Instinct is the inherent inclination of a livingorganism towards a particular complex behaviour, containing both innate (inborn) and learned elements. The simplest example of an instinctive behavior is a fixed action pattern (FAP), in which a very short to medium length sequence of actions, without variation, are carried out in response to a corresponding 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 instinctively move toward the ocean. A marsupial 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. Though an instinct is defined by its invariant innate characteristics, details of its performance can be changed by experience; for example, a dog can improve its listening skills by practice.
Instincts are inborn complex patterns of behavior that exist in most members of the species, and should be distinguished from reflexes, which are simple responses 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. 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.
Instinctual behaviour in humans has been studied, and is a controversial topic.
Jean Henri Fabre (1823-1915), 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.
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, there exists a sensitive period for a bird in which it learns the identity of its mother. Konrad Lorenz famously had a goose imprint on his boots. Thereafter the goose would follow whoever wore the boots. This suggests that the identity of the goose’s mother was learned, but the goose’s behavior towards what it perceived as its mother was instinctive.
The term “instinct” in psychology was first used in the 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[who?] chronicled 4,000 human “instincts,” having applied this label to any behavior that was repetitive. In the early twentieth century, there was recognized a “union of instinct and emotion”.William McDougall held that many instincts have their respective associated specific emotions. As research became more rigorous and terms better defined, instinct as an explanation for human behavior became less common. In 1932, McDougall argued that the word ‘instinct’ is more suitable for describing animal behaviour, while he recommended the word ‘propensity‘ for goal directed combinations of the many innate human abilities, which are loosely and variably linked, in a way that shows strong plasticity. In a conference in 1960, chaired by Frank Beach, a pioneer in comparative psychology, and attended by luminaries in the field, the term ‘instinct’ 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, the term ‘instinct’ appeared to have become outmoded for introductory textbooks on human psychology.
Sigmund Freud considered that mental images of bodily needs, expressed in the form of desires, are called instincts.
In the 1950s, the 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: an enduring problem in psychology (1961) selected a range of writings about the topic.
In a classic paper published in 1972, the psychologist Richard Herrnstein wrote: “A comparison of McDougall’s theory of instinct and Skinner’s reinforcement theory — representing nature and nurture — shows remarkable, and largely unrecognized, similarities between the contending sides in the nature-nurture dispute as applied to the analysis of behavior.”
F.B. Mandal proposed a set of criteria by which a behavior might be considered instinctual: 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 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.” Spink adds that Steven Pinker similarly asserts that language acquisition is instinctive in humans in his book The Language Instinct (1994). In 1908, William McDougall wrote about the “instinct of curiosity” and its associated “emotion of wonder”, though Spink’s book does not mention this.
M.S. Blumberg in 2017 examined the use of the word instinct, and found it varied significantly.