How the Instinct Theory Explains Motivation

Motivation is the pushing force behind all human action. Simply, without motivation, humans will cease doing anything.

However, what is it that motivates behavior? Is the way we behave something innate in every one since we were born, or does it develop as we age and due to our experiences? What evidence supports the basis of motivation?

For this reason, the instinct theory of motivation is one of the most influential theories in psychology. The very term “instinct” dates back to the 1870s. As one of the very first theories in psychology to explain why humans are driven to do certain behaviors, it examines the forces that motivate people to act and how they influence behavior.

Addressed by the instinct theory of motivation, all living things are born with innate biological tendencies that help them survive. The idea is that this approach finds parallels between biological instincts and motives. It declares that motives are natural forces found in all living creatures. Organisms rely on intuition to survive in a world of contradicting needs and drives.

The instinct theory of motivation predicts that survival instinct is at the core of not only human behavior but the behavior of all creatures. The instincts depicted include behaviors for eating, forming relationships, procreating, and more.

It is a shared belief that we are encouraged by what we want; therefore, we do certain actions because we desire to reach specific outcomes. At the heart of every human being is an internal drive that guides our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and instinct theory is one of the most influential theories of motivation.

But, what is Instinct? How is it triggered?

Instincts are goal-directed and innate patterns of behavior that are not the result of education or experience. We are not necessarily conscious of the principle of all mental and bodily actions due to our mindful motives. It is a capability to achieve knowledge without learning or discovery inside the individual.

We tend to use our intellect to help us figure out in each setting how to be in line with expected instinctive behaviors for that setting. We are often guided and influenced heavily by our emotions in that process.

To create their steerage and achieve their goals, our instincts often trigger, activate, amplify, support, and reinforce specific feelings. Emotions often create evident functional behavioral steerage levels for our instincts.

In living creatures, instincts are inherent tendencies to engage spontaneously in a particular pattern of behavior.

Example of instincts in action:

  • A dog is shaking after it gets wet.

  • A sea turtle is seeking out the ocean after it hatches

  • A bird is migrating before the winter.

Ethologist Konrad Lorenz famously showed the influence of instincts when he got young geese to imprint on him. He noted that geese would become connected to the first moving thing they faced after they hatched, which in most circumstances would be their mothers.

However, by confirming that he was the first thing the geese discovered, they became attached or imprinted on him instead.

What is William McDougall’s Instinct Theory of Motivation?

Psychologist William McDougall was one of the foremost to report on the instinct theory of motivation. The definition of an “instinct” meant it needed to be:

  • Unlearned

  • Uniform in expression

  • Universal in species

He proposed that instinctive behavior was composed of three fundamental elements:

  1. Perception

  2. Behavior

  3. Emotion

McDougall’s theory was based on much earlier research by Darwin, who presented that animals display behaviors similar to human psychological traits.

Animal instincts are observable behaviors passed down through generations, providing an evolutionary edge to survival. Many psychologists propose neurobiological explanations for humans” evolved instincts, but this basis remains controversial.

McDougall also outlined 18 different instincts, which include:

  • Sex

  • Fear

  • Laughter

  • Parental

  • Submission

  • Curiosity

  • Escape

  • Reproduction

  • Repulsion

  • Jealousy

  • Self-assertiveness

  • Hunger

  • And so on…

From this list, we can think about why McDougall chose these instincts. We work to satisfy our hunger because, essentially, without food, we would die.

The second instinct is the sexual kind, as it assures the survival of another generation to continue our species. Finally, the third instinct is self-preservation. This includes worry and aggression – fear of bodily harm and attack to defend ourselves or ensure individual survival.

Sigmund Freud’s Instinct Theory of Aggression

Sigmund Freud defined “instinct” as an involuntary stereotyped response to a distinct stimulus and is close to the English definition of reflex. According to Freud, an instinct is a basic, unlearned, pre-programmed pattern of behavior that is to be found in all individuals of every species.

