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Instinct Theory of Motivation


According to the instinct theory of motivation, all organisms are born with innate biological tendencies that help them survive. This theory suggests that all behaviors are driven by instincts. Instincts are goal-directed and innate patterns of behavior that are not the result of learning or experience. For example, infants have an inborn rooting reflex that helps them seek out a nipple and obtain nourishment, while birds have an inborn need to build a nest or migrate during the winter.

What Is an Instinct?

In animals, instincts are inherent tendencies to spontaneously engage in a specific pattern of behavior. Examples of this include a dog shaking after it gets wet, a sea turtle seeking out the ocean after hatching, or a bird migrating prior to the winter season.

Ethologist Konrad Lorenz famously demonstrated the power of instincts when he was able to get young geese to imprint on him. He noted that geese would become attached to the first moving thing they encountered after they hatched, which in most cases would be their own mothers. However, by ensuring that he was the first thing the geese encountered, they instead became attached, or imprinted, on him.

In humans, many reflexes are examples of instinctive behaviors. The rooting reflex, as mentioned earlier is one such example, as is the suckling reflex, the Moro reflex, and the Babkin reflex.

A Brief History of the Instinct Theory of Motivation

Psychologist William McDougall was one of the first to write about the instinct theory of motivation. He suggested that instinctive behavior was composed of three key elements: perception, behavior, and emotion. He also outlined 18 different instincts that included curiosity, the maternal instinct, laughter, comfort, sex, and hunger.

Psychiatrist Sigmund Freud used a broad view of motivation and suggested the human behavior was driven by two key forces: the life and death instincts. Psychologist William James, on the other hand, identified a number of instincts that he believed were essential for survival. These included such things as fear, anger, love, shame, and cleanliness.


  • "Instinct theory proposes that organisms engage in certain behaviors because they lead to success in terms of natural selection. Instinct theory casts motivation as essentially intrinsic and biologically based. Migration and mating are examples of instinctually motivated behavior in animal."
    (Melucci, 2010)

  • "To qualify as an instinct, a complex behavior must have a fixed pattern throughout a species and be unlearned. Such behaviors are common in other species. Human behavior, too, exhibits certain unlearned fixed patterns, including infants' innate reflexes for rooting and sucking. Most psychologists, though, view human behavior as directed by both physiological needs and psychological wants."
    (Myers, 2011)

Criticisms of Instinct Theory

While instinct theory could be used to explain some behaviors, critics felt that it had some major limitations. Among these criticisms:

  • Not all behaviors can be explained by instincts

  • Instincts are not something that can be readily observed and scientifically tested

  • Simply labeling something as an instinct does nothing to explain why some behaviors appear in certain instances but not in others.

While there are criticisms of instinct theory, this does not mean that psychologists have given up on understanding how instincts can influence behavior. Instead, modern psychologists understand that while certain tendencies might be biologically programmed, individual experiences can also play a role in how behaviors are displayed. For example, while we might be more biologically prepared to be afraid of a dangerous animal such as a snake or bear, we will never exhibit that fear if we are not exposed to those animals.


Bernstein, D. A. (2011). Essentials of psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Melucci, N. (2010). E-Z Psychology. New York: Barron's Educational Series, Inc.

Myers, D. G. (2011). Exploring psychology, eighth edition. New York: Worth Publishers.

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