Feel Better

The Social Instinct

If the Self-Preservation Instinct constitutes our fundamental aliveness and the Sexual Instinct unveils new dynamics and creative expressions of that aliveness, the Social Drive opens us to a new order of what living means, one in which our experience is embedded within a vast ecosystem of interrelated living things. The Social Instinct is our relational drive. It motivates us to create relationships and care for the well-being of others. It is our desire to bond, to belong, and to positively enhance the lives of those we care for.

The Social Drive is ongoingly impacted, shaped, and finds orientation through a wide tapestry of impressions that provide a window into other people’s intentions, feelings, and identity for a complex, multifaceted view of the human mosaic. It not only drives us to be proactive in forming and preserving relationships, but it instills a strong need for meaning that stems from finding a sense of purpose, vocation, or service in relation to others. The Social Instinct invites us to consider who and what we really care about, and what gives us purpose beyond self-interest.

The need for purpose is one of the central longings for a fulfilling human life. Something special happens when our personal experience is entwined with and of benefit to others in service of an authentic aim that extends beyond personal concerns. This speaks to something intrinsic yet often-overlooked in our view of human nature: our interdependence, biologically, psychologically, and spiritually. When we fail to live into this truth, we suffer greatly and diminish our sense of what life can mean.

The Social Instinct is the newest Instinctual Drive in organisms and emerged only tens of millions of years ago (Wilson, 2013). It represents a revolution in how life self-organizes, encouraging acts of sacrifice that often go against individual survival interests for the sake of other members of the group. The origin of the Social Instinct in mammals is in the bond between a mother and child. To be able to read and attune to another’s experience, needs, and intentions is important for negotiating survival within a group, but an even more basic principle for mammalian life is that offspring must matter to parents. Organisms of a certain complexity require care and learning outside the womb. This necessitated the valuation of the life of another being to such a degree that one animal could be self-sacrificing for the benefit of another. Human babies are born with their physiological and autonomic functions as a work-in-progress, and compared to other animals, require a great deal more care and support from others.

Our physiology is radically oriented to relationships. It’s not just that an infant needs its mother. The nervous systems of adults are empathetically attuned to their children through a capacity for deep affinity and non-verbal connection wherein mother and child and share in the same subjective feeling and physical states with amazing precision. The inner states of other humans have a powerful impact on our own, even influencing our own experience of ourselves (Lewis, Amini, & Lannon, 2001). The state of synchronization and connection shared by mother and child becomes a prototype for all other forms of personal contact.

Human beings are one of the most relational creatures on earth. Our survival and development is utterly dependent upon our being in relationships. The Social Instinct instills the capacity to experience a sense of relatedness beyond genetic and “tribal” concerns, to recognize an intrinsic interconnectedness often far better than our conscious minds do. On a biological level, humans are astonishingly oriented to other people for a basic sense of well-being relative to other species, co-regulating one another’s nervous systems simply by their presence. The relatedness and support that close relationships with others provides has substantial benefits for longevity, happiness, stress reduction, and physical, psychological, and emotional health and stability.

Through relationships we learn to see and know ourselves. Many of the features we consider to be uniquely human, like personality and existential awareness, are a result of our complex social nature. Our psychologically-based self-concept arises through relationship with our earliest caregivers, constituting a kind of psychological birth after our physical birth, so relatedness is the basis for our experience of identity and self-image. This makes us aware that other people likewise have complex subjectivities of their own.

Our relational intelligence, like all our instinctual capacities, can adapt. Instinctual systems are undergoing constant revision processes through experience and interaction with the environment, and relational instincts in particular are sensitive and responsive to our overall state of relaxation and intention. When this drive is active in us, we’re interested and curious about people beyond what they can be or do for us. We can view them as whole, three-dimensional people with feelings, desires, and needs of their own, and we recognize their independent, yet interdependent, existence and the value of their personal experience.

In the recognition of how integral relationships are for living a meaningful life, the Social Instinct imbues a desire to live and act in concert with others. Having something of value to offer others provides a sense of purpose. Therefore, our Social Instinct is seeking a way to not only be impacted and fed through contact with others but to also offer up something of our own. Vocation, purpose, and meaning are major themes for a vibrant Social Instinct and a fulfilling life.

The instincts express themselves in different styles of attention and psychological boundaries in support of moving toward resources or people that are in our field of awareness (see Chapter Five). In contrast to the other two instincts, the boundary style of the Social Instinct is flexible and adaptable. Our social “lens” can be adjusted to include many people or narrow our focus in one-on-one interactions and adjust our engagement style to appropriately match our context.