To give an example of intuition, Freud could allude to the behavior of birds building a nest. However, it differs from the terms reflex or habit because it is not dependent on any previous action, and its direction is not due to previous experiences. For example, if you touch a hot object, you immediately withdraw your hand.

Freud’s theory says that two powers drive human behavior. First, there are the life instincts – Eros, which cause us to seek pleasure. Second, there are the death instincts – Thanatos, where he theorized that these were indications of our impulses towards self-destruction or damage that we may be unaware of.

  • Eros or Life instincts

  • Includes: engaging in sex, eating, and other activities to be alive

  • Thanatos or Death instincts

  • Includes: engaging in aggressive behaviors like fights, stunts, and not caring about survival

He explained that all animals, social or otherwise, have aggressive instincts, which drive them to be involved in contentious activities. These aggressive activities help unleash the instinctual energy called catharsis, the purification of guilt.

William James’ Instinct Theory

William James was another American psychologist who is renowned for the theory that human thoughts, actions, and emotions are much more intricate than can be explained by simple human instincts.

He proposed that one could look at human actions as indications of instinctive behavior, similar to the involuntary activities of animals.

James grounds his research in evolutionary theory, arguing that all survival functions of human beings are driven by several instincts that lead to a series of behaviors.

In his theory, he outlined some instincts such as:

  • Anger

  • Fear

  • Shame

  • Love

  • Cleanliness

  • And so on…

McDougall’s, Freud’s, and James’ instinct theories were widely influential studies. Many other psychologists developed upon their work in the years that heeded their original findings.

For example, Carl Jung proposed that certain behaviors were inspired by the inner desire to harmonize with one’s environment.

Example of Instinct Theory in Humans

In humans, many reflexes are examples of automatic behaviors. For instance, infants have an innate rooting reflex that helps them seek out a nipple and receive nourishment.

This rooting reflex is an example of the suckling reflex or a reflex in which babies start sucking when a finger or nipple places pressure on the top of their mouth. This behavior does not need to be learned in order to be displayed.

The Moro reflex is another reaction seen in babies under six months of age; essentially, they jump when startled. The Babkin reflex is when babies open their mouths and bend their arms in response to rubbing the palms of their hands.

Infants exhibit these instinctive reactions when confronted by catalysts in their environment. For example, grazing an infant’s cheek will cause the child to turn their head and search for a nipple.

Our biological instincts influence us. Just like animals are governed by their intuitions to do things such as migrate, create nests, mate, and defend territory, early researchers suggested that certain instincts may also control human beings.

Example of Instinct Theory in Animals

Innate behaviors are well known in many bird and insect species.

For example, chicks in numerous bird species instinctively open their mouths wide when their mother returns to the nest. To reply to this stimulus, the mother instinctively spits up nourishment to feed the chicks. In certain further bird species, including the kelp gull, when a mother bird taps on the ground with her beak, her chicks instinctively peck at a red mark on her beak.

In reaction to the pecking, the mother instinctively spits up food to nurture the chicks. Another instance of ingrained behavior occurs in honeybees. A honeybee conducts a “dance” when it returns to the hive after locating a food source. The dance tells the additional bees where to find the sustenance.

These innate behaviors in birds and honeybees benefit the animals” survival and reproduction, so they are passed down to forthcoming generations.

Intrinsic behaviors occur in practically all species of animals. Generally, in species with lower tiers of intelligence, a more significant ratio of behaviors is natural. The subsequent behaviors are examples of innate behaviors:

  • Web making in spiders.

  • Fighting among male fish.

  • Swimming in dolphins and other aquatic species.

  • Nest building in birds.

  • Cocoon spinning in insects such as moths.

A well-studied instance of innate behavior occurs in ground-nesting water birds, such as geese. If one of their eggs rolls out of the nest, a female goose will instinctively use their bill to force the egg back into the nest. The mere sight of the egg outside the nest triggers the behavior. It involves a fixed sequence of actions.

Once a stimulus starts a specified action pattern, the series continues until completed, even if the trigger is no longer present. For instance, if the goose’s egg rolls out of the nest and is picked up and carried away, the goose will continue pushing her head as though driving an imaginary egg.

