Instinct Theory Explains Motivation

In this article, you will learn:

  1. What is Instinct Theory?
  2. Who Developed the Instinct Theory?
  3. Psychologists Who Believe in Instinct Theory
  4. Instinct Evolutionary Theory
  5. Instinct Arousal Theory
  6. Freud Instinct Theory
  7. Instinct Theory Examples
  8. Criticisms of the Instinct Theory

The instinct theory of motivation suggests that there are certain innate traits that act as motivators of all human behavior and action.

In other words, people behave in a certain way as a result of biologically determined and innate patterns of behavior called instincts.

Charles Darwin’s landmark theory of evolution influenced the instinct approach theorists to understand the motivation to act in humans.

Charles Darwin came up with the theory of natural selection which became the basis of instinct theories of motivation given by William James and William McDougall.

Advanced Psychology

As per the theory of natural selection, limited resources resulted in population pressure which further led to a struggle for existence. The aim of such a struggle is to filter out those who were unfit for existence.

Accordingly, the fittest individuals would survive and pass on their advantages to future generations. This would eventually alter the species over time.

This is because they would adapt to those anatomical and instinctual aspects that would be beneficial for their existence.

Much like animals controlled by mating, nest building, migrating or protecting instincts.

Thus, humans too are driven by certain instincts like parental love, curiosity, fear, attachment, etc according to instinct approach theorists.

In this article, we will define instinct theory, what is the instinct theory, instinct theory examples, and shortcomings of the instinct theory.

What is Instinct Theory?

As mentioned earlier, instinct theory suggests that instincts are the basis of all human behavior. In other words, humans act or behave in a particular way as a result of some inborn behaviors called instincts.

And these instincts help in the survival of living beings.

Thus, instinct theory most clearly assumed that behavior is influenced by instincts or impulses.

It is the instinct that drives living creatures to save or maintain their lives.

Basically, instincts are specific to species and are patterns of behavior not learned from a biological point of view.

For example, the urge to lick sugar, the mother’s protection of her baby, or hunting prey were some of the instincts common during William James’ times.

Instinct Definition

William James defines instincts as the faculty of acting in such a way as to produce certain ends, without the foresight of the ends. And also without previous education in the performance.

William James on Instincts

William James suggested that every instinct is an impulse or a reflex action. And, thus, human beings cannot help behaving in a specific way when acting on their instincts.

As per science, we obey our instincts because they are useful to us in our survival. William James, however, claimed that we follow our instincts not because of their utility.

But because at the time of following them they are the only appropriate and natural things to do.

For him, every instinct is an impulse. That is, actions that are the result of definite sensory stimuli coming in contact with the human body or at a distance in his environment.

Thus, specific reactions are pre-programmed in the human nervous system. And these reactions are called forth by certain sensations or perceptions in humans.

The Transitory Nature of Instincts

William James claimed that humans have a far greater variety of instincts than lower animals. And that these instincts are as blind as the instincts in lower animals.

Typically, the difference between humans and lower animals is that humans have higher-order reasoning skills. And that humans work by reason the majority of the time.

However, reasoning applies both for inferring as well as obeying impulses.

But given the human memory and his abilities to reflect and infer, instinctive actions come in association with the foresight of their outcome.

In other words, humans act out instinctive actions for the outcomes of such actions. This is because it is impossible for an instinctive action to be blind in humans owing to their ability to memorize, reflect, and infer.

Thus, as per James, instincts appear to be transitory. That is, these appear only once in a lifetime.

This is because an instinct ceases to be blind once repeated. Further, it comes along with the foresight of its end in animals with memory.

Instinct Theory – William McDougall

William McDougall believed in the goal-seeking nature of humans. This belief led him to create a system of psychology opposed to the one-sided approach that all human behavior was rational and relied on the foresight of consequences.

He developed systematic psychology of purpose or motives both natural and hereditary. And this was based on the doctrine of instincts.

William McDougall claimed that instincts – the vital impulse or urge to action, are the driving forces of human conduct. Further, instincts are directly or indirectly the basis of all human activity, including the intellectual.

