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Empirical Research

Animal behavior was deeply investigated by field researchers in the 20th century. They found a lot of competitiveness in animals and explored the biological mechanisms behind it. The facts made some people uncomfortable, however, and 21st century researchers have replaced that work with studies portraying animals in a progressive light. The IMI is committed to the facts whether or not they make us comfortable, because that helps us understand our mammalian operating system.

For most of human history, people could observe wild animals for themselves. They would not have believed the peace-and-love model of animals because they could see the truth with their own eyes. Today, we tend to confuse animals with pets because we have little exposure to wild animals. Alas, pets are not a valid model of the mammal brain. Pets do not meet their own survival needs. They do not forage or reproduce. The mammal brain was naturally selected to promote the survival of its genes. It rewards you with happy chemicals when you do things that promote the survival of your genes. We won’t think this consciously but we need to know this to understand our own impulses.

The point is not that we should have social rivalry. The point is that we do, and we can better manage it when we know where it comes from. Idealizing animals does not help us manage our painful emotions. Understanding animals helps us see how we create our strong chemical surges, even when our verbal brain says, “I was not thinking that.”

The Inner Mammal Institute holds a large collection of books about the competitiveness of wild animals because that information has become scarce in the internet age.  However, here are some internet links to empirical research on the animal urge for social dominance:

You may wonder how a body of research could disappear from empirical science. One factor is the violent threat posed by animal rights activists in the late 90s (for example this and this). It motivated a massive retreat from primate research– both past research and future research.

Social pressure is another significant factor. I know it well because I have spent most of my life in academia. Here is some of my writing on that subject:

Caveats about social science research:

All sciences have trends because scientists are human. The current trend in brain science and animal science is to presume that nature conforms to progressive beliefs. Rousseau said that nature is good, and evil comes from “civilization.” That mindset now prevails in our education system, and thus shapes our research. Conflicting evidence is routinely underweighed and disparaged. The human mind sees the world through the lens of prior beliefs. Rousseauian philosophy is the lens that filters our science. We need to need to notice the lens instead of believing it’s all “evidence-based.”

Animals in nature compete much of the time. Even plants compete. Animals steal food from each other, even from children. They cooperate some of the time, of course. But evidence of cooperation among animals tends to come from lab-crafted situations. Research on animal altruism attracts funding and publication, while evidence of animal self-interest is typically ignored.

The human brain is always learning from rewards. Researchers know which messages get rewarded and which messages bring career setback and ridicule.

In my quest to understand human motivation, I looked beyond the inner circle of today’s research institutions. I have particularly enjoyed the work of Robert Ardrey and the wildlife documentaries of David Attenborough. Ardrey spent much time with field researchers and ethologists in the 1950s and 60s. He learned that animals cooperate when a common enemy threatens. In his declining years, he allowed himself to see the obvious: each brain is motivated by self-interest. Cooperation is hard to sustain among self-interested brains, and bonding around a common enemy is usually what it takes to make it work.

If you live long enough, you can allow yourself to think and speak outside the current consensus, regardless of the consequences. This is not the same as “questioning authority.” That phrase has been coopted to mean attacking your parent’s generation, which leads to adolescent oppositionalism rather than truth. The scientific mind questions everything: your peers, your heroes and yourself. This leaves you free to go where the evidence leads instead of reflexively opposing “the man.”

Pharmaceutical research

Medical research gets funded when it is linked to an explicit cure. Such research is not a complete picture of human emotion, and we should not expect it to be. Furthermore, big companies become targets of lawsuits. They must choose their research projects with such consequences in mind.

Academic research

University professors must generate data that passes “peer review” in order to survive. Academics know how their peers review things, and they know better than to risk their survival. For example, they need “good data” to avoid criticism, so social science research tends to focus on variables that are easily quantifiable, such as race, gender and income.

As a result, we get a lot of with “information” that sifts human experience through a filter of race, gender and income. We take it as the complete truth because it’s “statistically proven. ”Since “good data” on early childhood experience is not available, it is widely overlooked in the picture painted by academic research.


