Part of a series on
Animal sexual behaviour,
Animal welfare science,
Emotion in animals,
Tool use by animals,
Karl von Frisch,
William Homan Thorpe,
Jakob von Uexküll,
For other uses, see Instinct (disambiguation).
Look up instinct in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Instinct or innate behavior is the inherent inclination of a living organism toward a particular complex behavior.
The simplest example of an instinctive behavior is a fixed action pattern, in which a very short to medium length sequence of actions, without variation, are carried out in response to a clearly defined stimulus.
Any behavior is instinctive if it is performed without being based upon prior experience (that is, in the absence of learning), and is therefore an expression of innate biological factors. Sea turtles, newly hatched on a beach, will automatically move toward the ocean. A joey 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 behavior, internal escape functions, and the building of nests. All of these are examples of complex behaviors and are thus substantially different from simple reflex behaviors.
An instinct should be distinguished from a reflex, which is a simple response of an organism to a specific stimulus, such as the contraction of the pupil in response to bright light or the spasmodic movement of the lower leg when the knee is tapped. Instincts, in contrast, are inborn complex patterns of behavior that must exist in every member of the species and that cannot be overcome by force of will. However, the absence of volitional capacity must not be confused with an inability to modify fixed action patterns. For example, people may be able to modify a stimulated fixed action pattern by consciously recognizing the point of its activation and simply stop doing it, whereas animals without a sufficiently strong volitional capacity may not be able to disengage from their fixed action patterns, once activated.
The role of instincts in determining the behavior of animals varies from species to species. The more complex the neural system of an animal, the greater is the role of the cerebral cortex, and social learning and instincts play a lesser role. A comparison between a crocodile and an elephant illustrates how mammals for example are heavily dependent on social learning. Lionesses and chimpanzees raised in zoos away from their birth mothers most often reject their own offspring because they have not been taught the skills of mothering. Such is not the case with simpler species such as reptiles.
1 Behavioral sciences,
2 Reflexes and instinct,
3 Maturational instincts,
4.1 In biology,
4.2 In psychology,
5 See also,
In Information Behavior: An Evolutionary Instinct (2010, pp. 35-42), Amanda Spink notes that "currently in the behavioral sciences instinct is generally understood as the innate part of behavior that emerges without any training or education in humans." She claims that the viewpoint that information behavior has an instinctive basis is grounded in the latest thinking on human behavior. Furthermore, she notes that "behaviors such as cooperation, sexual behavior, child rearing and aesthetics are also seen as 'evolved psychological mechanisms' with an instinctive basis (Buss, 2008; Dickens & Cohen, 2003; Geary, 2004)." Spink adds that Stephen Pinker similarly asserts that language is instinctive in humans in his book, The Language Instinct, How the mind creates language, (1994).
Reflexes and instinct:
Examples of behaviors that do not require conscious will include many reflexes. The stimulus in a reflex may not require brain activity but instead may travel to the spinal cord as a message that is then transmitted back through the body, tracing a path called the reflex arc. 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'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 mammals.
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.
Jean Henri Fabre, an entomologist, considered instinct to be any behavior which did not require cognition or consciousness 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 and such thinkers as B. F. Skinner, which held that most significant behavior is learned. These beliefs, like Fabre's belief that most behaviors were simply reflexive, also proved to be too simplistic to account for the complex emotional and social behavior of human beings.
An interest in innate behaviors arose again in the 1950s with Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen, who made the distinction between instinct and learned behaviors. Our modern understanding of instinctual behavior in animals owes much to their work. For instance, in imprinting a bird has a sensitive period during which it learns who its mother is. Konrad Lorenz 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...
The term "instinct" in psychology was first used in 1870s by Wilhelm Wundt. 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 4,000 human "instincts," having applied this 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, and attended by luminaries in the field, the term was restricted in its application. During the 1960s and 1970s, 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's referral to the "id" instincts.. In this sense, instincts appeared to have become regarded as increasingly superfluous in trying to understand human psychological behavior.
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 the term 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 decries Fabre's opinions on instinct (see: In biology section).