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Instinct is the inherent inclination of a living organism toward a particular behavior. The fixed action patterns are unlearned and inherited. The stimuli can be variable due to imprinting in a sensitive period or also genetically fixed. Examples of instinctual fixed action patterns can be observed in the behavior of animals, which perform various activities (sometimes complex) that are not based upon prior experience, such as reproduction, and feeding among insects. Sea turtles, hatched on a beach, automatically move toward the ocean, and honeybees communicate by dance the direction of a food source, all without formal instruction. Other examples include animal fighting, animal courtship behavior, internal escape functions, and building of nests. Another term for the same concept is innate behavior.

Instinctual actions - in contrast to actions based on learning which are served by memory and which provide individually stored successful reactions built upon experience - have no learning curve, they are hard-wired and ready to use without learning. Some instinctual behaviors depend on maturational processes to appear.

Biological predispositions are innate biologically vectored behaviors that can be easily learned. For example in one hour a baby colt can learn to stand, walk, glide, skip, hop and run. Learning is required to fine tune the neurological wiring reflex like behavior. True reflexes can be distinguished from instincts by their seat in the nervous system; reflexes are controlled by spinal or other peripheral ganglia, but instincts are the province of the brain.



Technically speaking, any event that initiates an instinctive behavior is termed a key stimulus (KS) or a releasing stimulus. Key stimuli in turn lead to innate releasing mechanisms (IRM), which in turn produce fixed action patterns (FAP). More than one key stimulus may be needed to trigger a FAP. Sensory receptor cells are critical in determining the type of FAP which is initiated. For instance, the reception of pheromones through nasal sensory receptor cells may trigger a sexual response, while the reception of a "frightening sound" through auditory sensory receptor cells may trigger a fight or flight response. The neural networks of these different sensory cells assist in integrating the signal from many receptors to determine the degree of the KS and therefore produce an appropriate degree of response. Several of these responses are determined by carefully regulated chemical messengers called hormones. The endocrine system, which is responsible for the production and transport of hormones throughout the body, is made up of many secretory glands that produce hormones and release them for transport to target organs. Specifically in vertebrates, neural control of this system is funneled through the hypothalamus to the anterior and posterior pituitary gland. Whether or not the behavioral response to a given key stimuli is either learned, genetic, or both is the center of study in the field of behavioural genetics. Researchers use techniques such as inbreeding and knockout studies to separate learning and environment from genetic determination of behavioral traits. The definitions of what constitutes instinct in humans beyond infancy is conjectural. The will to invent solutions to requirements, to present self and possessions aesthetically and to be organised economically, culturally, religiously and politically could be described as instincts to survival, which are further enhanced by learning which is not instinctive.

In a situation when two instincts contradict each other, an animal may resort to a displacement activity.


Instinctive behavior can be demonstrated across much of the broad spectrum of animal life. According to Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, a favorable trait, such as an instinct, will be selected for through competition and improved survival rate of life forms possessing the instinct. Thus, for evolutionary biology, instincts can be explained in terms of behaviors that favor survival of the fitest.

A good example of an immediate instinct for certain types of bird is imprinting. This is the behaviour that causes geese to follow around the first moving object that they encounter, as it tends to be their mother. Much work was done on this concept by the psychologist Konrad Lorenz. Another important aspect of imprinting is sexual selection[1]. Young birds tend to prefer the features of the parent of the opposite sex when it come to the preferred mate. An inhibitory effect is the Westermark Effect, the tendency not to be sexually attracted to siblings, because of the close contact in a sensitive period.

The idea that no learning is required for instinctive behavior does not always apply when it concerns the behaviors themselves. But the key stimuli and the specific outcome may vary somewhat due to different inputs. The output may vary in the sense that a finch will sing naturally (instinctively), but it will sing a song similar to the songs it has picked up in a sensitive period which explains the different regional accents in the finch songs.

The Baldwin Effect

The Baldwin effect functions in two steps. First, phenotypic plasticity allows an individual to adjust to a partially successful mutation, which might otherwise be utterly useless to the individual. If this mutation adds to inclusive fitness, it will succeed and proliferate in the population. Phenotypic plasticity is typically very costly for an individual; learning requires time and energy, and on occasion involves dangerous mistakes. Therefore there is a second step: provided enough time, evolution may find an inexorable mechanism to replace the plastic mechanism. Thus a behavior that was once learned (the first step) may in time become instinctive (the second step). At first glance, this looks identical to Lamarckian evolution, but there is no direct alteration of the genotype, based on the experience of the phenotype.


