Instinct or innate behavior is the inherent inclination of a living
Life is a characteristic that distinguishes objects that have signaling and self-sustaining processes from those that do not, either because such functions have ceased , or else because they lack such functions and are classified as inanimate...

In biology, an organism is any contiguous living system . In at least some form, all organisms are capable of response to stimuli, reproduction, growth and development, and maintenance of homoeostasis as a stable whole.An organism may either be unicellular or, as in the case of humans, comprise...

 toward a particular behavior
Behavior or behaviour refers to the actions and mannerisms made by organisms, systems, or artificial entities in conjunction with its environment, which includes the other systems or organisms around as well as the physical environment...


The simplest example of an instinctive behavior is a fixed action pattern
Fixed action pattern
In ethology, a fixed action pattern , or modal action pattern, is an instinctive behavioral sequence that is indivisible and runs to completion...

, in which a very short to medium length sequence of actions, without variation, are carried out in response to a clearly defined stimulus.


Beyond the simplest example of instinct described above, instinctive behaviors can also be variable and responsive to the environment
Environment (biophysical)
The biophysical environment is the combined modeling of the physical environment and the biological life forms within the environment, and includes all variables, parameters as well as conditions and modes inside the Earth's biosphere. The biophysical environment can be divided into two categories:...

. Any behavior is instinctive if it is performed without being based upon prior experience, that is, in the absence of learning
Learning is acquiring new or modifying existing knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesizing different types of information. The ability to learn is possessed by humans, animals and some machines. Progress over time tends to follow learning curves.Human learning...

. Sea turtle
Sea turtle
Sea turtles are marine reptiles that inhabit all of the world's oceans except the Arctic.-Distribution:...

s, newly hatched on a beach, will automatically move toward the ocean. A joey
- Animals :* Joey , an infant marsupial* Joey, a Blue-fronted Amazon parrot who was one of the Blue Peter pets-People with the given name Joey:* Joey Benjamin , English cricketer* Joey Bishop , entertainer...

 climbs into its mother's pouch upon being born. Honeybees communicate by dancing in the direction of a food source without formal instruction. Other examples include animal fighting, animal courtship
Courtship is the period in a couple's relationship which precedes their engagement and marriage, or establishment of an agreed relationship of a more enduring kind. In courtship, a couple get to know each other and decide if there will be an engagement or other such agreement...

 behavior, internal escape functions, and building of nest
A nest is a place of refuge to hold an animal's eggs or provide a place to live or raise offspring. They are usually made of some organic material such as twigs, grass, and leaves; or may simply be a depression in the ground, or a hole in a tree, rock or building...


Reflexes as instincts

Other examples of clearly instinctive behaviors include many reflex
A reflex action, also known as a reflex, is an involuntary and nearly instantaneous movement in response to a stimulus. A true reflex is a behavior which is mediated via the reflex arc; this does not apply to casual uses of the term 'reflex'.-See also:...

es. A true instinct is distinguished from other behaviors by mechanism; they do not go through the brain. Rather, the stimulus travels to the spinal cord and the message is then transmitted back through the body, tracing a path called the reflex arc
Reflex arc
A reflex arc is a neural pathway that controls an action reflex. In higher animals, most sensory neurons do not pass directly into the brain, but synapse in the spinal cord...

. Reflexes are similar to fixed action patterns in that most reflexes meet the criteria of a FAP. However, a fixed action pattern can be processed in the brain as well; a male stickleback
The Gasterosteidae are a family of fish including the sticklebacks. FishBase currently recognises sixteen species in the family, grouped in five genera. However several of the species have a number of recognised subspecies, and the taxonomy of the family is thought to be in need of revision...

's instinctive aggression towards anything red during his mating season is such an example. Examples of instinctive behaviors in humans include many of the primitive reflexes, such as rooting and suckling, behaviors which are present in mammal
Mammals are members of a class of air-breathing vertebrate animals characterised by the possession of endothermy, hair, three middle ear bones, and mammary glands functional in mothers with young...


Maturational instincts

Some instinctive behaviors depend on maturational processes to appear. For instance, we commonly refer to birds "learning" to fly. However, young birds have been experimentally reared in devices that prevent them from moving their wings until they reached the age at which their cohorts were flying. These birds flew immediately and normally when released, showing that their improvement resulted from neuromuscular maturation and not true learning.

