A man surviving in the woods with a bow and arrow, using his human survival instincts.

What are the most basic human survival instincts? When do these survival instincts kick in?

Human survival instincts tell us to fear and avoid something, to protect something, or to want something better. Mo Gawdat says these instincts can be problematic because they cause us unnecessary levels of stress and dissatisfaction.

Let’s discuss each of these faulty instincts, how they function, and what happens when we use them to process information.

Instinct #1: Fear

Gawdat explains that we react to fear with avoidance in an effort to stay safe. This human survival instinct developed in ancient times to keep us alive—for example, we fear river rapids because we’ve seen people drown there. Now we avoid them to stay safe.

(Shortform note: The evolutionary cause of our fear and avoidance instinct that Gawdat references is theory rather than fact. However, recent research found that anxiety can be partially attributed to genetics in rhesus monkeys, which are genetically similar to humans. This may support the idea that threat detection (fear) and avoidance mechanisms in modern humans could be passed down genetically from our ancient human ancestors.)

However, since the life-threatening fears we experienced in ancient times rarely occur today, Gawdat says this instinct tends to take over at inappropriate times. As a result, our avoidance reaction ends up preventing us from achieving success and happiness. 

For example, you may fear competition because you’ll be embarrassed if you lose. Therefore, you avoid entering a chess competition even though your dream is to be a professional player and you’re highly gifted. This fear and avoidance prevents you from achieving goals that would produce success and happiness. Instead, you feel unhappy because you know you’re falling short of your potential and missing out.

(Shortform note: In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert agrees that fear often holds us back and argues that to reach our potential, we must confront our fear. She recommends three ways to confront fear in the creative process or in almost any situation. First, accept that fear is natural when doing anything new—we fear what we don’t know. Second, allow fear to exist alongside your creativity (or ambition to do something new)—ignoring fear won’t make it go away. Third, don’t make decisions based on fear—use your courage to guide you instead.)

Instinct #2: Protect

Gawdat explains that our instinct to protect what’s ours stems from our need for security. We want to hold onto what we have because it makes us feel safe—we don’t want to let go of it because losing resources could put us at risk. For example, an ancient human might have carried a sharp rock for miles despite its weight because they needed it for protection and might not find another one.

While the average person today doesn’t experience the same level of resource insecurity that ancient humans did, our instinct causes us to hold onto things we don’t need. This produces suffering because, when these things are taken away, we feel we’re losing something vital for our well-being.

For example, you may carry your late mother’s wedding ring to feel like she’s with you. One day, someone steals the ring and you’re racked with grief and pain because you feel you’ve lost your connection to her. Gawdat would argue that in reality, you’ve lost nothing. First, the connection with your mother exists inside you, not inside a ring. Second, your happiness isn’t dependent on your mother or the ring—it’s dependent on you. When you become too attached to people and things, you give them control over your happiness and diminish your autonomy.

Prospect Theory Explains Loss Aversion

The idea that we want to protect what we have and avoid losses is the foundation of prospect theory as Daniel Kahneman explains in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Prospect theory rests on three points. First, when you evaluate a situation, you compare it to your expectations or what’s “normal” for you—for example, if getting $100 for your birthday is normal, not getting it is a loss.

Second, the less of something you have, the more impactful a gain is—for example, going from having $100 to $200 feels more significant than going from $900 to $1,000. Third, losing something triggers stronger feelings than gaining something of the same value—for example, you feel the pain of losing $100 more intensely than the joy of gaining $100.

Instinct #3: Want

Gawdat explains that we’re driven to want more and better things because of our instinct to plan for our long-term survival. For example, an ancient human might have enough food to last until the end of the week. However, they’d still forage daily to collect more so they wouldn’t be left with nothing when their current stock runs out come the weekend.

However, once again, the average person today doesn’t experience the same resource insecurity or potential threats that ancient humans did. Therefore, we’ve directed our sense of wanting toward unnecessary things—a bigger house, nicer car, newer phone, and so on. However, these things only satisfy us temporarily before we want something more. This cycle makes us unhappy because wanting tells our brain that what we currently have isn’t enough. This sense of lack causes us sadness.

Humans Are Driven by Mimetic Desire

In Wanting, Luke Burgis reiterates that humans are naturally driven to want more and better things; however, his explanation for this differs from Gawdat’s. Burgis supports the theory of mimetic desire—that humans are driven to want specifically what others have because of our natural urges to mimic others and fit in. While these urges may be evolutionary traits, they’re not the same evolutionary trait that Gawdat cites as the source of our wanting—the desire for long-term resource security.

Further, Burgis agrees that wanting can cause us unhappiness and specifies three negative effects of mimetic desire. First, mimetic desire can ruin relationships by causing unhealthy competition. Second, mimetic desire can cause you to pursue misleading desires (like the ones Gawdat discusses)—for example, you think getting the new iPhone will make you happy, but really it’s your relationship that needs work. Third, chasing misleading desires causes societal issues—for example, consumerism soars, and as a result, the environment suffers and industries competing for sales are motivated to lower their wages.
The 3 Basic Human Survival Instincts That Cause Stress

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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