Scientific definition

The term "instincts" has had a long and varied use in psychology. In the 1870s, Wilhelm Wundt established the first psychology laboratory. At that time, psychology was primarily a branch of philosophy, but behavior became increasingly examined within the framework of the scientific method. While use of the scientific method led to increasingly rigorous definition of terms, 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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] 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's referral to the "id" instincts.[citation needed]

Any repeated behavior can be called "instinctual," as can any behavior for which there is a strong innate component.[citation needed] However, to distinguish behavior beyond the control of the organism from behavior that has a repetitive component we can turn to the book "Instinct" (1961) stemming from the 1960 conference. A number of criteria were established which distinguishes 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). The absence of one or more of these criteria indicates that the behavior is not fully instinctual. Instincts do exist in insects and animals as can be seen in behaviors that cannot be changed by learning. Psychologists do recognize that humans do have biological predispositions or behaviors that are easy to learn due to biological wiring, for example walking and talking.[citation needed]

If these criteria are used in a rigorous scientific manner, application of the term "instinct" cannot be used in reference to human behavior.[citation needed] When terms, such as mothering, territoriality, eating, mating, and so on, are used to denote human behavior they are seen to not meet the criteria listed above. In comparison to animal behavior such as hibernation, migration, nest building, mating and so on that are clearly instinctual, no human behavior meets the necessary criteria. And even in regard to animals, in many cases if the correct learning is stopped from occurring these instinctual behaviors disappear, suggesting that they are potent, but limited, biological predispostions. In the final analysis, under this definition, there are no human instincts.[citation needed]

In humans

Some sociobiologists and ethologists have attempted to comprehend human and animal social behavior in terms of instincts. Psychoanalysts have stated that instinct refers to human motivational forces (such as sex and aggression), sometimes represented as life instinct and death instinct. This use of the term motivational forces has mainly been replaced by the term instinctual drives.

Instincts in humans can also be seen in what are called instinctive reflexes. Reflexes, such as the Babinski Reflex (fanning of the toes when the foot is stroked), are seen in babies and are indicative of stages of development. These reflexes can truly be considered instinctive because they are generally free of environmental influences or conditioning.

Additional human traits that have been looked at as instincts are: sleeping, altruism, disgust, face perception, language acquisitions, "fight or flight" and "subjugate or be subjugated". Some experiments in human and primate societies have also come to the conclusion that a sense of fairness could be considered instinctual, with humans and apes willing to harm their own interests in protesting unfair treatment of self or others.[2][3]

Many scientists consider that it is instinctual in children to put everything in their mouths, because this is how they tell their immune system about the environment and the surroundings, what the immune system should adapt to.[4]

Other 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 argument is present in many introductory sociology and biology textbooks,[5] but is still hotly debated.
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.[6]

In the book An Instinct for Dragons[7] 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 dinosaurus gave raise to similar speculations all over the world.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Researchers wonder if fairness instinct has been bred into the human race (summary of a Philadelphia Inquirer article of 2000)
  3. ^ Programme 4 - Natural Born Heroes - BBC, Wednesday 13 November 2002
  4. ^ Dirt Is Good For Our Health
  5. ^ Sociology: An Introduction - Robertson, Ian; Worth Publishers, 1989
  6. ^ Abraham H. Maslow, Motivation and Personality Chapter 4, Instinct Theory Reexamined
  7. ^ David E. Jones, An Instinct for Dragons, New York: Routledge 2000, ISBN 0-415-92721-8

Beach, F. A. The descent of instinct. Psychol. Rev. 62:401-10.

