Instinct: Meaning & Theories

Instinct is an animal's involuntary reaction that causes an identifiable and largely stable pattern of behavior. Instinctive behavior is an innate process that promotes an animal's or species' survival. It is especially noticeable during fights and sexual activity. Even though all animals have instincts, behavior tends to be more adaptable the higher the animal form. Mammals frequently exhibit learned behavior rather than instinctive behavior.

What are Instincts?

Instincts are uncontrollable impulses that drive living creatures into complex behavior. In the behavioral sciences, instinct is typically regarded as the innate component of behavior that develops in individuals without any instruction or training. Cooperation, sexual behavior, parenthood, and aesthetics are examples of Spink behaviors that are thought to have evolved psychological systems with an instinctual foundation. Human instincts are powerful, dynamic forces that shape a person's personality, way of living, and behavior. All animals have instinctive urges (such as sex and aggression) and reflexes (such as blinking and gagging). However, many simpler species also inherit instincts for more sophisticated activities, like courting displays and nest-building.

Different Views on Instinct

Instinct is typically defined as either one of two things: either a natural tendency to behave or a collection of inherited reflexes. The statement can explain the latter, "An instinct is a hereditary collection of reflexes that the central nervous system has integrated to create an outward action of the organism that usually characterizes a complete species and is typically adaptive." Animal behaviorists and psychology students seem to find this viewpoint most reasonable. Introspective people and social psychology students who want to define instincts psychologically rather than biologically tend to hold the first opinion.

Characteristics of Instincts

Everybody has instincts, and all creatures, including humans, possess them.

  • Instincts are predisposed tendencies.

  • Instincts are hereditary tendencies.

  • Every instinct emerges during a growing phase, develops, and then wanes.

  • Each instinct has cognitive, conative, and emotional components that operate on both the body and the mind.

Theories on Instinct

Major theories are

Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802) 

He postulated that the so-called "spirit of animation," a delicate fluid, coursed through the brain and nerves, causing muscle fibers to contract. This fluid responds to internal as well as external stimuli. It functioned according to the principles of association, which caused "all animal motions which have occurred at the same time, or in immediate succession, to become so associated, that when one of them is repeated, the other tends to follow or succeed it." This nerve fluid created thoughts within the brains of animals and humans, notions that were merely feeble duplicates of experiences. Owing to his sensationalist psychology, he could presume that human and animal intelligence is indistinguishable from one another. He also could presume that the behaviors typically thought to result from intelligence and habit instinctively. He believed, for example, that birds' capacity to build nests is the product of observation and "their awareness of those things that are most acceptable to their touch concerning warmth, cleanliness, and stability."

Charles Darwin 

He initially postulated that habit, a learned way of action, offered a naturalistic explanation for an animal's instincts. He believed that habit formation led to instinct and that the Deity provided the animal intellect with the required "knowledge and design" at each instance when instinct was used. There were various limitations to Darwin's linkage of acquired habit with his theory of natural selection. First, it did not always seem like behaviors was passed down through families. Additionally, while acquired habits appeared to work with domestic animals, they did not fully account for the natural selection of behavior in sterile worker colony insects. Darwin's studies of domestic animals and colonial insects led him to conclude that organisms adjusted to their surroundings through habit, eventually culminating in fixed instincts.

Sigmund Freud

He claimed that instinct is the psychological expression of a wish to satisfy a physiological need. It has the following four key characteristics:

  • Source: a bodily need

  • Aim: to satisfy the need

  • Object

  • Impetus - strength or instinctive force

Freud distinguished two categories of instincts

  • Life Instinct − Life instincts encompass all forces required to sustain key life processes and ensure species survival. Freud distinguished the innate sex instinct as the most crucial of the different drives for forming a personality.

  • Death Instinct − It encompasses all forces that serve as the backdrop for acts of aggression, cruelty, murder, and suicide. Freud believed that these impulses were just as crucial in determining individual behavior.

Life Instinct Death Instinct
Forces required to ensure species survival. Forces underlying the acts of murder, aggression, violence, etc.

Instinct Theory of Motivation

Instinct theories suggest that people's motivation to engage in particular actions is derived from their evolutionary programming. Early motivation studies centered on the innate, biologically defined, and behavioral patterns are known as instincts in humans and animals. Early researchers hypothesized that humans might also be subject to comparable impulses, much as animals are. For example, animals are driven by their instincts to migrate, create nests, reproduce, and defend their territory.


Every complicated behavior presents a difficulty in terms of tracing its roots. How do birds know where to go during their winter migration? How do border collies have the ability to herd sheep? How do sea turtles return to the beach where they first hatched? We might use terms like migratory instinct, herding instinct, or locating instinct as shorthand—as a means of communication. Such designations may appear satisfying, but that satisfaction is just fleeting. Any complex, adaptive behavior can be probed for answers to many challenging problems that span evolutionary and developmental time, ecological and social experience complexities, and the workings of the neurological system with its billions of neurons. The more we explore these issues, the more difficult it becomes to provide any precise definition of an instinct.

Updated on: 13-Dec-2022


Kickstart Your Career

Get certified by completing the course

Get Started