Ethologists define instinct as the natural behavioral pattern of animals that usually occurs in response to certain kind of stimuli. It is complex, inborn, and inherited as it is characterized by stereotypical behaviors, which are engaged in spontaneously by a group of species as a reaction to a specific stimulus. Konrad Lorenz, a famous ethologist and animal behaviorist, was able to witness and demonstrate the phenomenon called imprinting from young geese that he studied. He observed that birds, such as geese, get attached to and follow the first moving object that they see or hear after hatching, usually their mother. This phenomenon is also called fixed action pattern or species-specific behavior.

However, this definition of instinct does not apply to humans. In 1950’s, a more appropriate definition of human instincts arose. Human instinct was then defined as an adaptive sequence of behavior resulting from the collaboration of genetics and ordinary developmental processes. It varies, and is prevalent and similar among all members of a species. Maternal instinct and survival instinct are two of the most common examples of human instincts. Maternal instinct is a woman’s readiness, desire, or ability to mother. This includes women’s enthusiasm in taking care of children, as well as the feelings of inadequacy and guilt for not being able to procreate. The survival instinct, on the other hand, is related to Charles Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection which states that individuals are more likely to survive and reproduce when they possess positive characteristics which can be passed on to the next generation and which they can use to adapt to their environment.

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.

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.

What is Instinct Theory?

The Instinct Theory of Motivation views biological or genetic programming as the cause of motivation. This claim means that all humans have the same motivations due to our similar biological programming. This theory says that the root of all motivations is the motivation to survive. From our motivation to survive, all other motivations emerge. And, as we act or behave with this kind of motivation, all our actions are therefore considered as instincts.

A common example used to explain the Instinct Theory is that a human mother will attempt to provide comfort to a baby who has been crying all night and will not sleep until she sees that the baby is calm and asleep. According to Instinct theory, human mothers behave in this way because they were biologically programmed to do so; it is a mother’s instinct to provide comfort to her child. Proponents of this theory argue that this is not because of conditioning or learning, the mother having weak or strong female role models, being raised in a rich family or a poor one – it is all because of their instinct – that is, they cannot override the motivation to take care of their children.

In his theory, instincts are composed of three parts: perception, behavior and emotion. Human beings have a perceptual predisposition to focus on stimuli that are important to his goals. For example, people pay attention to food odors when hunger instincts are involved. Individuals are also predisposed to move to the goal, like going to the kitchen and checking the refrigerator if there is food, or checking out the source of smell of the food that was identified. And lastly, humans have the drive and energy which is called “emotional core” between perception of the goal and the movement towards it.

McDougall listed seventeen instincts in 1932, including hunger, rejection of particular substances, curiosity, escape, pugnacity, sex, maternal /paternal instinct, gregariousness, self-assertion, submission, construction, acquisition, crying out or appeal, laughter, comfort, rest or sleep, and migration.

Problems With Instinct Theory

One of the problems with this theory of motivation is that many identified instincts are not universal. For instance, there are mothers who do not exhibit the supposed instinctual behaviour to take good care of their children. Another issue is that humans may exhibit different levels of motivation because of instinct, such as jealousy and aggression.