McDougall claimed that reasoning is ruled by instinctive impulses. It does not in itself prompt humans to action. Through reasoning, humans simply find new ways of achieving their goals.

Humans desire to achieve something because it is in their nature to do so. No reasoning can in itself help them seek or desire things they want to achieve.

He called his system of psychology ‘hormic’ which means a vital impulse or urge to action.

He claimed that hormic psychology is purposive in character. It is self-governing psychology, not bound to or contained by the principles of physical science.

It claims that the aim of all human behavior is to achieve some natural good. Further, awareness of this goal guides human behavior and continues until the achievement of this goal.

Accordingly, achieving the goal is pleasurable. Whereas, any failure to achieve such a goal brings displeasure.

Thus, instincts are those actions that lead to goals that are natural to human beings. And to undertake these actions, humans have certain innate propensities which are the basis of all his strivings.

Types of Instincts

William McDougall first came up with a list of seven instincts which he called ‘Primary Instincts. Later, he came up with an additional list of instincts which he called ‘Other Instincts’ or ‘Less Well-defined Emotional Tendency’.

Accordingly, William McDouglas came up with a list of eighteen instincts or propensities which are as follows.

  • Food seeking propensity
  • Disgust propensity
  • Sex propensity
  • Fear propensity
  • Curiosity propensity
  • Protective or parental propensity
  • Gregarious propensity
  • Self-Assertive propensity
  • Submissive propensity
  • Anger propensity
  • Appeal propensity
  • Constructive propensity
  • Acquisitive propensity
  • Laughter propensity
  • Comfort propensity
  • Rest or sleep propensity
  • Migratory propensity
  • A group of very simple propensities that serve bodily needs. These include coughing, sneezing, breathing, and evacuation

Theory of Instinct – Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud used the word ‘Instinct’ in his book ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’. In this, he defined instincts as human motivational forces, also called ‘Drives’.

Freud maintained a deterministic view about the nature of humans. He claimed that an individual’s personality is to a great extent decided by the age of 6.

He proposed that people do have free will in shaping their personalities. In other words, innate drives relating to sex, aggression or love, and death formulate their personality.

His deterministic view also deals with how a child is raised by his parents.

Also Read: CBT Principles: Key Principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Determinism – Life (Eros) and Death (Thanatos)

The initial part of Freud’s determinism holds that human forces called ‘instinctual forces, biological forces’, or ‘drives’ determine human behavior.

He used the term ‘drive’ to indicate his belief that a person’s bodily forces make demands on a person’s mental life.

Thus, the drive is a critical state of excitation in response to a certain stimulus. In other words, each drive has:

  • a source – these are needs of your body that originate from the erogenous zones.
  • an internal aim – the momentary removal of a bodily need
  • an external aim – the actions one takes to achieve the goal of the internal aim
  • and an object

As per Freud, all instincts could be categorized into two classes:

Life Instincts or Eros

These are instincts that are necessary for the survival of individuals as well as the species. At times, one may refer to them as sexual instincts.

Accordingly, Life instincts or Eros are instincts that relate to basic survival, pleasure, and reproduction. Such instincts are necessary for maintaining the life of both the individuals and species at large.

Thus, these instincts compel people towards actions that help in preserving their lives as well as the continuation of civilization or society.

For instance, life instincts like love, affections, and social cooperation are important both for the well-being of individuals and society.

Basic life instincts include pain avoidance, hunger, thrust, sexual drive, love, affections, and other prosocial actions.

Freud claimed that Ego attacked Eros – where ego is the realistic part of one’s psyche that interferes with drives.

Later, Freud claimed that Thanatos or Death Instincts attacked Eros or life instincts.

Thanatos or Death Instincts

Freud described Death instincts in his book ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle. He claimed that ‘the goal of all life is death.’

Accordingly, all people have an unconscious desire to die. However, Life Instincts tone down this desire. According to him, death instincts create energy that results in self-destructive behaviors. This energy comes out as aggression and violence when directed outwards on others.

Who Developed the Instinct Theory?

Wilhelm Wundt first coined the term instinct in 1870s which referred to any repeated behavior. Over time, the innate urge driving human behavior and helping him in his survival came under instincts.

