Dr. C. George Boeree


Whatever the possible instinctual component to human life, it is very clear that learning is the predominant component.  And it isn't just that we do more learning than most animals; we even do it in more different ways!

The simplest kind of learning, which we share with all animals, we could call  environmental:   On the basis of your present understanding or knowledge, you anticipate certain things or act in a certain way -- but the world doesn't meet with your expectations.  So, after various other anticipations and actions, you adapt, develop a new understanding, gain new knowledge.  This is often called conditioning or feedback.

For a social animal, much of this conditioning or feedback comes from others -- i.e. it is  social  conditioning or feedback, rewards and punishments  So, instead of learning not to run across streets by getting run-over, you learn by getting punished as you begin to run across the street.  (This is even more effective if you get punished before you actually do anything, that is, as you are thinking about it.  Some psychologists suggest that this is the source of conscience!)  Or, instead of learning sex roles by accident, you are gently shaped by signs of social approval:  “My, aren’t you pretty!” or “Here’s my little man!”

Another ability common to social animals is the ability to learn by observing others.  There is, for example,  vicarious learning:   If you see a fellow creature get hurt or do well, get punished or rewarded, etc., for some action, you can "identify" with that fellow creature and learn from it.

Even more important is the ability called  imitation  (or modeling).  We not only learn about the consequences of behaviors by watching others (as in vicarious learning), we learn the behaviors themselves as well!

For a  linguistic  social animal, social learning can be even further removed from immediate environmental feedback.  We can, for example, learn by means of warnings, recommendations, threats, and promises.  Even creatures without language can communicate these things (through growls and purrs and hisses and the like).  But language turns it into a fine art.

And finally, we can learn from descriptions of behaviors, which we can "imitate" as if we had observed them.  This is usually called  symbolic  learning.  Further, we can learn whole complexes of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings such as beliefs, belief systems, attitudes, and values.  It's curious how much we talk about conditioning and modeling in psychology, when we spend so much of our lives in school -- that is, involved in symbolic learning!


"Culture is a  way  of thinking, feeling, believing.  It is the group's knowledge stored up (in memories..., books, and objects) for future use."  (Clyde Kluckhohn,  Mirror for Man,  p. 28.)

So culture is learned.  But, as we saw, learning, at least in people, is a lot more than just conditioned responses.  It would be more accurate to think of it as a soaking-up of the world -- especially the social world -- around you. This makes the impact of culture considerably richer, if not more fundamental, than the impact of genetics.

It is for this reason that many psychologists, sociologist, anthropologists, and others are so wary of the explanations -- convincing as they sometimes are -- of the sociobiologists:  For every sociobiological explanation, we can find a cultural explanation as well.  After all, culture operates by the same principles as evolution.

There are many different ways to do any one task, but in the context of a certain physical environment and a certain culture, some ways of doing things work better than others.  These are more likely to be "passed on" from one generation to the next, this time by learning.

Now, cultures need to accomplish certain things if they are to survive at all.  They must assure effective use of natural resources, for example, which might involve the learning of all sorts of territorial and aggressive behaviors, just like in sociobiological explanations.  And they must assure a degree of cooperation, which might involve learning altruistic behaviors, rules for sharing resources and for other social relationships, just like the ones in sociobiological explanations.  And they must assure a continuation of the population, which might involve certain courtship and marital arrangements, nurturant behaviors, and so on, just like in sociobiological explanations.

(Note that chastity is not sociobiologically fit.  But if an organization has other recruitment techniques, it can survive, as have, for example, the the traditions of Catholic and Buddhist religious life.)

If a society is to survive -- and any existing society has at least survived until now -- it must take care of the very same issues that genetics must take care of.  But, because learning is considerably more flexible than evolutionary adaptation, culture tends to replace genetics.  That is, after all, only evolutionary good sense!