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

INSTINCT. It is in the first place desirable to distinguish between the word "instinct" (Lat. instinctus, from instinguere, to incite, impel) as employed in general literature and the term "instinct" as used in scientific discourse. The significance of the former is somewhat elastic, and is in large measure determined by the context. Thus in social relationships we speak of "instinctive" liking or distrust; we are told that the Greeks had "instinctive" appreciation of art; we hear of an instinct of reverence or "instinctive" beliefs. We understand what is meant and neither desire nor demand a strict definition. But in any scientific discussion the term instinct must be used within narrower limits, and hence it is necessary that the term should be defined. There are difficulties, however, in framing a satisfactory definition. That given by G. J. Romanes in the 9th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica runs as follows: "Instinct is a generic term comprising all those faculties of mind which lead to the conscious performance of actions that are. adaptive in character but pursued without necessary knowledge of the relation between the means employed and the ends attained." This has been criticized both from the biological and from the psychological standpoint. From the biological point of view the reference of certain modes of behaviour, termed instinctive, to faculties of mind for which "instinct" is the generic term is scarcely satisfactory; from the psychological point of view the phrase "without necessary knowledge of the relation between the means employed and the end attained" is ambiguous. (See Intelligence Of Animals.) In recent scientific literature the term is more frequently used in its adjectival than in its substantive form; and the term "instinctive" is generally applied to certain hereditary modes of behaviour. Investigation thus becomes more objective, and this is a distinct advantage from the biological point of view. It is indeed sometimes urged that instinctive modes of behaviour should be so defined as to entirely exclude any reference to their psychological concomitants in consciousness, which are, it is said, entirely inferential. But as a matter of fact no small part of the interest and value of investigations in this field of inquiry lies in the relationships which may thereby be established between biological and psychological interpretations. Fully realizing, the difficult P Y g? Y of finding and applying a criterion of the presence or absence of consciousness, it is none the less desirable, in the interests of psychology, to state that truly instinctive acts (as defined) are accompanied by consciousness. This marks them off from such reflex acts as are unconsciously performed, and from the tropisms of plants and other lowly organisms. There remains, however, the difficulty of finding any satisfactory criterion of the presence of consciousness. We seem forced to accept a practical criterion for purposes of interpretation rather than one which can be theoretically defended against all adverse criticism. We have reason to believe that some organisms profit by experience and show that they do so by the modification of their behaviour in accordance with circumstances. Such modification is said to be individually acquired. To profit by individual experience is thus the only criterion we possess of the existence of the conscious experience itself. But if hereditary behaviour is unaccompanied by consciousness, it can in no wise contribute to experience, and can afford no data by which the organism can profit. Hence, for purposes of psychological interpretation it seems necessary to assume that instinctive behaviour, including the stimulation by which it is initiated and conditioned, affords that naive awareness which forms an integral part of what may be termed the primordial tissue of experience.

We are now in a position to give an expanded definition of instinctive behaviour as comprising those complex groups of co-ordinated acts which, though they contribute to experience, are, on their first occurrence, not determined by individual experience; which are adaptive and tend to the well-being of the individual and the preservation of the race; which are due to the co-operation of external and internal stimuli; which are similarly performed by all members of the same more or less restricted group of animals; but which are subject to variation, and to subsequent modification under the guidance of individual experience.

If a brief definition of instinct, from the purely biological point of view be required, that given in the Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology may be accepted: "An inherited reaction of the sensori-motor type, relatively complex 3'p 3' p and markedly adaptive in character, and common to a group of individuals." Instinctive behaviour thus depends solely on how the nervous system has been built through heredity; while intelligent behaviour depends also on those characters of the nervous system which have been acquired under the modifying influence of individual relation to the environment.

Such definitions, however, are not universally accepted. Wasmann, for example, divides instinctive actions under two groups: (I) those which immediately spring from the inherited dispositions; (2) those which indeed proceed from the same inherited dispositions but through the medium of sense experience. The first group, which he regards as instinctive in the strict acceptance of the term, seem exactly to correspond to those which fall under the definition given above. The second group, which he regards as instinctive in the wider acceptance of the term, nearly, if not quite, correspond to those above spoken of as intelligent - though he regards this term as falsely applied (see Intelligence Of Animals). By using the term instinctive in both its strict and its wider significance, Wasmann includes under it the whole range of animal behaviour.