However, William Mcdougall popularized the instinct theory based on the psychology of purpose. He claimed that instincts – the vital impulses or urges to action, motivated people to behave in a particular way.

In other words, man acted as a result of the life-giving touch of instinct.

In addition to William Mcdougall, William James and Sigmund Freud too proposed theories of instinct.

William James defined instinct theory as the capacity to act in a specific way to produce an end. This is without the foresight of the end and its knowledge during performance.

He had a more mechanistic view as he claimed that a particular image, perception, or sensation called forth instinctive actions in humans.

In addition to this, he claims that only the first instance of instinctive response is without the foresight of its end. Thus. modification in these instinctive actions happens once they are repeated.

Whereas, Freud defined instincts in terms of drives. He claimed that these drives make demands on one’s mental life.

That is, these life and death instincts drive humans to action.

Psychologists Who Believe in Instinct Theory

There have been many philosophers and psychologists who believed in the instinct theory.

Sigmund Freud

Freud was one of the neurologists who took instincts to be the bridge between the mental and physical world.

According to him, instincts represented the demands made on the mind as a result of its relation to the body.

He believed that these instincts are always active or present either consciously or unconsciously. Further, these constantly pressure the human mind and thus compel it towards certain actions.

William James

Likewise, William James too was firm about the presence of instinct in human beings. In his book ‘Principles of Psychology’, he clearly mentions that humans have more instincts than lower animals.

He defined instinct as the capacity of humans to act in a way to produce certain ends. However, they neither have the foresight of such ends nor the prior education of them during the performance.

William McDougall

Similarly, William McDougall believed in the goal-seeking nature of man. His psychology of motives, both natural and hereditary, was based on the principles of instincts.

Conwy Lloyd Morgan

Conwy Lloyd Morgan defines instinctive behavior in place of instinct. He defines instincts as a complicated group of coordinated acts that contribute to experience. However, experience does not determine such instinctive acts in their first occurrence.

These acts are adaptive in nature and are directed towards the well-being of the people and their race. These occur as a result of cooperation between external and internal stimuli.

Further, such acts are performed in a similar way by all the members of the same group. However, these acts are subject to variation and to following modification guided by individual experience.

L.T. Hobhouse

L.T. Hobhouse, a sociologist, holds views on instinct similar to Morgan. Hobhouse considers instinct to be a response to the stimulus of an inherited structure.

James Drever

James Drever, a Scottish Psychologist, defines instinct as an innate demanding force that guides cognition. This force is accompanied by interest or emotion to some extent determines action.

Instinct Evolutionary Theory

Charles Darwin came up with the evolutionary construction of animal instinct. His instinct evolutionary theory claimed that all structures in living species were with the direct effect of habit or hereditary effect of a habit.

He claimed that new habits if practiced by a population over a number of years turn into instincts.

These instincts later would alter the anatomical structures and thus modify the species.

Thus, according to Darwin, instincts would prevent animals from any conscious, intentional activities.

Theory of Natural Selection

Darwin then developed the theory of natural selection and explained instincts through it.

As per his theory of Natural Selection, a population comes under pressure due to scarce resources. And such pressure results in a struggle for existence.

Further, this pressure eventually led to the filtering out of the unfit species. And the most fit who were further adapted to their circumstance remained.

Accordingly, the more fit organisms would survive, reproduce, and thus pass on their benefits to their generations. In this way, they would eventually alter the species.

However, Darwin found issues with explaining the habit-instinct concept through natural selection. At the time he came up with a natural selection, there were researchers who held that animals had instincts. Further, they demonstrated these instincts without prior knowledge of their actions.

For example, a caterpillar spun the web without prior knowledge that doing so would provide shelter to it for metamorphosis.

Therefore, Darwin began applying theory of natural selection to those instincts that couldn’t be explained by habit.

Self-Sacrificing Instincts in Bees

The biggest challenge Darwin faced was in explaining the presence of ‘wonderful instincts’. William Kirby and William Spence described these in their book ‘Introduction to Entomology’.

These were the guarding, and self-sacrificing instincts of the soldier bees who sacrificed their lives to protect the nest.

