What motivates the behavior? Is it something innate or is it learned through age or experiences? 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 innate, goal-directed patterns of behavior that are not the result of learning or experience. For example, babies have an innate sucking reflex that helps them search for a nipple and obtain food, while birds have an innate need to build a nest or migrate during winter. Both behaviors occur naturally and automatically. It is not necessary to learn them to be able to show them, this is instinct.

Instinct in animals and humans

In animals, instincts are inherent tendencies to spontaneously participate in a particular pattern of behavior. Examples of this include a dog that trembles after it gets wet, a sea turtle that searches the ocean after hatching, or a bird that migrates before the winter season.

In humans, many reflexes are examples of instinctual behaviors. The Moro reflex (a startle reaction seen in babies less than 6 months old) and the Babkin reflex (a reflex in which babies open their mouths and flex their arms in response to rubbing their palms) ). Babies show these instinctual reactions when faced with stimuli in their environment. For example, stroking a baby’s cheek will make the child turn his head and search for a nipple.

The instinct theory

Instinct theory suggests that motivation is primarily based on biology. We engage in certain behaviors because they help in survival. Migration before winter ensures the survival of the herd, so the behavior has become instinctive.  Birds that migrated were more likely to survive and therefore more likely to pass their genes on to future generations.

Therefore, an instinct is the behavior that must have a fixed pattern in all species and not be learned. In other words, the behavior must occur naturally and automatically in all organisms of that species. For example, babies have an innate sucking reflex that leads them to find and suck on a nipple. This behavior is not learned and occurs naturally in all human babies. Doctors often look for the absence of such instinctual reflexes to detect potential developmental problems.


While instinct theory could be used to explain some behaviors, critics felt it had some significant limitations.  Because instincts cannot explain all behaviors, nor can they be scientifically proven.

Although there is criticism of this theory, psychologists continue to focus on how instinct can influence behavior. Although there are some trends that can be programmed biologically, individual experiences can also play a role in how responses are displayed. For example, while we may be more biologically prepared to fear a dangerous animal such as a snake or a bear, we will never show that fear if we are not exposed to those animals or if we become accustomed to them from childhood.

Motivation theories

In addition to the instinct theory, there are other theories that 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 theory of internal motivation, in which people are “driven” to behave in certain ways to reduce internal stress caused by unmet needs
    • Those who claim that people behave in a certain way to increase or decrease their arousal
  • The humanistic theory of motivation, which states that behaviors are the result of a desire for self-actualization, and the expectation theory that states that we do. Options to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

In reality, none of these theories, including instinct theory, can fully explain motivation. We will have to continue studying human motivation! 

Elle Mcdonald

I am Elle Mcdonald Specializations in Psychology . Graduated in psychology from the University of Tennessee in 2000. Diploma of Advanced Studies in the Department of Personality, Evaluation and psychological treatments with excellent results.

First Level of Master in Clinical Psychology at the Center for Behavioral Therapists (recognized with a scientific-professional nature by the College of Psychologists)

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