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I would say that one of features that separates human consciousness from animal is the ability override instinctive behavior. A human infant will jerk its hand away from a hot surface. An older child you can communicate with at the basic level may not although experimenting with this is no doubt unethical. An adult can consciously overcome this instinct.

Are there experiments testing this idea with animals? In animals that science claims are self-aware, it would be interesting to know if they can overcome the automatic reaction to negative instincts.
The first step would possibly be to see if one negative instinct can be overcome in the presence of another. Like will a really hungry chimp walk across a painfully hot surface to reach food? This seems likely but I am unaware of any such testing.

A more interesting example will would be cases of real animal altruism. Science is quick to tout what some call animal altruism as hardcoded and evolving genetically e.g. lions defending prides, mothers defending young. And I agree this can be hardcoded and genetic since I am not aware of lions NOT defending prides or mothers leaving young to predators.

However, these links show cases of what some may call true animal altruism.
Dogs braving the danger of the highway to help other animals.
https://www.quora.com/Are-animals-capable-of-selflessness-Do-they-have-the-desire-to-help-others

Leopardess adopts baby baboon
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9DOxH5RyWQ

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  • $\begingroup$ The trouble is our motives don't have labels on them, "instinct", "altruism" etc. Different parts of the brain produce different responses to the same stimuli and it is then the job of the cerebral cortex to calculate which of the competing options to follow, some of these responses are "hard-wired" others not, but there is no single "instinct" which our conciousness, or that of other animals can, "overcome", just a range of competing options almost all of which are processed by the cerebral cortex in every creature that has one. $\endgroup$ – Isaacson Nov 20 '16 at 7:48
  • $\begingroup$ How do I move a question? Just repost? $\endgroup$ – Anoop Alex Nov 21 '16 at 3:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Isaacson You can hold your hand to a hot surface if you wanted. And the videos are indications of animals overcoming instincts. So its very likely consciousness can overcome hardwiring. $\endgroup$ – Anoop Alex Nov 21 '16 at 3:17
  • $\begingroup$ @AnoopAlex This is a common misconception that causes few problems in animal studies, but massive problems in human ethics. There is no evidence whatsoever that they are "overcoming instincts", there are just a range of potential responses to the various stimuli in the scenario and the animals are choosing one of them using either learned or novel patterns in the cortex. There is no way of distinguishing "hard-wiring" from "conciousness" in these types of actions, all of them go through the cerebral cortex to be decided on. $\endgroup$ – Isaacson Nov 21 '16 at 8:24
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    $\begingroup$ Ever housetrain a puppy? Or consider that a horse's instincts are to flee from perceived dangers, including four-legged wolflike predators, yet with training you can ride your horse around all sorts of scary things, and take your dogs along :-) $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Nov 27 '16 at 5:52

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