It will be seen that from the biological standpoint there fall under the stricter definition those hereditary modes of behaviour which are analogous to hereditary forms of structure; and that a sharp line of distinction is drawn between the behaviour which is thus rendered definite through heredity, and the behaviour the distinguishing characteristics of which are acquired in the course of individual life. What in popular usage are spoken of as the instincts of animals, for example, the hunting of prey by foxes and wolves, or the procedure of ants in their nests, are generally joint products of hereditary and acquired factors. Wasmann's comprehensive definition so far accords with popular usage. But it tends to minimize the importance of the distinction of that which is prior to individual experience and that which results therefrom. It is the business of scientific interpretation to disentangle the factors which contribute to the joint-products. It is indeed by no means easy to distinguish between what is dependent on individual experience, and what is not. Only the careful observation of organisms throughout the earlier phases of their life-history can the closely related factors be distinguished with any approach to scientific accuracy. By the patient study of the behaviour of precocious young birds, such as chicks, pheasants, ducklings and moorhens, it can be readily ascertained that such modes of activity as running, swimming, diving, preening the down, scratching the ground, pecking at small objects, with the characteristic attitudes expressive of fear and anger, are so far instinctive as to be definite on their first occurrence - they do not require to be learnt. No doubt they are subsequently guided to higher excellence and effectiveness with the experience gained in their oft-repeated performance. Indeed it may be said that only on the occasion of their initial performance are they purely instinctive; all subsequent performance being in some degree modified by the experience afforded by previous behaviour of like nature and the results it affords. It should be remembered that such comparatively simple activities, though there is little about them to arrest popular attention, are just the raw material out of which the normal active life of such organisms is elaborated, and that for scientific treatment they are therefore not less important than those more conspicuous performances which seem at first sight to call for special treatment, or even to demand a supplementary explanation. The instincts of nest-building, incubation and the rearing of young, though they occur later in life than those concerned in locomotion and the obtaining of food, are none the less founded on a hereditary basis, and in some respects are less rather than more liable to modification by the experience gained by the carrying out of hereditarily definite modes of procedure. Here the instinctive factor probably predominates over that which is experiential.

But in the "homing" of pigeons there is little question that the experiential factor predominates. The habit results mainly from the modification of the higher nerve-centres through individual and intelligent use. In the migration of birds we are still uncertain asto the exact nature and proportional value of the instinctive and intelligent factors. The impulse to migrate, that is to say, the calling forth of specific activities by climatal or other presentations, appears to be instin tive; whether the direction of migration is in like manner instinctive is a matter of uncertainty; and, if it be instinctive, the nature of the stimuli and the manner in which they are hereditarily linked with responsive acts is unexplained. To say that it is due to hereditary experience is generally regarded as inadmissible. For modern interpretation hereditary modes of behaviour afford experience; in no other sense can it be said that experience is inherited.

A good example of the methods of recent investigation is to be found in Dr G. W. and Mrs Peckham's minute observations on the habits and instincts of the solitary wasps. They enumerate the following primary types of instinctive behaviour: the manner of attacking and capturing a particular kind of prey which alone affords the requisite presentation to sense; the manner of conveying the prey to the nest; the general style and locality of the nest; the method and order of procedure in stocking the nest with food for the unseen young. It is noteworthy, however, that although the manner in which the prey is stung (for example) is on the whole similar in the case of the members of any given species - that is to say, all the wasps of the species behave in very much the same manner - yet there are minor variations in detail. This outcome of prolonged and careful observation is of importance. It affords a point of departure for the interpretation of the genesis of existing instincts. Furthermore, the observations on American wasps render it probable that the earlier accounts of the instinctive behaviour of such wasps are exaggerated. Romanes thought that the manner of stinging and paralysing their prey might be justly deemed the most remarkable instinct in the world. Spiders, caterpillars and grasshoppers are, he said, stung in their chief nerve-centres, in consequence of which the victims are not killed outright, but rendered motionless and continue to live in this paralysed condition for several weeks, being thus available as food for the larvae when these are hatched. Of course, he adds, the extraordinary fact which stands to be explained is that. of the precise anatomical, not to say the physiological, knowledge which appears to be displayed by the insect in stinging only the nerve-centres of its prey. But the Peckhams' careful observations and experiments show that, with the American wasps, the victims stored in the nests are quite as often dead as alive; that those which are only paralysed live for a varying number of days, some more, some less; that wasp larvae thrive just as well on dead victims, sometimes dried up, sometimes undergoing decomposition, as on living and paralysed prey; that the nerve-centres are not stung with the supposed uniformity; and that in some cases paralysis, in others death, follows when the victims are stung in parts far removed from any nerve-centre. It would seem then that by the stinging of insects or spiders their powers of resistance are overcome and their escape prevented; that some are killed outright and some paralysed is merely an incidental result.

