Why Do We Do What We Do–Part I

Why Do We Do What We Do?

Part I: Jung on Some Determinants of Human Behavior



… from the psychological standpoint five main groups of instinctive factors can be distinguished: hunger, sexuality, activity, reflection, and creativity. In the last analysis, instincts are ectopsychic determinants.

Jung (1936)[1]


Instinct as an ectopsychic factor would play the role of a stimulus merely, while instinct as a psychic phenomenon would be an assimilation of this stimulus to a pre-existent psychic pattern. A name is needed for this process. I should term it psychization….

Jung (1936)[2]


The so-called reality of matter is attested primarily by our sense-perceptions, while belief in the existence of spirit is supported by psychic experience.

Jung (1936)[3]


… it would not be too much to say that the most crucial problems of the individual and of society turn upon the way the psyche functions in regard to spirit and matter.

Jung (1936)[4]


As factors influencing human behavior, archetypes play no small role. The total personality can be affected by them through a process of identification. This effect is best explained by the fact that archetypes probably represent typical situations in life.

Jung (1936)[5]


The psyche is the starting-point of all human experience, and all the knowledge we have gained eventually leads back to it.

Jung (1936)[6]



Awhile ago a student came to me plaintively lamenting that, once again, she was experiencing a painful situation. She wondered “Why does this keep happening to me?”

“Why do I keep doing this?” Jung offers us some insights into why we do what we do in his essay “Psychological Factors Determining Human Behavior.” In Part I of this blog essay I will discuss the various elements Jung offers by way of answering the general question, and then in Part II I will provide specific examples drawn from my own life and the experiences of some people I have encountered.


The Components of Jung’s Essay


Jung divided his essay (which was initially a lecture he gave at Harvard University in 1936)[7] into two parts: “General Phenomenology” and “Special Phenomenology.” In the former he discussed the 5 instinctive factors that determine behavior (hunger, sexuality, activity, reflection and creativity), the will, and 6 modalities that also figure in what we do (3 physiological: age, sex and hereditary disposition; and 3 psychological: consciousness & unconsciousness, extraversion and introversion, and spirit and matter.) In the latter, as “special” phenomena, Jung identified archetypes, complexes, and the 4 functions of sensation, thinking, feeling and intuition. Each of these warrants some discussion


Jung’s Five Instinctive Factors


As individuals living in physical bodies, we have a range of instincts. We get hungry on a daily basis, and Jung understood hunger as “without doubt one of the primary and most powerful factors influencing behavior.”[8] From his contacts with native peoples in primitive cultures Jung knew that “the lives of primitives are more strongly affected by it [hunger] than by sexuality.”[9] Given the piles of wonderful foods in our typical supermarkets, and the profound sexualization of modern culture, this might not be obvious to us.

We might be more inclined to put sexual satisfaction as the primary instinct. Certainly Jung recognized sex as the ‘instinct for the preservation of the species,”[10] but cultural trends, coupled with technological innovations (like the birth control pill and the IUD) in the 50 years since Jung died, have turned sex into more of a recreational activity. It comes with the force of instinct, to be sure, but has been overlain with social, political and even economic implications.[11]

The “drive to activity”[12] is the third instinct Jung notes. He includes here our urge to “travel, love of change, restlessness, and the play-instinct.”[13] As animals, of course, we are “animated,” i.e. capable of movement, and this instinct is part of our animal nature.

By “reflection” Jung meant a “turning inward,” drawing on the Latin root of reflexio: “bending back.”[14] It is part of our human nature that we have the ability to stop and think before we act. We don’t always do this, but we can, and this gives rise to a variety of behaviors, e.g. thoughtful speech, dramatic self-expression, ethical conduct, scientific achievements, works of art, and religious activities[15]—all forms of cultural expression.

The final instinct Jung identifies is “creativity.” Jung did not limit being creative to “high art”—painting like Rembrandt or composing like Beethoven. The “creative instinct”[16] is our innate ability to making “something new in the real sense of the word.”[17] We are creative when we bake a cake, build a bookcase, write a poem, or make a dress. As children we were creative as we engaged with life and discovered the world. We are creative as adults when we confront and solve a practical problem, or make something new.


Jung on the Will


Ever the empiricist,[18] Jung refused to get bogged down in philosophical disputes, and he knew enough philosophy to know that reams of paper have been expended debating the nature and quality of the will. As he says,

“The part that will plays [in determining human behavior]… is a matter for dispute, and the whole problem is bound up with philosophical considerations, which in turn depend on the view one takes of the world. If the will is posited as free, then it is not tied to causality and there is nothing more to be said about it. But if it is regarded as predetermined and causally dependent upon the instincts, it is an epiphenomenon of secondary importance.”[19]

In other words, if we regard the will as free (not dependent on the instincts), then it is one determinant of human behavior: We can will to do thus and so, or not. But if we take the position that the will depends on the instincts, then it need not be considered as a separate factor determining our behavior.


