen between you and your spouse or partner as well. Getting mad about it won’t solve anything. Understanding what’s behind the Rivalry can equip you to work on the underlying causes.

Jealously and Envy: They’re Gonna Happen

In its extreme form, Rivalry can morph into Jealousy and Envy. Competition on the power ladder can be fierce. Dog trainers and behavior experts routinely see cases of family dogs fighting with each other because they are envious of what the other has — to the point of conflict. These basic animal instincts of Jealousy and Envy have become familiar themes in human history, legend and culture as well – from Cain and Able in the Bible to the Housewives of Beverly Hills. Now there were some animals!

Learn to recognize natural Jealousy and Envy at home and at work. We will introduce some strategies to overcome it, through the Harmony Code, in Section Two.

Curiosity and Secrecy: From Withholding Information to Prying into Others’ Affairs

Where do these instincts come from? They did not start with the human. They’ve been animal instincts for millennia. In animals, Curiosity and Secrecy were both linked to survival. Hunting animals used Curiosity to investigate and locate prey. They used Secrecy to hide food for later consumption. The human animal simply demonstrates Curiosity and Secrecy in other ways, like a child that asks too many questions or an employee that does not share valuable information.

Shyness and Sociability: Introverts and Extroverts

Are you an extrovert married to an introvert who wants to stay home instead of going to that great party on Saturday night? Do you have one child who is outspoken and another who would rather eat glass than bring a problem to her teacher? Though it can be frustrating, these differences are instinctively hard-wired. As Lady Gaga might say, they’re just “born that way.” Shyness and Sociability are two ends of the spectrum when it comes to instinct for social interaction. I see both extremes in dogs and we certainly see it in children and adults – those that love the spotlight, networking and joining every club they can and those that would rather perform their own dentistry than go to a party where they don’t know anyone. Again, humans have no unique claim to these instincts. They must come from a deeper animal core. Mary had a little lamb that followed her everywhere. That was a lamb with lots of Sociability. I hope Mary did not take that as proof she was irresistible. The sheep in my field, on the other hand, cannot be approached closer than thirty yards. They’re wired for Shyness. Likewise, I don’t take it personally. The sheep simply do not know what they’re missing.

Imitation: Monkey See, Monkey Do

We all have seen imitation in our lives. In children it is prevalent as they learn new skills. In business and in industry we are inveterate imitators. Did you know that long before schools, smart-phones or even human beings, imitation was used as a means for survival? Animals imitated successful behaviors of others so that they could be successful and survive, too. The lioness demonstrates hunting skills for her young, teaching them to hunt as they imitate her actions. Your older dog “shows” your new puppy where to relieve himself, as the pup follows and imitates his big brother. Many animal trainers will even use a trained animal to demonstrate a desired behavior. We imitate because we are wired to do so at our animal core.

Think about our instinct to Imitate as you set a living example for your staff and for your children. With your kids, it is not what you say, but what you do that they will Imitate. At work, you will get further in encouraging behavior norms like positivity and helpfulness in your staff if you live those norms rather than just writing about them. Tap into the good side of Imitation and watch what happens.

Constructiveness: Creating, Building and Making Things

Ants build tunnels, dogs dig dens, apes make crude tools and humans build skyscrapers. Humans, however, are animals on the top floor of that Constructiveness instinct! This instinct has quite possibly made the greatest impact on human civilization as we know it, for when the instinct to Build and Construct meets the boundless intellect of the human animal, astounding things happen! While ants may still be building those tunnels, humans have built not only skyscrapers but bridges, railroads and interstates, harnessed electricity, invented the telephone and the internet, created a digital world with iPhones and streaming video, produced medicines to prolong life and the quality of it… and on and on. Our drive to Construct is the reason behind the incredible advancements of our human world and a vital part of each of us as individuals.

Sex and Reproduction: The Drive to Survive Through Procreation

Let us have a little fun with this one. You might be surprised at how it changes your mind about human behavior between men and women. Not just his, but yours, too.

In the Animal World, the strongest, healthiest male in a group generally fathers most of the offspring of that group and only the Top Dog that is smart enough, strong enough and healthy enough to fend off all competitors wins the prize. Most Alpha Males are large; often the largest male in the group. Physical size, then, was part of the winning equation in reproduction because it meant they could physically contend for the resource. Is it any wonder that every man today still wants to be taller than he is? There may not be a big market for elevator shoes and lifts these days, but the next time you watch a movie, pay close attention to how Hollywood cleverly makes every leading man look a tall as possible. There is also evidence to suggest that animal females are by nature more attracted to the larger, stronger and healthier male as a useful instinct for assuring a union with the healthiest mate. Healthy offspring, after all, is vital to the continued survival of any group. A receptive female certainly makes an Alpha male’s pursuit much easier at any rate. No one likes to be turned down at the dance.

Is it any surprise, then, that we women still find intelligence, height and strength attractive in a man? And as far as good looks go, studies have shown that it is body symmetry and proportion that we equate to beauty and good looks and there is a direct correlation between the “good looks” of body symmetry to health and longevity! All this may not make logical sense today (to say nothing of its political incorrectness,) since the geeky tech genius probably makes quadruple the income of many a tall, handsome Adonis and has more love and loyalty to give. Who gives a bleep about logic when that handsome hunk tells you you’re pretty or asks you to dance and leaves you weak in the knees and giggling like a schoolgirl? Some instincts are still fun.

For the male animal, reproduction with healthy females is essential for group sustainability. The strongest and healthiest male needs to choose the strongest and healthiest female. So, guess what? The females compete for the attractive males and it is the healthiest, most clever and strongest females that make it to the front of the line.

That is how female animals do it and we can see human parallels. Just watch a few reruns of television’s “The Bachelor” for a modern example of how human females are also driven by this competitive instinct to win a top sexual partner.

Desire to be Great or Important: Ignore This Instinct at Your Peril

Our innate desire to be Important (or Great) was identified as a prime human instinct in modern man, most notably by both noted psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and philosopher and psychologist John Dewey. It is one of the few instincts unique to man and not found in lower animals. to my observation. Couple it, however, with our Grouping instinct and our need to belong and identify with a group of others and it is easy to understand the deeper motivation behind kids joining gangs or hanging with bad friends because they finally feel important or welcomed into a group with recognition. The Desire to be Great or Important can also supercharge our simple instinct of Competition for resources and take it to a whole new level. The Desire to be Great or Important explains conflicts of all sorts, including problems at work and even marital dysfunction with each party striving to be “greater” or “more important” than the other.

Once you begin seeing human behavior through the lens of animal instinct, everything will begin to make more sense! Start today and you just might become more understanding, more tolerant and most importantly, more effective in all of your relationships.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Photo of author Camilla Gray-Nelson

Camilla Gray-Nelson

“No, I’m not your average coach or mentor, but that’s exactly why you should follow my unique perspective on life, love and career! I promise I’ll share things you won’t learn anywhere else, helping you become Enlightened, Empowered and Effective by decoding the life-changing secrets of Mother Nature herself.”

Scroll to Top