As per natural selection, the fittest organisms survive who showcase the advantageous traits. But a soldier bee’s self-sacrificing trait offered no advantage to it.

But later he concluded that natural selection applied to the whole hive or nest. Accordingly, hives that had more aggressive bees were selected over those with fewer such bees.

Therefore, this defensive instinct of bees would develop over time. Even if it meant these bees sacrificing their lives for the protection of the hive.

Moral Instincts in Humans

Darwin came out with the distinction in humans while studying instincts in social insects. He claimed moral conscience and not reason is what distinguishes humans from animals.

Accordingly, if humans developed

  • reason to a degree that it was reflective,
  • language to express their needs, and
  • habits to strengthen their relationships

and at the same time engaged in:

  • cooperation
  • mutual care, and
  • self-sacrifice

such individuals would have an advantage over other groups that had fewer such people.

Instinct Arousal Theory

At times, the need for getting stimulated motivates us and not our biological needs.

Say, for instance, an individual who loves to skydive or ride a roller coaster. Now, such an individual needs a more complex and varied sensory experience relative to the ones who need to experience moderate levels of sensation.

The underlying motive in performing such tasks is curiosity. Curiosity is a sensation that appears to be unlearned. But, it certainly causes arousal or an increase in stimulation in such an individual. As a result, the individual feels motivated to skydive or ride a roller coaster.

Now, the term ‘arousal’ refers to the activation of your brain as well as your body which prepares you to engage in adaptive behaviors ranging from sleep to alertness.

Thus, arousal theory is based on the observation that individuals find both very high levels of arousal as well as very low levels of arousal quite unpleasant.

When the level of arousal is too low, you get motivated to increase arousal by seeking experiences that are stimulating.


For example, when you get bored, you get motivated to increase arousal by engaging in activities that increase your level of stimulation. These activities may include painting, reading, playing, and so on.

On the other hand, when the level of arousal is too high, you seek to reduce arousal by seeking out less stimulating experiences.

For example, when you feel too hungry, you are motivated to reduce arousal by eating food.

This means we humans are motivated to maintain an optimal level of arousal, that is, one which is neither too high nor too low.

Further, this optimal level of arousal differs from one individual to another. Also, it differs from time to time and from situation to situation.

In other words, the optimal stimulation acts as a motivator for you as an individual.

Nature of Arousal

As per Arousal Theory, arousal mobilizes and regulates your stress response. How? Well, your everyday life gives you cues that different events and conditions generate a response.

Such a response is physiological, cognitive, behavioral, emotional in nature or a combination of these. As per arousal Theory, a generic activation system results in such a response.

Primarily two types of systems are activated on your arousal: the cortical arousal system that arouses the brain and the autonomic nervous system that arouses our body.

The Cortical Arousal System activates higher-order systems like Central Nervous System structures.

Whereas, the Autonomic Nervous System is primarily responsible for bringing changes within the body as the arousal levels increase. For instance, the activation of the Autonomic Nervous System leads to sweating hands, increased breathing, and so on.

It is important to note that both the systems work independently and get activated only when needed. This is to conserve energy and reduce wear and tear on the body.

Thus, as per the Arousal Theory, this activation system facilitates the stress response. Such scientific reasoning was first supported by Yerkes and Dodson in 1908 through a study involving mice.

This study led to the development of the first Yerkes-Dodson principle known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law.

Yerkes-Dodson Law

The Yerkes-Dodson Law states that task performance relates to the intensity of arousal.

Typically, moderate levels of arousal lead to better performance. However, too high or too low levels of arousal lead to poor performance.

This means you always try to maintain an optimal level of arousal.

Further, this optimum motivation for a learning task decreases with the increasing level of task difficulty.

That is, if you are given an easy task, you will perform best when the level of arousal is a little higher than the average. Whereas, if you are given a difficult task, you will perform best when the level of arousal is a little below average.

Say, for example, a student is experiencing a high level of anxiety before taking an exam. This means he has a level of arousal. Now in order to improve his performance, such a student will try to reduce his anxiety. In other words, he will seek out ways to reduce his level of arousal as per the Yerkes-Dodson Law.