Jung’s Six Modalities


In this section Jung identifies two types of modalities of psychic functioning. The physiological or semi-physiological types are sex, age and hereditary disposition.[20] Because of social conditioning men and women are likely to respond to life events differently, with different behaviors. As we age our bodies change, with corresponding changes in behavior, e.g. walking more slowly, using exercise regimens more for balance than for preparing for marathons, etc. And the heritable tendencies we develop over time will also affect how we behave, e.g. a person with a quarrelsome disposition will behave differently from someone who is placid or phlegmatic.

Then Jung discusses three modalities that are psychological. The first pair is the conscious and the unconscious. If a person is mostly unconscious, his/her behavior “is characterized by the predominance of compulsive instinctual processes, the result of which is either uncontrolled inhibition or a lack of inhibition throughout.”[21] A familiar example here is the person who, in a state of profound inebriation, acts in completely uninhibited ways, e.g. making lewd remarks, engaging in lascivious acts, tearing up the furniture, etc. By contrast, a person who has a high degree of consciousness manifests “a heightened awareness, a preponderance of will, directed, rational behavior, and an almost total absence of instinctual determinants.”[22]

The second pair of psychological modalities is extraversion and introversion. This modality “determines the direction of psychic activity,…”[23] and Jung felt the preference for one or the other of these modalities was innate.[24] We can observe this in tiny infants. The extraverted baby will display interest in outer things, people, pets, and noises. He or she will look up, stare at people, turn his/her head at noises, and generally seem outgoing. The introverted child often gets labeled “shy” and tends to withdraw from others, quite content to play with him/herself in the play pen, or to lie in the crib. In our very extraverted American culture, introverts tend to be misunderstood and labeled “unfriendly,”[25] when this is not true at all. It is just that the introvert’s behaviors reflect his/her focus on subjective experience (what’s going on within), with consequent different behaviors.

Spirit and matter are Jung’s third pair of psychological modalities. Our senses tell us that matter—material things—are real, while our psychic experiences tell us that spirit is real. Because American culture is so deeply materialistic now, Jung’s statement here requires more explanation. Jung could claim that “the existence of spirit is supported by psychic experience”[26] because, in part, he came from a family of psychics. His mother and his cousin were both gifted psychics,[27] and Jung himself had such a keen intuition that people sometimes felt he could read minds.[28] Jung grew up witnessing many manifestations of spirit in his family and himself. On top of these familial and personal facts Jung drew upon 5 decades of experience working with many patients whose dreams, drawings, intuitions, and synchronicities produced instance after instance of spirit showing up in “real” life. Americans today tend to denigrate anything that cannot be touched, counted, weighed, scientifically measured or “monetized,” so deeply sunk are we in the materialist paradigm. So while we can easily imagine how matter affects behavior (e.g. if we have a million dollars we can take a trip around the world; if we have a cold, we might want to rest), we find it hard to imagine how spirit might be a determinant of behavior. Jung saw spirit as a modality giving rise to ethical, aesthetic, intellectual, social and religious systems,[29] all of which impact behavior in major ways, e.g. a spiritual concern for Nature might show up in participation in environmental groups; awareness of spirit can provoke ethical behaviors like peacekeeping, civil rights activism, etc.[30]

Jung concludes his discussion of the modalities by stating that “… it would not be too much to say that the most crucial problems of the individual and society turn upon the way the psyche functions in regard to spirit and matter.”[31] For 21st-century Americans this statement goes far in explaining why we have many of the social, economic and political problems we face.

The Role of Complexes


The final three determinants of behavior Jung discusses under the heading of “Special Phenomenology,” and these are “special” because they reflect the “endless individual variation”[32] of the psyche, as well as our capacity for “change and differentiation.”[33] In other words, these are more particular, less universal, found more in some individuals than in others.

The first of these that Jung discusses are complexes, which he defines as “psychic fragments which have split off owing to traumatic influences or certain incompatible tendencies.”[34] Jung first made a name for himself back at the turn of the 20th century with his “association” experiments,[35] which proved that complexes “interfere with the intentions of the will and disturb the conscious performance; they produce disturbances of memory and blockages in the flow of associations; they appear and disappear according to their own laws; they can temporarily obsess consciousness, or influence speech and action in an unconscious way.”[36] Complexes are features of our inner life that have a life of their own; they can function autonomously,[37] i.e. beyond the control of the rational ego and our conscious will. And one does not have to be “crazy” to have complexes; they exist in most of us, to a greater or lesser degree. In those who are unconscious, a complex can show up “out of the blue” and produce startling, shocking or inexplicable behavior, some examples of which I will discuss in Part II.


