What Is the Instinct Theory of Motivation?

Theory About How Instincts Motivate Behavior

Imprinting is an example of an instinct
What is the instinct theory of motivation?. Sheree Lynn Photography / Moment Open / Getty Images

What is it that motivates behavior? Is the way that we behave something we are born with, or is in instead something that develops as we age and due to the experiences we have? What evidence supports the basis of motivation?

Instinct Theory of Motivation: Definition

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 (a reflex in which babies begin sucking when a finger or nipple places pressure on the roof of their mouth,) the Moro reflex (a startle reaction seen in babies less than 6 months of age) and the Babkin reflex (a reflex in which babies open their mouths and flex their arms in response to rubbing the palms of their hands.) 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't explain 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

Bottom Line on Instinct Theory

While there are criticisms of instinct theory, this does not mean that psychologists have given up on trying to understand 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.

Other Theories About Motivation

In addition to instinct theory, there are other theories which have been proposed to help explain motivation. These include the incentive theory of motivation, in which our behaviors are driven by the desire for rewards, the drive theory of motivation, in which people are "driven" to behave in certain ways to reduce the internal tension caused by unmet needs, the arousal theory of motivation, which claims that people behave in certain ways to either increase or decrease their arousal, the humanistic theory of motivation, which claims that behaviors are the result of a desire for self-actualization, and the expectancy theory which claims that we make choices to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

In actuality, none of these theories, including instinct theory, can fully explain motivation. It's likely that components of all of these theories, as well as theories not yet proposed, are integrated in a way that results in the motivation for the behaviors of humans.

Sources:

Myers, David G. Exploring Social Psychology. New York, NY: McGraw Hill Education, 2015. Print.

Zilbersheid, U. The Historical Character of Human Nature in Freud’s Theories. American Journal of Psychanalysis. 2013. 73(2):184-204.

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