Happiness research is often based on self-reporting. This introduces significant biases. In some cultures, you don’t admit it if you’re unhappy, especially to strangers with clipboards. You’re expected to be content, so you find a way to do that. In other cultures, brooding unhappiness is respected as “deep,” while happy people are dismissed as “complaisant” or “dull”. Self-reported indicators of happiness are also easily biased by the wording of a question.


Therapists don’t want to scare people away. Anything deemed “off-putting” is likely to be left out of research that comes from the psychotherapy profession. Good intentions can create a customer-is-always right view of psychology, leading to unfortunate distortions.

For example, abusive parents might resist therapy if they feel “blamed,” so the therapeutic community dismisses abuse as the consequence of one injustice or another. This has value when it motivates parents to change. But it’s harmful when it suggests that child abuse is a reasonable response to the frustrations of life. Humans have struggled to feed their families since the beginning of time, but the “therapeutic” perspective offers the enticing presumption that today’s struggles are unprecedented.

The non-judgmental view of child abuse may be “therapeutic” for the therapist in the moment he encounters the “client,” but it is not necessarily best for the child and the society.


Humans enjoy proving they’re right and others are wrong. This impulse has motivated humans to search for the truth by disproving earlier truths. Over the millennia, contrarianism has improved our understanding of human behavior. But the joy of proving others wrong can also lead to misperceptions and distortions.

For example, one popular strain of research purports to “prove” that humans are irrational using highly contrived scenarios. They offer subjects the chance to save five lives by taking one life. Most people think that’s a good thing until the researchers suggest those five people be saved from an oncoming trolley car by pushing a fat man onto the tracks. Many respondents refuse. This study is widely cited as “proof” that we’re irrational.

That interpretation ignores the very rational inference that the trolley might not stop when the fat man is pushed at it, and the pusher could end up in jail for murder. Perhaps this contorted finding is accepted as “science” because it feels good to accuse the whole human race of irrationality.

Social engineering

It feels good to help others, so we like research that points the way to a “better world.” But humans are more complicated than we expect, and formulas for fixing the world often have unintended side effects. For example, legalizing drugs can fix the world according to one strain of research, but such studies make simplifying assumptions and cannot possibly anticipate the full consequences of legalizing drugs. An engineer doesn’tre-design a part until he knows how it fits into the whole.


Every researcher knows which findings will win respect in their field and which will get them immediately shunned. Findings that fit current intellectual trends are eagerly reported in scholarly journals and the mass media. Findings that contradict the views of current opinion leaders often get buried in the researcher’s desk because they can easily ruin the career of a “scientist.” In every generation, new opinion leaders build careers by battling prevailing thought habits, only to impose new thought habits as rigidly as the old guard they so vehemently critique.


Human beings see the world through the filter of their beliefs. Scientists are human, and have beliefs of their own. The scientific method elevates data from the biased perceptions of individuals. But when every study reported by a particular group of researchers just happens to reinforce their shared belief system, it makes me skeptical. For example, current research on happiness reinforces the Buddhist belief system, even though the researchers perceive themselves as practitioners of “hard science ” rather than “religion. ” Similarly, research on animals reinforces the belief that kindness is the state of nature and unkindness is caused by :our society.” I’m not against Buddhism or kindness, but I’m against the gross oversimplification of human nature that ideology can produce.

Decades of research have provided us with tremendous insight into human nature. However, distortions are likely at each moment in time because new ideas puff themselves up to gain acceptance. Advocates of new views strive to establish themselves by ridiculing and displacing representatives of other views. Decades pass before the merits of both views can be weighed outside the context of this mammalian dominance struggle.

For example, Freudians ridiculed the “superstitious” thinking that came before them. Then behaviorists ridiculed the Freudians. Now genetics is popular and behaviorism is ridiculed. Each wave of insight makes a valuable contribution. But each wave tends to exaggerate its own contribution and understate the significance of prior insights.

Each of us is free to synthesize research from many time periods instead of depending on what’s popular at the moment. Interestingly, most of today’s raging arguments were addressed a hundred years ago by William James’s ground-breaking “Principles of Psychology.” But James’s positive contributions are mostly forgotten today, as people remember his misguided ideas about communicating with the dead. Every original thinker is right about some things and wrong about others, which prepares the way for the next swing of the pendulum. Each of us is free to synthesize our own insights instead of riding the latest swing.