Instinct Theory of Motivation

instinct theory of motivation

In a previous post, we touched on the different approaches to explain motivation in psychology. In this post, we are going to explore the instinct approach of motivation a bit further.

What is instinct?

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.

Instinct Theories of Motivation

Instinct theory of motivation states that all activities, thoughts, and desires can be drawn from being caused by nature, our biological make-up. Human beings do things because they are evolutionarily programmed to do so. Individuals have a programmed disposition at birth and genes are identified to motivate people.

William McDougall

One of the pioneers of instinct theories of motivation is the English-born social psychologist, William McDougall, who formed the Hormic Psychology, with ‘hormic’ meaning animal impulse or urge. Hormic Psychology is based on determined and goal-oriented behaviors that are supposed to be motivated by instincts, which are spontaneous, persistent, variable, and repetitive. McDougall highlighted the instinctive nature of purposeful behaviors, but also recognized that learning is possible.

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.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud’s belief was that human behavior was driven by two biological instincts: Eros, the life instinct and Thanatos, the death instinct. The life instinct includes sexual motivation, while the death instinct comprises aggressive motivation.

Sigmund Freud believed that all animals, both human and nonhuman, have inborn powerful aggression instincts. These instincts form a force that allows an individual to be involved in aggressive activities that must be fulfilled. The instincts create an uncomfortable feeling within the individual which is expressed through some aggressive acts. The process of releasing this instinctual energy is called catharsis, which is also referred as the cleansing of guilt. Sigmund Freud suggested that people should find ways of releasing these instincts in a non-violent way, such as engaging in competitive activities, reading about violent crimes, or watching aggressive sport events.

William James

William James, father of American Psychology, used functionalist perspective and acknowledged the survival importance of instinctive motivation. His theory was influence by Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. William James saw instincts as something that remained, survived and adapted which eventually evolved through natural selection.

His list of 37 human instincts, which he believes could explain much of human behaviors, includes acquisitiveness, anger, biting, carrying to the mouth, clasping, cleanliness, constructiveness, crying, curiosity, emulation, fear of dark places, fear of noise, fear of strange animals, fear of strange men, holding the head erect, hunting, imitation, jealousy, locomotion, love, modesty, parental love, play, pugnacity, resentment, secretiveness, shame, shyness, sitting up, smiling, sociability, standing, sucking, sympathy, turning the head to one side, vocalization and walking.


Instinct theories of motivation became unpopular after their emergence. One reason is because these theories simply label instead of showing the mechanisms of behavior. In addition, instincts are quite difficult to empirically test and observe, contributing to the diminished popularity of the instinct theories.

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