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Instinct Theory

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Instinct Theory

Have you ever wondered about the true source behind our motivations and actions? Are we really in control of our bodies or do our bodies control us?

  • What is the instinct theory?
  • Who was William James?
  • What are criticisms with the instinct theory?
  • What are examples of the instinct theory?

Instinct Theory in Psychology – Definition

Instinct theory is a psychological theory that explains the origins of motivation. According to Instinct theory, all animals have an innate biological instinct that helps us survive and these instincts are what drive our motivations and behaviors.

Instinct: A pattern of behavior exhibited by a species that is biologically innate and does not originate from learned experiences.

When a horse is born, it automatically knows how to walk without being taught by its mother. This is an example of an instinct. Instincts are biologically hard-wired in the brain and do not need to be taught. For example, the reflex of catching a ball when it is thrown at you is an instinct. Instincts can also be seen in babies such as sucking when pressure is placed on the top of their mouths.

Instinct Theory, A boy catches a ball using his instincts, StudySmarter We most often will react to a ball being thrown at us by catching or dodging it, pixabay.com

William James and Instinct Theory

In psychology, many psychologists have theorized about motivation. William James was a psychologist that believed that our behavior was based purely on our instinct to survive. James believed that the main instincts that drive our motivation and behavior are fear, love, anger, shame, and cleanliness. According to James's versions of instinct theory, human motivation and behavior is strictly influenced by our innate want to survive.

Humans have fears such as heights and snakes. This is all based on instinct and therefore great examples of William James' instinct theory.

In psychology, William James' instinct theory was the first theory to outline a biological basis for human motivation suggesting that we are born with instincts that drive our actions in everyday life.

Instinct Theory, William James reading a book, StudySmarterWilliam James is responsible for instinct theory, commons.wikimedia.org

Instinct According To McDougall

According to the theories of William McDougall, instincts are made up of three parts which are: perception, behavior, and emotion. McDougall outlined instincts as predisposed behaviors that focus on stimuli that are important to our innate goals. For example, humans are innately motivated to reproduce. As a result, we instinctually know how to reproduce. McDougall lists 18 different instincts including: sex, hunger, parental instincts, sleep, laughter, curiosity, and migration.

When we are perceiving the world through one of our instincts such as hunger, we will pay more attention to the smell and sight of food. If we are hungry, we will be motivated by our hunger and will set a goal to relieve our hunger through eating food. To achieve our goal, we may be motivated to go to the kitchen to make something or order delivery. Either way, we are modifying our behavior to relieve our hunger.

Hunger, Thirst, and Sex

In psychology, homeostasis provides a biological explanation to our desire to satisfy our instincts. Our brains provide a large amount of control over our behaviors and motivations. The area of the brain that is responsible for controlling our hunger and thirst behaviors is known as the hypothalamus. The ventromedial hypothalamus (VMH) is the specific region that mediates our hunger through a negative feedback loop.

When we are hungry, the VMH sends signals to our brain to motivate us to eat. Once we have eaten a sufficient amount, negative feedback loops in the VMH shut down the hunger signals. If the VMH is damaged, we would continue eating as the feedback loop will no longer be functional. Similarly, damage to the neighboring portion the lateral hypothalamus will cause us to not feel hungry and starve to death due to a lack of motivation to eat.

In normal physiology, leptin plays a key role in mediating the feedback loops between the hypothalamus and the stomach. When we have eaten enough food, we accumulate fat cells. The accumulation of fat cells after a meal triggers the release of leptin which lets the hypothalamus know that we have consumed enough food so now the hunger signals can be turned off.

Criticism of Instinct Theories of Motivation

One major criticism is that instincts do not explain all behavior. For example, is laughing an instinct? Or do we laugh because we learned it from our parents as a baby? Also, driving is definitely not an instinct as people need years of practice before really learning how to drive.

Despite these criticisms of Instinct Theory, modern psychology outlines that certain human behaviors might be biologically programmed; however, individual life experience also plays a significant role in our motivation and behavior. Have you ever laughed at a joke that no one else thought was funny? You may have understood the context of the joke more than others because of a certain life experience. This is essentially the concept of life experience influencing our thinking which in turn influences our behavior.