Components of instincts

While fixed action patterns and reflexes are clear examples of almost entirely instinctive behaviors, most behaviors are complex and consist of both instinctive and learned components. For instance, in imprinting
Imprinting may refer to:* Genomic imprinting , a mechanism of regulating gene expression* Imprinting , in psychology and ethology* Molecular imprinting, in polymer chemistry...

 a bird has a sensitive period during which it learns who its mother is. Konrad Lorenz
Konrad Lorenz
Konrad Zacharias Lorenz was an Austrian zoologist, ethologist, and ornithologist. He shared the 1973 Nobel Prize with Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch...

 famously had a goose imprint on his boots. Thereafter the goose would follow whomever wore the boots. The identity of the goose's mother was learned, but the goose's behavior towards the boots was instinctive. Similarly, sleeping in humans is instinctive, but how much and when one sleeps is clearly subject to environmental factors. Whether a behavior is instinctive or learned is common subject of nature versus nurture
Nature versus nurture
The nature versus nurture debate concerns the relative importance of an individual's innate qualities versus personal experiences The nature versus nurture debate concerns the relative importance of an individual's innate qualities ("nature," i.e. nativism, or innatism) versus personal experiences...


Displacement activities

In a situation when two instincts contradict each other, an animal may resort to a displacement activity
Displacement activity
A displacement activity is the result of two contradicting instincts in a particular situation. Birds, for example, may peck at grass when uncertain whether to attack or flee from an opponent; similarly, a human may scratch his or her head when they do not know which of two options to...


In biology

Instinct gets its earliest thorough treatment in biological literature courtesy of the famous entomologist Jean Henri Fabre
Jean Henri Fabre
Jean-Henri Casimir Fabre was a French entomologist and author.-Life:Fabre was born in Saint-Léons in Aveyron, France....

. Fabre considered instinct to be any behavior which did not require cognition
In science, cognition refers to mental processes. These processes include attention, remembering, producing and understanding language, solving problems, and making decisions. Cognition is studied in various disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, linguistics, and computer science...

 or consciousness
Consciousness is a term that refers to the relationship between the mind and the world with which it interacts. It has been defined as: subjectivity, awareness, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, having a sense of selfhood, and the executive control system of the mind...

 to perform. Fabre's inspiration was his intense study of insects, some of whose behaviors he wrongly considered fixed and not subject to environmental influence.

Instinct as a concept fell out of favor in the 1920s with the rise of behaviorism
Behaviorism , also called the learning perspective , is a philosophy of psychology based on the proposition that all things that organisms do—including acting, thinking, and feeling—can and should be regarded as behaviors, and that psychological disorders are best treated by altering behavior...

 and such thinkers as B. F. Skinner
B. F. Skinner
Burrhus Frederic Skinner was an American behaviorist, author, inventor, baseball enthusiast, social philosopher and poet...

, which held that all behavior was learned. These beliefs, like Fabre's belief that most behaviors were simply reflexive, also proved to be too simplistic.

An interest in innate behaviors arose again in the 1950s with Konrad Lorenz
Konrad Lorenz
Konrad Zacharias Lorenz was an Austrian zoologist, ethologist, and ornithologist. He shared the 1973 Nobel Prize with Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch...

 and Nikolaas Tinbergen
Nikolaas Tinbergen
Nikolaas "Niko" Tinbergen was a Dutch ethologist and ornithologist who shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz for their discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behaviour patterns in animals.In the 1960s he...

 who made the distinction between instinct and learned behaviors. The modern definition of instinct is heavily built off their work.

In psychology

The term "instinct" has had a long and varied use in psychology
Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. Its immediate goal is to understand individuals and groups by both establishing general principles and researching specific cases. For many, the ultimate goal of psychology is to benefit society...

 and was first used in 1870s by Wilhelm Wundt
Wilhelm Wundt
Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt was a German physician, psychologist, physiologist, philosopher, and professor, known today as one of the founding figures of modern psychology. He is widely regarded as the "father of experimental psychology"...

. By the close of the 19th century most repeated behavior was considered instinctual. In a survey of the literature at that time, one researcher chronicled 4000 human instincts, meaning someone applied the label to any behavior that was repetitive. As research became more rigorous and terms better defined, instinct as an explanation for human behavior became less common. In a conference in 1960, chaired by Frank Beach, a pioneer in comparative psychology
Comparative psychology
Comparative psychology generally refers to the scientific study of the behavior and mental processes of non-human animals. However, scientists from different disciplines do not always agree on this definition...

 and attended by luminaries in the field, the term was restricted in its application. During the 60's and 70's, textbooks still contained some discussion of instincts in reference to human behavior. By the year 2000, a survey of the 12 best selling textbooks in Introductory Psychology revealed only one reference to instincts, and that was in regard to Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud , born Sigismund Schlomo Freud , was an Austrian neurologist who founded the discipline of psychoanalysis...