Social adaptability means this instinct is sensitive and receptive to other people’s state. Any sort of engagement we enter into requires that we pick up on a wide range of verbal and non-verbal cues. It helps us to read the appropriate roles and interpret interpersonal dynamics—to know how to speak to our doctor versus how to speak to our lover, for example. The Social Instinct’s capacity for openness and discernment attunes us to the inner state of another person, to know how to interpret and read their intentions, empathize, and interpret their external place within a “map” of the social milieu and how to relate and communicate with them.

If the Sexual Instinct discriminates based on chemistry, the Social Instinct discriminates based on affinity and is sensitive to what the foundations make for the basis of any kind of relatedness. From a place of holding what’s in common, differences can be understood and appreciated. The discriminating Social Drive makes us selective about who we let in and to what degree. It wants to find and connect with interesting, exciting, like-minded people and keep away from those who are boring, draining, and incompatible. The Social Drive helps us to assess who is or isn’t a worthy friend, ally, or partner, without losing sight of the humanity of those with whom we disagree or face conflict.

The Social Instinct generates an interest in differences in people, but it can be susceptible to fear and suspicion when people and groups fall far outside the bounds of our inner social “compass.” Thus, the maturation of the Social Instinct means evolving what one takes to be a shared basis for empathy, expanding from a small set of external common traits and signifiers (i.e. people who look and act like me) to a deeper sense of recognizing our shared capacity to experience, suffer, and enjoy while also acknowledging vast differences. This means the Social Instinct grows one’s capacity to hold greater nuance and multi-leveled understandings of identity.

The differences and unique features aren’t lost or overlooked, but they’re held in conjunction with this deeper interpersonal understanding. From the point of view of the Social Instinct, we seek to represent ourselves in appearance, personal style, and body language in a way that’s congruent with our sense of social identity which means social signaling is a major facet of this Instinctual Drive. It makes us aware that our behaviours and appearance communicate something about who we are and is also a means by which we can gain others’ attention and interest. We all want to be known and understood, and we want others to have some interest in us and care for us.

Many social animals signal by broadcasting their dominance or place within a social network. Humans do this too, but most of us live within an extremely intricate web of subgroups, cultures, and affiliations, and therefore draw from a much wider palette of cultural signs, symbols, and hierarchies than most animals. The Social Instinct gives attention to how we communicate who we are and how we locate ourselves within a larger context. The healthy Social Instinct is skillful in knowing what face to present to people and how to manage our interpersonal identities. This instinct helps us recognize that authenticity isn’t clinging to a consistent self-presentation, but rather understanding how to skillfully hold multiple facets of self without becoming lost in any of them.

In modern life, opportunities to directly experience ourselves integrated within an interpersonal fabric are rare and fleeting. While modern life can be somewhat fragmented and complex, when people are able to put their self-involvement aside and serve a common aim, the results are often extraordinary. Every culture has its unique communal rituals and practices that not only bring a sense of identity, but more importantly, make space for another level of extrapersonal awareness, born from the alignment of many wills.

Our longing for such cohesion often turns toward its opposite sentiment—as anger and resentment toward people mistakenly perceived as representing obstacles to realising interpersonal unity.

The Social Instinct is the source of our greatest challenge as a species, because as fruitful as connection and collaboration can be, relatedness is also the cause of so much inner and outer strife. Our psychological issues and experience of identity arise through, and are therefore triggered by, relationships, and there is ongoing tension in balancing the individual’s needs, the needs of the collective, and the needs of competing groups. A kind of heartbreak around the loss of cohesion becomes antagonism toward outside or “impure” elements, and we revert to more crude and extreme social, political, and religious ideologies to compensate. What this means for the present situation is that solidarity doesn’t happen mechanically or by accident. Any realised sense of belonging and community requires conscious intention.

True autonomy and freedom is not how the ego imagines it—as complete independence and self-determination. This is the view of our “inner infant” working out autonomy issues with their mother. Our bodies are subject to organic laws and likewise our interpersonal life is beholden to considerations of what it means to co-exist with other people. Authentic freedom lies in being able to choose what conditions to subject oneself to and what we decide to serve. As Karl Marx observed, “Only in community [with others does each] individual [have] the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible

(Marx and Engels, 2004, p. 83).

The awake Social Instinct isn’t replacing “I” with “we,” but instead living from a place in which our action and inaction have meaning for a larger reality than our own immediate concerns. From this point of view, we could live a hermit’s life and yet still be living into a mature Social Drive when we come to recognise that selfhood isn’t fixed or separate, but emerges from the interaction of interpersonal and intrapersonal forces. The immediacy of the awake Social Instinct brings us into true relationships, where we not only experience nourishment in contributing our value and care, we also feel a larger presence that we are inextricably a part of as well.

[Source: Luckovich, 2021]