Another example of how our experiences influence our behavior would be the case of having animals as pets. Having a pet snake is not in our instincts as most people are afraid of snakes. This means that your experiences and interests in life influenced your behavior of you getting a pet snake.

Arousal Theory

Arousal theory is another theory of motivation that offers an explanation of our behaviors. Arousal theory suggests that the main reason people are motivated is to maintain an ideal level of physiological arousal. In the case of the nervous system, arousal is a state of moderate to high nervous system activity. Usually, people only need a moderate level of arousal to accomplish most tasks such as eating, drinking, or bathing; however, the Yerkes-Dodson Law states that tasks of moderate difficulty have the highest level of performance when we accomplish those types of tasks.

The Yerkes-Dodson law also states that having a high level of physiological arousal when completing difficult tasks and having a low level of arousal when completing easy tasks is detrimental for our overall motivation. Instead, the theory proposes that a high level of arousal for easy tasks and a low level of arousal for difficult tasks are preferred when it comes to our motivation. The arousal theory offers a key explanation for behaviors such as laughter. When we laugh, we experience a boost in physiological arousal which can explain why most people enjoy laughing.

Instinct Theory of Aggression

In psychology, the instinct theory of aggression is a more specific form of the general instinct theory that suggests that humans are biologically programmed or have instincts for violent behavior. Supporters of the instinct theory of aggression view human aggression as similar to sex and hunger and believe that aggression cannot be eliminated and can only be controlled. This theory was developed by Sigmund Freud.

Instinct Theory, A photo of a boy being aggressive, StudySmarterHuman aggression is one of the focuses of instinct theory, pixabay.com

It can be argued that humans have innate instincts that make us violent. For instance, cavemen knew that hitting someone on the head very hard is enough to kill a man. Cavemen had no prior understanding of the brain or the understanding that their brain would keep them alive as this was not scientifically discovered until around the 17th century BC. So, is killing a biological instinct? Or is it a learned behavior?

If you look at other animals such as meerkats, you will find that homicides are quite common in the animal world. Studies show that about 1 in 5 meerkats will be violently killed by another meerkat in its group. This suggests that meerkats are biologically programmed with killer instincts. Do all animals have these killer instincts? If so, do killer instincts influence our behavior? These questions are still being investigated today.

Instinct Theory – Examples

We know that the instinct theory suggests that our behaviors are the result of biological programming but let's take a look at some examples that support instinct theory.

Brian was walking down the street with his dog when suddenly a python slithered out of the bushes onto Brian's path. Feeling scared, Brian immediately turned around and walked away from the snake. According to instinct theory, Brian walking away was a behavior that was biologically programmed into him as an instinct of survival.

Another example of instinct theory can be seen when an object is placed in a baby's mouth. As a newborn, babies automatically know how to suck due to them needing to breastfeed for nutrients during the early stages of life. The pacifier takes advantage of our instinct to suck as a newborn in order to prevent babies from crying by keeping them distracted.

While instinct theory offers a good explanation for some of our behaviors, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the true nature behind why we do what we do.

Instinct Theory - Key takeaways

  • According to Instinct theory, all animals have an innate biological instinct that help us survive and these instincts are what drive our behaviors.
  • An instinct is a pattern of behavior exhibited by a species that is biologically innate and does not originate from learned experiences.
  • William James was a psychologist that believed that our behavior was based purely on our instinct to survive.
  • The instinct theory of aggression is a more specific form of the general instinct theory that suggests that humans are biologically programmed or have instincts for violent behavior.

References

  1. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www3.dbu.edu/jeanhumphreys/socialpsych/10aggression.htm#:~:text=Instinct theory,thanatos) possessed by all persons.
  2. Cherry, K. (2020, April 29). How Instincts and Our Experiences Can Influence Behavior. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/instinct-theory-of-motivation-2795383#:~:text=What Is Instinct Theory?,that instincts drive all behaviors.
  3. Cooke, L. (2022, January 28). Meet the world's most murderous mammal: The meerkat. Retrieved from https://www.discoverwildlife.com/animal-facts/mammals/meet-the-worlds-most-murderous-mammal-the-meerkat/

Frequently Asked Questions about Instinct Theory

Instinct Theory is a psychological theory that explains the origins of motivation. According to Instinct theory, all animals have an innate biological instincts that help us survive and these instincts are what drive our behaviors. 