The goose will also try to shove any egg-shaped object, such as a golf ball if placed near the nest. She will even push larger, egg-shaped objects, such as a volleyball. In fact, a bigger thing will trigger more significant movements in response.

Criticisms of the Instinct Theory of Motivation

The instinct theory of motivation states that particular behaviors are innately connected to specific drives. It is said that all living creatures have instinctual drives to reach certain goals. However, this theory has been proven to have its limitations, and it has been continuously criticized due to the fact that the theory cannot be adequately verified.

Some psychologists believe that combining causes can ultimately explain every psychological phenomenon. However, there is no hard evidence to suggest an instinctual basis for human behaviors, and instinct does not mean that all people with the drive will carry out the behavior.

One significant criticism is that instincts do not explain all behavior. For example, is laughing an instinct? Or do we giggle because we learned it from our parents as babies? Also, driving is not an instinct, as people need years of practice before learning to drive.

If all human actions were determined by instincts alone, then the same behavior should result from the same set of circumstances every time. For instance, if we are hungry and see food, we will always consume that food. This is not the case as many people resist eating some foods even when hungry.

Likewise, certain behaviors such as seeking new intellectual challenges can be explained by combining social learning theory with reinforcement principles. A new challenge, such as taking a new job within an organization or learning a new skill at work, can provide positive reinforcement for new behavior that will lead to tremendous success at the particular job or task being performed.

There is nothing inherent about seeking new intellectual challenges that makes it an instinct. It can be explained by the combination of two well-known psychological principles. Instincts are often used as a catch-all term for behaviors that seem to occur without much cognition behind them, but just because we have no idea why we behave the way we do, it does not mean there is no reason.

Even if one tries to list thousands of different instincts that are innate to all humans, one is still going to find differences in inspiration. The manner one mother may care for her baby looks very distinct from the way another mother cares for her infant. The mother’s experiences, the information they have collected, and expectations from society all play a role in how a mother nurtures her child.

Another criticism was that instincts cannot be readily observed or scientifically experimented with. As the human mind is so intricate and vast, it would be impossible to try or observe a person’s instinctual behaviors in a scientific environment.

It is not easy to gather information supporting all of these different factors. Today, psychologists use data and research studies to test theories and form their own.

Nevertheless, this was not precisely how James, McDougall, or Freud functioned back in their days. It is much easier to write about the intuitions humans have in their unconscious than to verify them through data and controlled studies.

Scientists today tell us about animal instinct, but this is because animals are much easier to observe than humans.

Summarized criticisms:

  • Instincts cannot be readily observed or scientifically proven.

  • Instincts do not explain all behaviors.

  • Just indicating something as instinct does nothing to justify why certain behaviors appear in specific instances but not others.

Despite these criticisms of the instinct theory of motivation, modern psychology summarises that particular human behaviors might be biologically programmed; however, personal life experience also plays a meaningful role in our motivation and behavior.

Have you ever laughed at a joke that no one believed was funny? You may have understood the joke’s context more than others because of a distinct life experience. This is essentially the concept of life experience influencing our thinking which in turn influences our behavior.

Instinct is a powerful concept in psychology. Psychologists have tried to understand how they influence human behavior since the time of Darwin.

Although there are many additional criticisms around the instinct theory of motivation, psychologists are more concentrated on exploring how these instincts indicate an underlying process that can lead to functional explanations of instinctual behaviors.


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James, W. (1890). The principles of psychology. New York. Holt and company.

James, W. (1984). Psychology, briefer course (Vol. 14). Harvard University Press.

Lorenz, K. (1935). Der Kumpan in der Umwelt des Vogels. Der Artgenosse als auslösendes Moment sozialer Verhaltensweisen. Journal für Ornithologie, 83, 137–215, 289–413.

McDougall, W. (1932). The Energies of Men. London; Methuen & Co.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Mia Belle Frothingham

Harvard Graduate

B.A., Sciences and Psychology

Mia Belle Frothingham is a Harvard University graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Sciences with minors in biology and psychology