What Is the Instinct Theory of Motivation?

How Instincts Motivate Behavior

Imprinting is an example of an instinct
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What is it that motivates behavior? According to the instinct theory of motivation, all organisms are born with innate biological tendencies that help them survive. This theory suggests that instincts drive all behaviors.

So what exactly is an instinct? 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 innate need to build a nest or migrate during the winter.

Both of these behaviors occur naturally and automatically. They do not need to be learned in order to be displayed. 

A Closer Look at Instincts

In animals, instincts are inherent tendencies to engage spontaneously in a particular 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 before 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 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.

Infants display these instinctive reactions when confronted by stimuli in their environment. For example, brushing an infant's cheek will cause the child to turn his or her head and search for a nipple. 

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 essential 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.

Observations About Instinct Theory

The instinct theory suggests that motivation is primarily biologically based. We engage in certain behaviors because they aid in survival. Migrating before winter ensures the survival of the flock, so the behavior has become instinctive. Birds who migrated were more likely to survive and therefore more likely to pass down their genes to future generations. 

So what exactly qualifies as an instinct? In his book Exploring Psychology, author David G. Meyers suggests that in order to be identified as an instinct, the behavior "must have a fixed pattern throughout a species and be unlearned."

In other words, the behavior must occur naturally and automatically in all organisms of that species. For example, infants have an innate rooting reflex that leads them to root for and suck on a nipple. This behavior is unlearned and occurs naturally in all human infants.

Doctors often look for an absence of such instinctive reflexes in order to detect potential developmental issues. 

Criticisms of Instinct Theory

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

  • Instincts can explain not all behaviors
  • Instincts are not something that can be readily observed and scientifically tested
  • Just 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 responses 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. Essentials of Psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth; 2011.

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

Myers, D. G. Exploring Psychology, Eighth Edition. New York: Worth Publishers; 2011.

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