Instinct is an example of the biological hard-wiring that we as humans have despite our environmental factors. 

According to McDougall, an instinct is a pattern of behavior exhibited by a species that is biologically innate and does not originate from learned experiences. 

The major flaw of the instinct theory is that it overlooks how learning and life experiences can influence our behavior. 

According to James's versions of instinct theory, human behavior is strictly influenced by our innate want to survive. James's theory has some criticisms because people do not always do things that are the best for their survival. For example, a person with heart disease may continue to eat badly despite what doctors say.  

Final Instinct Theory Quiz

Question

What is the instinct theory?

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A psychological theory that explains the origins of motivation as being based on our biological instincts. 

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What is an instinct?

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A pattern of behavior exhibited by a species that is biologically innate and does not originate from learned experience 

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What is an example of an instinct?

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A baby nursing from his mother

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What is William James instinct theory. 

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William James believed that our behavior is purely based on our instincts to survive. 

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What is a major criticism for instinct theory?

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Instinct theory does not explain all behavior as humans exhibit learned behaviors too. 

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What is the instinct theory of aggression?

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The instinct theory of aggression suggests that humans are biologically programmed to have instincts of violent behavior.

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Who developed the instinct theory of aggression?

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Sigmund Freud 

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Do humans have instincts?

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True

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What is an example of a human instinct? Select all that apply.

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A mother nursing her child. 

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According to James William's instinct theory, what drives our behavior?

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Survival instincts 

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Which of the following is an example of a criticism of William James instinct theory?

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A person with heart disease may continue to eat badly despite what doctors say. 

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Which of the following is an example of criticism of instinct theory?

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some humans enjoy smoking despite it being bad for them

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Does instinct theory explain all human behaviors?

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No. Humans also exhibit learned behavior 

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What are some examples of learned behavior in humans?

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Driving 

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Who developed the instinct theory suggesting that human motivation is based on survival instincts?

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William James 

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Which of the following is not an example of an instinct? 

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You knowing how to ride a bike. 

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According to William James, what are the four main instincts that drive our motivation and behavior? 

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Answer

Fear, love, anger, shame

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William James' instinct theory was the first theory to outline a __________ basis for human motivation suggesting that we are born with instincts that drive our actions in everyday life.

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Answer

biological

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______________ provides a biological explanation to our desire to satisfy our instincts.


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Homeostasis

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Which area of the brain is responsible for controlling our hunger and thirst behaviors? 

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hypothalamus

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What does the ventromedial hypothalamus do when we are hungry? 

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Answer

It sends signals to our brain to motivate us to eat. 

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Once we have eaten a sufficient amount after feeling hungry, how are the hunger signals in the ventromedial hypothalamus shut down? 

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Negative feedback loop in ventromedial hypothalamus

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What happens when there is damage to the lateral hypothalamus?

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We will not feel hungry and would starve to death. 

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Question

What role does leptin play in mediating the feedback loops between the hypothalamus and the stomach?

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Answer

When we have eaten enough food, we accumulate fat cells. The accumulation of fat cells after a meal triggers the release of leptin which lets the hypothalamus know that we have consumed enough food so now the hunger signals can be turned off.

Show question

Question

True or False? According to the instinct theory of aggression, aggression can be controlled and eventually eliminated. 

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False. The instinct theory of aggression says that aggression cannot be eliminated, only controlled.

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Question

The ______________ states that tasks of moderate difficulty have the highest level of performance when we accomplish those types of tasks.

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Answer

Yerkes-Dodson Law

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Which of the following can arousal theory explain?

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Why we laugh

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Question

True or False? Individual life experience also plays a significant role in our motivation and behavior. 

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Answer

True

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