Now, let’s take an example of an extrovert. As you might be aware, an extrovert has a less sensitive nervous system relative to an introvert. This means an extrovert needs more stimulation relative to an introvert to perform a task at an optimal level of arousal.

Accordingly, such an individual would have to surround himself as well as interact with more people in order to perform well.

Thus, easy, automatic, and well-practiced tasks require more arousal and stress to perform well.

However, difficult tasks like performing heart surgery require conscious effort. Thus, to perform such tasks well, you need to have a low level of arousal or stress.

Freud Instinct Theory

In 1885-1886, Freud went to Paris to study under a French Neurologist, Charcot. Charcot was using hypnotism to treat the ‘nervous’ problems of his patients at that point in time.

Thus, Freud was quite impressed with Charcot’s entirely psychological method of hypnotism to bring about dramatic treatments.

So, he tried using electrotherapy or hypnotic methods to treat his patients suffering from hysteria. This was because Freud’s own patients were undergoing the same symptoms as that of Charcot.

However, Freud found such methods to be unsatisfactory. Therefore, he started using methods derived from Breuer, a Senior Viennese Consultant.

Bruer’s approach was based on the assumption that some trauma or intense emotional experience caused hysteria in humans. Furthermore, the patients who suffer from hysteria do not have a recollection or memory of the traumatic experience that caused hysteria in the first place.

Thus, Breuer’s method in treating patients involved inducing them to recall the traumatic event and release the related emotion.

Freud’s Psychoanalytical Theory

This assumption became the foundation of Freud’s Theory of Psychoanalysis. Accordingly, the theory of Psychoanalysis claimed that humans could suffer from a psychological disorder caused by an intense emotional memory that they could not remember.

However, such psychological disorders in patients could be treated by bringing their traumatic experiences into consciousness.

Further, Freud claimed that neurosis caused by the traumatic experiences in his patients always had a sexual origin.

But eventually, he concluded that such a discovery was based on an unconscious desire rather than a memory that actually happened.

Therefore, Freud started developing his theories about infantile sexuality and interpretation of dreams by the close of the 19th century.

During that time, Freud was trying to prove that the mental processes taken as hypotheses in psychoanalytic theory would be identified with the changes in brain activity.

Thus, Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory started getting international recognition.

Then in 1920, Freud came up with the publication “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”. In this, he first introduced the concept of the death instinct as well as the life instinct.

He tried explaining the death instinct through aggression and self-destruction and the life instincts through self-preservation and sexuality.

The Ego and The Mind – Id, Ego, and Superego

Freud introduced the structural concept of the human mind in his psychoanalytic theory in 1920. In this, Freud divided the mental apparatus of a human being into three systems: id, ego, and superego.


Id is the oldest part of our mental structure representing the biological foundations of our personality. It is that province of the human mind that consists of instinctual drives, specifically the sexual or libidinal drives.

The fundamental characteristic of the instinctual drives is that they seek immediate satisfaction just like a small child.

Further, such drives function according to the pleasure principle that motivates us to seek tension-reducing activities or pleasure.


Ego, on the other hand, is that part of our mental apparatus that consists of all the conscious states.

It is a modification of the id that appears as a consequence of the direct influence of the external world.

Accordingly, its function is to understand the real world and determine how to act.

Thus, Ego acts as an intermediary between the real world and our id. As a result, it operates based on the ‘reality principle’.

In other words, ego performs the executive function of regulating oursexual drives in a way that satisfaction harmonizes with the demands of the real world.

It is the center of reasoning, reality-testing, and common sense. Thus, it can direct strategies that can repress, deflect, and transform unrealistic drives.

This means that everything that can become conscious is in the ego. Whereas, all that is in the id is unconscious.


Finally, the third province of a human’s mental apparatus is the superego. Superego is that part of our mental apparatus that consists of conscience, that is, the moral norms that we learn during early childhood.

It encounters our ego with rules and prohibitions just like the way a strict parent confronts his child. Thus, we can say that superego is a differentiation within the ego that represents its ideals.

It motivates our psychic apparatus to pursue idealistic goals and perfection.

Now, it is important to note that the forces of repression are located in our ego and our superego. And such forces function unconsciously.

