Instinct Theory: How It Relates to the Perspective of Psychology

Instinct theory is a psychological theory that explains the origins of motivation as innate biological tendencies that help us survive. According to this theory, all animals have a set of instincts that are internally fixed and drive their behaviors. These instincts are the motivating force behind our needs and wants for food, water, warmth, shelter, social contact, sex, and security. Instinct theory is one of the very first theories in psychology to examine the forces that motivate human behavior.

What are 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 innate need to migrate before winter. Both of these behaviors occur naturally and automatically. They do not need to be learned in order to be displayed.

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.

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 is a startle reaction seen in babies less than 6 months of age, and the Babkin reflex is when 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.

How Does Instinct Theory Explain 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, maternal instinct, laughter, comfort, sex, and food-seeking.

According to McDougall, instincts are the source of all motivation. He believed that humans have a variety of instincts that are activated by environmental stimuli and produce specific responses. These responses are accompanied by emotions that reinforce the behavior and make it more likely to occur again.

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.

What are the Criticisms of Instinct Theory?

Instinct theory has been criticized for several reasons. Some of the main criticisms are:

  • It is too vague and general to explain human motivation. It does not account for individual differences, cultural influences, or situational factors that may affect behavior.
  • It is circular and tautological. It simply labels behaviors as instincts without explaining how or why they occur. For example, saying that humans have a sex instinct does not explain why some people have more or less sexual desire than others.
  • It is deterministic and reductionist. It implies that humans have no free will or choice over their actions and that they are controlled by their biological impulses. It also ignores the role of cognition, learning, and social factors in motivation.
  • It is outdated and unsupported by empirical evidence. Many of the instincts proposed by McDougall have been challenged or disproved by later research. For example, there is no evidence for a maternal instinct or a laughter instinct in humans.


Instinct theory is a psychological theory that explains motivation as the result of innate biological tendencies that help us survive. It was one of the first theories to address the question of why we behave the way we do. However, it has been largely rejected by modern psychology due to its many flaws and limitations. Today, most psychologists agree that motivation is influenced by a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors.

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