Archetypes as Influences on Behavior


In certain realms, like art and religion, unconscious contents may” appear in personified form, especially as archetypal figures.”[38] Jung defines archetypes as “psychic forms which, like the instincts, are common to all mankind, …”[39] The universality of archetypes can be seen in the myths, legends and folklore of the various cultures in the world and throughout time. Jung was fascinated by this fact, and one of the motives for his wide-ranging travels was to study the parallels between the various cultures and their art, myths, religions and creativity. From these studies he formulated his concept of the “collective unconscious,” the psychic endowment or heritage of all human beings.

Jung was clear about the impact archetypes have on behavior: “As factors influencing human behavior, archetypes play no small role. The total personality can be affected by them through a process of identification.”[40] Jung saw this process work out in his own life and in the lives of his patients. We see it today, in how “groupies” follow their favorite bands, gamers identify with particular figures in virtual reality, and people interested in certain careers prepare for it, e.g. dancer, Olympic athlete, etc.

Because archetypes have intent, i.e. they want to give rise to certain behaviors, they “have the capacity to influence, control, and even to suppress the ego-personality, so that a temporary or lasting transformation of personality ensues.”[41] The committed ballerina, or athlete determined to master his/her sport will so identify with the archetype that the activity becomes more than a way to pass time: it becomes a way of life.


The Four Functions and Their Impact on Behavior


The final determinant of behavior derives from the fact that people differ in their preferences with regard to the various faculties of consciousness. Jung got wise to this determinant as he developed his theory of personality types, with the four “functions.” These are “sensation” which “establishes the fact that something is there;” “thinking,” which interprets what is perceived;” “feeling,” which establishes the value of the object;” and “intuition,” which “is an immediate awareness of relationships that could not be established by the other three functions at the moment of orientation.”[42]

Jung hypothesized that we all have one of these four as our preferred function. It is “especially developed, thus giving the mentality as a whole its characteristic stamp.”[43] Equally, we have one of these that is not well developed—the “inferior” function (“inferior” in that it is the farthest down in the unconscious, least accessible to us in conscious life).

Clearly the concept of types shows up in behavior. The person with a preference for sensation deals with the world of facts, e.g. accounting, physical training or therapy, law, etc. The strong Feeling type works well with people, and may show up in human relations departments, social work, psychotherapy, or early childhood education. A strong preference for thinking shows up in behaviors requiring objectivity and rationality, e.g. college teaching, forensic science, philosophy, law and justice work. Intuition is useful in areas of life where actions depend on being able to “see around the corner of the future” or into the heart of a person or situation, e.g. future forecasting, emergency room medicine (where the ability to see the whole picture and make very quick diagnoses is essential), psychotherapy, empanelling a jury, etc.




Bair, Deirdre (2003), Jung: A Biography. New York: Little, Brown & Co.

Brand, Renée (1977), “Four Contacts with Jung,” eds. William McGuire & R.F.C.Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cain, Susan (2012), Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Crown Publishers.

Jung, C.G. (1971), “Psychological Types,” Collected Works, 6. Princeton: Princeton University Press

________ (1960), ”The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1975), Letters, ed. Gerhard Adler & Aniela Jaffé. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.




[1] Collected Works 8, ¶246. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[2] Ibid., ¶234.

[3] Ibid., ¶251.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., ¶254.

[6] Ibid., ¶261.

[7] Ibid., note 1, p. 114.

[8] Ibid., ¶237.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., ¶238.

[11] E.g. the boycott of some cities or states by the gay community, with the consequent loss of tourist revenue.

[12] CW 8, ¶240.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., ¶241.

[15] Ibid., ¶242.

[16] Ibid., ¶245.

[17] Ibid.

[18] This is how Jung referred to himself; “Letter to Pastor Ernst Jahn,” 7 September 1935; Letters, I, 195.

[19] CW 8, ¶247.

[20] Ibid., ¶248.

[21] Ibid., ¶249.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., ¶250.

[24] CW 6, ¶s 558, 560.

[25] See Cain (2012) for an in-depth discussion of introversion and the need for our culture to re-evaluate it.

[26] CW 8, ¶251.

[27] Bair (2003), 27-28, 46-49; Jung (1965), 18.

[28] Brand (1997), 161-2.

[29] CW 8, ¶251.

[30] One group that manifests its awareness of spirit in social activism is the Religious Society of Friends, aka the Quakers.

[31] CW 8, ¶251.

[32] Ibid., ¶252.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid., ¶253.

[35] Bair (2003), 166; for the tests and Jung’s description of them, see CW 2.

[36] CW 8, ¶253.

[37] Ibid., ¶254; cf. CW 6, ¶923.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid., ¶257.

[43] Ibid., ¶258

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