Therefore, Freud demonstrates a painful picture of the human condition. He states that an individual’s ego performs the challenging task of reconciling the conflicting demands of id and superego. And this is done in the presence of the unpleasant realities of the world.

Thus, through id, ego, and superego, Freud tried to explain that a human being experiences challenges in the real world and the corresponding internal conflicts every second of his life.

Therefore, instincts or drives represent the third main feature of Freud’s Theory. Freud believed that these drives served as motivating energies or forces that compelled humans to behave in different ways, though unconsciously.

Further, he claimed that there was an indefinite number of instincts that one could differentiate. However, all such instincts could be derived from a few basic drives. Furthermore, these drives either combined or replaced each other in varied ways.

Basic Drives

I. Sexual Drive

Freud did emphasize that the sexual drive was the fundamental of all the drives that an individual experienced. Further, he claimed that an individual’s sexual thoughts and desires were the primary cause of his varied behaviors. Although, at times, such desires were repressed into his unconscious mind.

Now, one of the common misinterpretations of Freud’s theory is that he explained all human phenomena in terms of sex. Well, that is not the case.

The truth is that he lent sexuality a greater scope in a human being’s life. He claimed that sexuality in humans is just not exhibited via normal, adult hetrosexual intercourse.

It begins presenting itself from birth and plays a significant role in adult neuroses. Further, he claimed that sexual energy can be repressed or diverted in some other activity such as art.

Accordingly, a human first goes through the infantile period. During this period, his sexual instincts get sequentially invested in different zones of the body. These zones are called the erotogenic zones.

Subsequently, there comes a more adult period when the oral, anal, and phallic components of sexual instincts get organized for reproductive sexuality.

But in between the infantile and adult period, there comes a latency period of childhood. During this period, an individual’s sexual motivations get diverted to other purposes. For instance skill building, school work, etc.

Thus, the sexual instinct takes the adult form only at puberty and it plays an important role in understanding the etiology of adult neuroses.

This is specifically true when an individual experiences the Oedipus Complex which is a result of libido becoming invested in the Phallic region.

What is Oedipus Complex?

Oedipus Complex refers to a condition when the libido becomes invested in the Phallic region and it leads to a desire to unite with the opposite-sex parent. Besides this, an individual also has the desire to replace the same-sex parent.

Thus, the competition for the opposite sex parent leads to anxiety. However, an individual overcomes such anxiety by repressing the carnal desires and identifying with the same-sex parent.

Therefore, such an act becomes the foundation for the development of superego in an individual.

Now, the emotional challenge that an individual goes through to overcome the Oedipus Complex is the source of neuroses.

Therefore, Freud suggested that normal individuals survive and master their Oedipal feelings. However, the Oedipal feelings dominate those who suffer from neurosis as they are unable to overcome such feelings.

So, Freud identified that sexual instincts are both quantitative and qualitative in nature.

The quantitative aspect of sexual instincts refers to the level of sexual excitation by the libidinal forces. Whereas, the qualitative aspect of sexual instincts refers to the fact that t can be distinguished from other kinds of psychic energy.

II. Self-Preservative Drive

In addition to the sexual instincts, Freud identified the second group of primal instincts called the Ego Instincts.

He proposed that an individual’s Ego performed the functions of self-preservation, repression, and the other impulses that are separate from the sexual instincts.

Once Freud identified the second group of primal instincts, he proposed that the psychoneurotic conflict that an individual experience is nothing but a conflict between sexual (libidinal) instincts and ego (self-preservation) instincts.

Further, in his paper On Narcissism, Freud claimed that sexual instincts are initially attached to self-preservation. That is, protecting oneself from the sexual drive. Thus, this is an ego instinct.

However, the sexual instincts detach from the self-preservation instincts when sexual drives start seeking external objects like the mother. Thus, when the sexual drives get invested in the external objects, such an attachment is called object libido.

However, Freud claimed that at times, the sexual attachment to external objects is replaced by libidinal attachment to oneself.

In other words, an individual may choose oneself rather than choosing mother as a love object. Thus, sexual instincts or libido could get allocated depending upon the choice that an individual made.