Granted that instinctive modes of behaviour are hereditary and definite within the limits of congenital variation, the question of their manner of genesis is narrowed to a clear issue. Do they originate through the natural selection of those variations which are the more adaptive; or do they originate through the inheritance of those acquired modifications which are impressed on the nervous system in the course of individual and intelligent use ? Romanes, taking up the inquiry where Darwin left it, came to the conclusion that some instinctive modes of behaviour which he termed "primary" are due to the operation of natural selection alone; that others, which he termed "secondary," and of which he could give few examples, were due to the inheritance of acquired modifications from which, in the phrase of G. H. Lewes, the intelligence had xlv. 2 I a. not transmitted as hereditary instincts. But the imitative act is itself instinctive. The characteristic feature of the imitative act, at the instinctive level, is that the presentation to sight or hearing calls forth a mode of behaviour of like nature to, or producing like results to, that which affords the stimulus. The nature of instinctive imitation needs working out iii further detail. But it is probable that what we speak of as the imitative tendency is, in any given species, the expression of a considerable number of particular responses each of which is congenitally linked with a particular presentation or stimulus. The group of instincts which we class as imitative (and they afford only the foundations on which intelligent imitation is based) are of biological value chiefly, if not solely, in those species which form larger or smaller communities.

The study of instinct is in the genetic treatment of evolutionary science a study in heredity. The favouring bionomic conditions are those of a relatively constant environment under which relatively stereotyped responses are advantage ous. If the environment be complex, there is a corresponding complexity in instinctive behaviour. But adjustment to a complex environment may be reached in two ways; by instinctive adaptation through initially stereotyped behaviour; or by plastic accommodation by acquired modifications. The tendency of the evolution of intelligence is towards the disintegration of the stereotyped modes of response and the dissolution of instinct. Natural selection which, under a uniform and constant environment, leads to the survival of relatively fixed and definite modes of response, under an environment presenting a wider range of varying possibilities leads to the survival of plastic accommodation through intelligence. This plasticity is, however, itself hereditary. All intelligent procedure implies the inherited capacity of profiting by experience. Instinctive in the popular sense, it does not fall within the narrower definition of the term; it is more conveniently described as innate. It is important to grasp clearly the distinction thus drawn. A duckling only a few hours old if placed in water swims with orderly strokes. The stimulus of water on the breast may be regarded as a sensory presentation which is followed by a definite and adaptive application of behaviour. But this specific application is dependent upon a prolonged racial preparation of the organism to respond in this particular way. Such response is instinctive. It is wholly due, as such, to racial preparation. Compare the case of a boy who learns to ride a bicycle. This is not wholly due, as such, to racial preparation, but is also partly due to individual preparation. The boy no doubt inherits a capacity for riding a bicycle, otherwise he could never do so. But he has to learn to ride none the less. Individual experience is a condition which without the innate capacity cannot take effect. Instinct involves inherited adaptation; intelligence, an inherited power, embodied in the higher nerve-centres, of accommodation to varying circumstances.

See C. Lloyd Morgan, Habit and Instinct (1896), and Animal Behaviour (1900); G. J. Romanes, Mental Evolution in Animals (1883), and Natural History of Instinct (1886); Lord Avebury, On the Instincts of Animals (1889); Marshall, Instinct and Reason (1898); Mills, Nature of Animal Intelligence (1898); St George Mivart, Nature and Thought (1882), and Origin of Human Reason (1899); E. Wasmann, Zur Entwickelung der Instincte (1897), Instinct and Intelligenz im Tierreich (1899, Eng. trans. 1903); G. and C. Peckham, Instincts and Habits of Solitary Wasps (1898); see also the bibliography (section "Instinct and Impulse") in Baldwin's Dict. of Philosophy and Psychology. (C. LL. M.)

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Simple English

Instinct is the part of the behaviour of organisms that is not learned. Instinct is a built-in need to do something for survival. It's not something a creature thinks about; it's just something the creature does automatically. A baby bird automatically throws its head back, opens its mouth wide, and screams for food. It is an instinct. Mother cats instinctively wrestle and bite their kittens, teaching them how to fight. Baby bats automatically cling to the cave wall. Grasshoppers naturally spit out the things in their stomach on predators that try to eat them. Bees naturally work to take care of the hive and make honey. Butterflies "know" what plant their young need to eat, and that's where they lay their eggs. Organisms are given these instincts, and they follow their instincts without even thinking about it.

Organisms usually have two basic sets of behaviour. One set they learn, through observation. The other set they simply have, without learning.

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