So do we have instincts?  No --  if  instincts are defined as automatic relfex-like connections.  But define instincts as "strong innate tendencies toward certain behaviors in certain situations"  --  yes, we do.   The important point is that we (unlike animals) can always say  no  to our instinctual behaviors, just like we can say no to our learned ones!


The strongest variable influencing attraction is, obviously, attractiveness -- beauty, handsomeness, cuteness, and the like.  If you want people to like you, be good-looking! (On blind-dates, what is the most important variable for a second date?  You guessed it.)

What constitutes attractiveness may well have a genetic component to it, of course.  But it is well worth noting that attractiveness can be very different in different cultures.  In our culture, for example, thin is in.  In the old Hawaiian culture, on the other hand, fat was where it was at.  European culture, just a few hundred years ago, had a similar opinion:  Look at Rembrandt's nudes!  As long as your size allows you to survive and reproduce, nature allows culture to determine the variations.

Or look at how we decorate ourselves.  In our culture, women paint their faces.  In one tribe in Ethiopia, it’s the men who paint their faces.  Men of the ancient Celts (ancestors of the Irish, among others) and American Indians not long ago painted their faces when going into battle.  Maoris, the Ainu of Japan, the Native Americans of the Pacific northwest all thought facial tattoos were attractive, as do present day members of certain American subcultures.  A few cultures use scarring to decorate their faces and bodies.

We wear earrings.  Many women in India (and some here) also wear nose-rings.  Some South American tribes stretched their earlobes.  Some African tribes wore lip plugs.  The Chinese of the last century thought deformed feet looked nice on rich ladies.  We thought wasp waists and big bustles were sexy 100 years ago.  Today, some people like piercing their navels, nipples, tongues, and even (ouch!) their genitalia.

How much we wear is another issue:  We don't permit the display of a woman's breasts in public; other cultures permit that, but not the display of thighs; others don't permit display of the face; others still don't permit the display of a woman's hair.  We don't permit public display of a man's penis; in the late middle ages, men wore "cod pieces," which contained and exaggerated the penis; in New Guinea, some tribes wear long cones over their penises.  In ancient Greece, male athletes competed in the nude (that’s what gymnastics means -- nude!)  On and on.

And, what's more, attractiveness is in the eye of the  individual  beholder as well.  Everyone, for example, believes their own baby is the most beautiful!  In other words, learning accounts for at least a great deal of what we consider attractive.

Whatever the roots of attractiveness, its effects are powerful.  When it comes to attractive people, we tend to ignore their faults, forgive their trespasses, and even infer good qualities they don't necessarily have -- better dispositions, motives, intelligence, etc.

An experiment by Snyder, Tanke, and Bersheid says a great deal about the effects of  attractiveness:  Men were asked to talk to a woman over the phone after being shown a picture of her.  Half were shown an attractive picture of her; the other half were shown an unattractive picture of her.  The ones that had seen the attractive photo thought she sounded more poised, humorous, and socially adept.

The conversations were bugged, and the independent listeners, who did not know which pictures the men had seen, rated the men who had seen the attractive photo as more poised, humorous, and socially adept.

And these independent listeners rated the woman talking to these men who had seen the attractive photo as being more poised, humorous, and socially adept -- though, again, neither they nor the woman knew which photo the men had seen!  In other words, if other people think you are good-looking, you will act appropriately and think of yourself as a good person:  the old self-fulfilling prophecy.   And if people consider you ugly, you may become crabby, which only confirms everyone’s suspicions about ugly people.


The simplest explanation for why we like some people more than others is conditioning:  We like people who reward us, praise us, do us favors; we like people similar to ourselves (they validate us); we like cooperative people (for the mutual benefits).  All this is quite compatible with the sociobiological point of view.

But you can see costs sneaking in:  We don't always like it when people who reward us, do us favors, or praise us, if the rewards or favors or praises have strings attached.  Their attempts at ingratiation cost us in terms of a restriction of freedom -- the obligations they leave us with.  Even if there was no intention to do so ("No, dear, this is for you!  I really want you to have it!)  we often feel this way.