So, the sexual instincts that an individual allocates to oneself are called narcissistic libido (or ego libido).

Narcissitic Libido

Narcissistic Libido is simply the energy or desire that drives an individual’s instinct to survive.

Thus, Freud was of the view that individuals are born without ego. However, the ego develops during infancy and the early part of childhood. It is during this period that the external entities (parents) start interfering with one’s primary narcissism in the form of exerting control.

Thus, as a result of such intervention, the individual learns the nature and standards of his social environment. And this helps him in developing an ideal ego – the appropriate form of oneself.

Therefore, the ideal ego of an individual is the one for which his ego should always aspire. As we can see, as ego evolves, it separates itself from primary narcissism, develops an ideal ego, and advances toward attaching itself to external objects.

However, in 1920, Freud rejected the duality between libidinal instincts and ego instincts. He proclaimed that narcissistic self-preservative instincts were also libidinal.

This seemingly meant that the entire instinctual mental life of an individual would boil down to sexual instincts itself.

Therefore, to overcome this challenge, Freud grouped the libidinal instincts of self-preservation and sexuality as Eros or life instincts. As a result, life instincts are the preserver of all things. In other words, such instincts motivate behavior that promotes human survival.

III. Death Instincts

Freud proclaimed that there exists another category of instincts that is completely in contrast to life instincts. Such instincts are called death instincts or Thanatos.

Death instinct refers to the opposing tendency of an individual to reduce his life to an inanimate state. Further, sadism, aggression, and self-destruction represent the death instinct in humans.

Freud identified or discovered death instincts in humans as a result of observing his patients who suffered from traumatic neuroses. Such patients repeatedly had traumatic dreams like war dreams.

Now, such dreams were in contrast to the normal dreams that represented the fulfillment of an individual’s desires. Further, experiencing traumatic dreams repeatedly seemingly operated beyond the pleasure principle. In addition to this, it also indicated an instinctive tendency that was in conflict with libidinal self-preservation.

Thus Freud proposed that one can observe the conflict between life instincts (Eros) and death instincts (Thanatos) in almost every phase of biology.

Life instincts (Eros) by combining with Death instincts (Thanatos) attempt to preserve life and neutralize the instinctual striving towards death. Further, these life and death instincts also combine together when an individual derives sexual pleasure by inflicting pain on others (sexual sadism).

However, the separation of life and death instincts may result in release of death instincts towards objects. This can then take the form of aggression, destruction, or sadism.

Further, the tendency to derive sexual gratification from one’s own pain (Masochism) results if ego is the object of release.

However, there can be a possibility that erotic libido attaches itself to ego and may lead to primary narcissism. If this is achievable, then it can also be possible for the death instinct to attach itself to ego and result in primary masochism.

Instinct Theory Examples

I. Rooting Reflex

One of the basic instinct theory examples is that of rooting reflex in babies.

Rooting reflex refers to one of the several involuntary movements that allows babies to find their mother’s breast or a bottle to have milk.

Such an involuntary movement occurs when a bottle’s tip or the mother’s nipple touches the corner of the baby’s mouth.

You can generate such a response in the baby by gently touching the corner of the baby’s mouth.

Thus, babies are born with such instinctive behavior. Such a behavior develops in a baby when he is in his mother’s womb.

II. Sucking Reflex

Another example of instinct theory is the sucking response in newborn babies. The sucking response is separate from the rooting response.

The rooting reflex occurs before the sucking reflex, that is, in the initial few months after the baby is born.

It helps them turn their heads when their mother’s nipple touches the corner of their mouth.

However, sucking happens when the breast or nipple is placed in the baby’s mouth or when the baby moves his tongue to suck the nipple.

Thus, during sucking, the baby places his lips over his mother’s nipple. Further, he will squeeze his mother’s nipple between his tongue and the roof of his mouth.

This reflex develops in the baby when he is in the womb of his mother.

III. Grasp Reflex

Again, the grasp reflex is an involuntary movement that a newborn baby makes by wrapping his fingers around one of your fingers. Thus, the baby does not have control over such a response.

In this, the newborn baby wraps his little fingers around one of your fingers and then keeps on clinging to that finger.