's referral to the "id" instincts.. In this sense, instincts have become increasingly superfluous in trying to understand human psychological behavior.

Freudian Psychoanalysts have stated that instinct refers to human motivation
Motivation is the driving force by which humans achieve their goals. Motivation is said to be intrinsic or extrinsic. The term is generally used for humans but it can also be used to describe the causes for animal behavior as well. This article refers to human motivation...

al forces (such as sex
In biology, sex is a process of combining and mixing genetic traits, often resulting in the specialization of organisms into a male or female variety . Sexual reproduction involves combining specialized cells to form offspring that inherit traits from both parents...

 and aggression
In psychology, as well as other social and behavioral sciences, aggression refers to behavior between members of the same species that is intended to cause humiliation, pain, or harm. Ferguson and Beaver defined aggressive behavior as "Behavior which is intended to increase the social dominance of...

), sometimes represented as life instinct and death instinct
Death instinct
In classical Freudian psychoanalytic theory, the death drive is the drive towards death, self-destruction and the return to the inorganic: 'the hypothesis of a death instinct, the task of which is to lead organic life back into the inanimate state'...

. This use of the term motivational forces has mainly been replaced by the term instinctual drives.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow argued that humans no longer have instincts because we have the ability to override them in certain situations. He felt that what is called instinct is often imprecisely defined, and really amounts to strong drives. For Maslow, an instinct is something which cannot be overridden, and therefore while it may have applied to humans in the past it no longer does.

The book Instinct (1961) established a number of criteria which distinguish instinctual from other kinds of behavior. To be considered instinctual a behavior must a) be automatic, b) be irresistible, c) occur at some point in development, d) be triggered by some event in the environment, e) occur in every member of the species, f) be unmodifiable, and g) govern behavior for which the organism needs no training (although the organism may profit from experience and to that degree the behavior is modifiable).

In a classic paper published in 1972, the psychologist Richard Herrnstein
Richard Herrnstein
Richard J. Herrnstein was an American researcher in animal learning in the Skinnerian tradition. He was one of the founders of quantitative analysis of behavior....

 decries Fabre's opinions on instinct (see: In biology section).

Other fields

Some sociologists argue that humans have no instincts, defining them as a "complex pattern of behavior present in every specimen of a particular species, that is innate, and that cannot be overridden." Said sociologists argue that drives such as sex and hunger cannot be considered instincts, as they can be overridden. This definitory
A definition is a passage that explains the meaning of a term , or a type of thing. The term to be defined is the definiendum. A term may have many different senses or meanings...

 argument is present in many introductory sociology and biology textbooks, but is still hotly debated.

In the book An Instinct for Dragons
An Instinct for Dragons
An Instinct for Dragons is a book by University of Central Florida anthropologist David E. Jones, which seeks to explain the alleged universality of dragon images in the folklore of human societies...

 anthropologist David E. Jones suggests a hypothesis that humans, just like monkeys, have inherited instinctive reactions to snakes, large cats and birds of prey. Folklore dragons have features that are combinations of these three, which would explain why dragons with similar features occur in stories from independent cultures on all continents. Other authors have suggested that especially under the influence of drugs or in dreams, this instinct may give raise to fantasies about dragons, snakes, spiders, which makes these symbols popular in drug culture. The traditional mainstream explanation to the folklore dragons does however not rely on human instinct, but on the assumption that fossil remains of dinosaur
Dinosaurs are a diverse group of animals of the clade and superorder Dinosauria. They were the dominant terrestrial vertebrates for over 160 million years, from the late Triassic period until the end of the Cretaceous , when the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event led to the extinction of...

s gave raise to similar speculations all over the world.

See also

  • Biological Imperative
  • Innatism
    Innatism is a philosophical doctrine that holds that the mind is born with ideas/knowledge, and that therefore the mind is not a 'blank slate' at birth, as early empiricists such as John Locke claimed...

  • Nature versus Nurture
    Nature versus nurture
    The nature versus nurture debate concerns the relative importance of an individual's innate qualities versus personal experiences The nature versus nurture debate concerns the relative importance of an individual's innate qualities ("nature," i.e. nativism, or innatism) versus personal experiences...

  • Psychological nativism
    Psychological nativism
    In the field of psychology, nativism is the view that certain skills or abilities are 'native' or hard wired into the brain at birth. This is in contrast to empiricism, the 'blank slate' or tabula rasa view, which states that the brain has inborn capabilities for learning from the environment but...

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