Like anything, the meanings we give favors and praise depends on the context in which they are delivered.  For example, how much you are attracted to someone who says nice things to you depends an awful lot on what you are used to.  Elliot Aronson makes this a central idea in his gain-loss theory:

An increase in rewards from someone tends to lead to more liking than a steady, even if fairly high, level of rewards.  And, likewise, a decrease in rewards leads to more dislike than a steady low level of rewards.

So a compliment from a stranger has considerably more potency than a compliment from your spouse, who has been giving you compliments for years.  Or what hurts more, criticism from someone who criticizes you all the time, or criticism from your best friend?  And who do we hate more, the office bastard or an ex-spouse?  This little theory has been well supported by research.

Besides simple contrast, we can also see attribution at work here:  If someone is always nice or always nasty, we make an internal attribution -- that's their personality -- and so the compliment, say, has little informational value.  If someone changes, though, we make an external attribution:  Let's see, why might they have complimented me?  Perhaps because I actually deserved the compliment!  I am the external cause.

Of course the external motive for someone being nice could also be an ulterior motive, i.e. ingratiation or "kissing up," which would diminish the effect!

Consider the difficulties this creates for long-term relationships such as marriage:  If you are always nice, "the stranger" will appeal to your spouse;  Yet if you try to be mean occasionally, you've only made yourself look even worse!  You might want to try total honesty with your spouse instead of always being nice;  That way, your positive comments will carry more weight, like the stranger's.  But so will your negative comments, and in order to maintain your reputation of honesty, you must make a few!  Your only hope is establishing your unconditional love for your partner.


Whatever the instinctual aspects of aggression, it is clear that learning is as significant here as it is with attraction.

One way to look at the effects of learning on aggression is to ask "whom, where, when, how, and how much?"  Take your local grade school bully.  He is rewarded for appropriate targets:  boys, not girls (in my day, at least); of the "wrong" race, religion, or ethnic group; too fat, too skinny, wearing glasses, or a sissy; etc.  He is rewarded for appropriate time and place:  back alleys after school.  He is rewarded for appropriate technique:  punching, not slapping or kicking (again, in my day).

All this rewarding is, of course, backed up with punishment for inappropriate actions -- the wrong person, time, place, and techniques.

The most important variable here, however, is how much.   If one is repeatedly rewarded for aggression, and/or punished for non-aggression, one does more of it!  As if you needed proof, here is one of a large number of studies that demonstrate this:

Some male college students were given lists of words to read.  Some of these words were aggressive (punch), some were helpful (soothe), and some were neutral (globe).  Some subjects were reinforced when they said aggressive words with nods, smiles, etc.  Others were reinforced for helpful or neutral words.  All were later given the opportunity to shock other people (for the usual made-up reasons).  Guess who were the most vicious shockers?

The inverse works, too.  Teachers were instructed to ignore aggressive behaviors in the playground while reinforcing cooperative ones with attention and praise.  Playground aggression was dramatically reduced within two weeks.

Punishment of aggression is not recommended by most psychologists, whether they are behaviorists or humanists or whatever.  We find that there are a number of counterproductive results:

Regarding whom:  Displacement.   You may redirect your anger to safe objects--dolls, pillows, your children, your spouse, minorities....  Instead of hitting your little brother, you kick your dog.

Regarding when and where:  Suppression.   Since punishment only suppresses aggressive behavior, rather than extinguishing it, it will be ready to "come out" when the punisher isn't around.  You learn to kick your little brother under the table.

Regarding how:  Indirect aggression.   If you can't directly aggress against whomever you'd like to, you can do other things that partially satisfy:  name calling, complaining, gossiping, and "gold-bricking" or passive-aggressive behavior.  You can't hit your teacher -- but you can talk behind her back, do a mean imitation of her, or make her life a living hell!