Further, the baby first begins to make such a movement when he is in a mother’s womb. He continues to make this response until he turns 6 months old.

Thus, the grasp reflex is one of the other examples of instinctive behaviors in human babies. These behaviors come naturally to them when the babies are exposed to a finger that is placed in their palm.

IV. Human Traits

Certain human traits like altruism, disgust, a sense of fairness, and language acquisition are instinctive in nature.

Altruism refers to the act of sacrificing one’s own values in order to do good for humanity. Such a trait emanates from human morality that is based on the foundation of a human being’s instincts of benevolence.

Likewise, disgust is also an instinctive response that evolved as a part of natural selection. Such a response is likely to occur in order to prevent food poisoning or as a result of exposing oneself to danger or infection.

Criticisms of the Instinct Theory

Several theorists raised questions that critically examined the instinct theory. These questions bring to the forefront the shortcomings of Instinct Theory. For instance:

I. Challenge of Innatenes and Maturation

What does it mean when one says that instincts are innate? To what extent does this kind of statement give us insights regarding the origin and the nature of instinctive behavior?

As per certain theorists, it is quite evident that innate behavior is hereditarily determined and that such behavior is part of the original constitution of the animal.

Further, instinctive behavior originates quite independently of the animal’s experience and environment.

In addition to this, it is separate from acquired or learned behavior.

Thus, we can say that there are behaviors that meet these criteria in innateness.

However, it does not explain anything about the origin and of the mechanisms underlying such behavior.

II. Levels of Organization in an Organism

Animals at different evolutionary levels showcase characteristic differences in the extent and manner of learning.

Thus, we cannot say that the behavior patterns that develop before birth are innate and the ones that develop after birth are not innate.

This would be worthless from the point of view of prenatal conditioning and postnatal maturation of various “innate” behavior patterns.

We need to understand that an individual learns different behavior patterns at different developmental stages.

Furthermore, he learns such behaviors to different extents, and in different ways.

Thus, theorists have not fully utilized the ideology of the levels of organization of behavior.

Rather, they have explained the concept of innateness on the basis of criteria that is arbitrary.

III. Nature of Evolutionary Levels

It is important to understand that there exist characteristic structural differences between the levels of evolutionary development of a given species.

For instance, a protozoan is not a simpler form of a human. It is a different kind of organism and its behavior depends on its structure in different ways.

However, we cannot say that its behavior patterns are similar to that of humans as they seem to serve similar functions and have superficially similar characteristics.

As per research, evolutionary selection may result in similar behaviors at different levels of evolutionary development. However, such similar behavior patterns are derived from different structures.

Thus, the evolutionary concept of instinct theory does not consider the fact that the behavior patterns at different evolutionary levels depend on the structure and life of the organism.

IV. Poor Use of Physiological Concepts in Behavior Analysis

Another situation where instinct theory fails is that it assumes different mechanisms in different organisms to be similar. Such an assumption originates from the similarities in the underlying behavior patterns of such mechanisms in different organisms.

It is important to note that functionally similar behavior patterns result from very dissimilar causal mechanisms in varied organisms.

Therefore, the analysis of mechanisms operating in different organisms gets hampered if causal mechanisms underlying specific behavior patterns is applied to other patterns or animals.

As a result, brief studies are carried out on selected examples rather than studying the processes underlying each behavior pattern.

Thus, such a practice may lead to false conclusions.

Evolution of Instinct Theory

As mentioned above, Wilhelm Wundt first gave the term instinct in 1870’s. He proclaimed that instincts refer to any repeated behavior in an organism.

However, over a period of time, the innate urges driving human behavior came to be referred as instincts. This was because such naturally occurring urges helped humans in their survival.

However, William McDoughell, an American psychologist, popularized the instinct theory based on the psychology of purpose.

He proposed that instincts are the driving forces of human conduct. They are the vital impulses or urges to action.

Further, McDoughell proclaimed that instincts are directly or indirectly the basis of all human activity, including the intellectual. That is, instincts encouraged people to behave in a particular way.

Also Read: Social Comparison Theory: Meaning, Examples, & Application

Advanced Psychology