Regarding how much:  Frustration.   If you are prevented from engaging in the aggression you wish to engage in, you get angrier, and at more people.  Punishing aggression seems to lead to more aggression in the long run!

The dilemma faced by parents of aggressive children remains, though.  If you don't do something about Johnny hitting his little brother, Johnny may wind up a hit man for the mob, and his little brother a patient of the local shrink.  The idea is to prevent aggressive behavior (for example, by removing Johnny from his little brothers abused presence) and reinforcing and modeling cooperative behavior.  Life is not easy.


Perhaps the most important problem in the punishment of aggression is  modeling (or imitation).  Punishment, resembling aggression as it does, teaches that aggression is okay in certain circumstances:  i.e. when you have power.  "I'll teach you to hit someone smaller than you!" is followed by a lesson in following-through.

The most famous experiment on the modeling of aggression is Albert Bandura's bobo-doll experiment.  Bandura produced a short film in which a young woman assistant of his was shown beating up a bobo-doll (one of those inflatable clowns that pops back up when you punch him).  She would punch him, shouting "sockeroo," kick him, shouting other obscenities, sit on him, hit him with a little plastic hammer, and so on.  He then showed his film to kindergartners.  As you might predict, they liked the film very much.

When the film was over, they were released into the play room, where, lo and behold, there was a brand new bobo-doll (and numerous little plastic hammers).  Observers in the room recorded the kinds of behaviors the kids then engaged in.  Of course, they punched the doll, shouting "sockeroo", they kicked it, they sat on it, they hit it with the little plastic hammers, and so on.  Clearly, aggressive behavior can be learned by imitation.

Some critics (apparently ones without children of their own) suggested that, since bobo-dolls are meant to be hit, the experiment would never have worked with a living person.  So Bandura made a new film, this time with the young lady abusing a live clown.  When the children were finished with the movie and returned to the playroom, there was the live clown!  Guess what?

Other variables Bandura looked at included (1) rewarding the woman for beating up the doll, (2) having a high status vs. low status model, (3) increasing the degree to which the kids identified with the model, and (4) portraying the aggression as somehow ethically justified.  All these things lead to an increase in the amount of imitated aggression.

Notice that these variable are neatly combined in Johnny's favorite TV hero!  Which brings us to a very important issue:  What are the effects of TV violence on children?

Several studies "exposed" children to taped Saturday-morning cartoons, and then recorded their behavior in the playground.  Compared with other kids who had not seen the cartoons, these kids were significantly more aggressive.

As if you didn't know, the same is true of college men.  Expose them to boxing tapes, then introduce them into one of our "shocking" situations, and we found that they gave higher, longer, and more shocks than men who had seen peaceful films.

Overall, the research indicates that viewing aggression on TV leads to (1) highly specific imitation of even unusual aggressive behaviors, (2) a more general "reduction in restraint," and (3) desensitization, that is, a greater tolerance for aggression in others, on the tube, in society, etc.

And all this could last over long periods of time.  A longitudinal study followed kids from the third grade to high school graduation.  After extracting, statistically, all other factors (such as socioeconomic status, parents' education, and so on), it was found that the amount of aggressive cartoons watched in the third grade correlated with the amount of aggressive trouble they got into in high school -- in boys.

But this was not so in girls.  In looking for the reasons, they found that the correlation wasn't there either for boys who were raised in families that emphasized cooperation, i.e. alternatives to aggression.  This parallels what we find in Japan and Hong Kong:  The cartoons there can be extremely violent, even by our standards; yet the cultures are considerably less violent than our own.  This is likely due to the emphasis on cooperation in those cultures.

One has to wonder, however, whether all this exposure to violence might not effect even those who learn cooperation.  What if they find themselves in a situation where the cultural controls do not hold -- war, for example, or other social disasters?  And what about their tolerance for the aggressive behaviors of others?  I'll be happier when we find other ways to entertain ourselves than watching people hurt each other.

Copyright 1999, C. George Boeree