Instinct Theory of Motivation

Technical Details

Name(s): Instinct Theory of Motivation
Author: Various from the latter 1800s-on
Classification: Biologically-based motivation theory
Year: Latter 1800s


  • About the only positive thing one can say about the Instinct Theory of Motivation is that it might inspire someone to study genetics.


  • Precisely what is an instinct? Is it always present, or does it emerge under certain conditions?
  • This so-called theory explains nothing, although it might be construed as descriptive.
  • As with any categorization, other concepts may be left out. There are other motivational theories: Attribution Theory, Opponent-Process Theory, Cognitive Dissonance Theory, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, and a key problem is determining the boundaries for each.
  • If one says that a person leads by "instinct", how do they know? How do they know that it is not some other factor? It is impossible to get into someone else's mind to find out.
  • Can purposeful behavior result from that resulting from instinct, or is a leader driven by instinct like a mere robot?


We have heard of the expression, "born leader". There are persons who have stepped forth, such as Gandhi, without any formal background or experience in leadership and simply have taken the reins. There are some people that, regardless of what they do in taking courses, getting trained, urged by their friends, simply do not "have what it takes" to lead. People don't seem to listen to them, they are unorganized, and they don't get done what they are supposed to do. Some may say that a leader needs a "type A" personality, gregarious, energetic, and even to be outspoken.

The instinct theory of motivation says that leaders are motivated to lead because there is something innate that allows them to be leaders. In the past, psychologists like the famous William James would point to reactions that would seem to emerge on their own, such as shame, love, anger shyness, and fear. In turn, the person would then interpret these in a certain way as the the physiological reaction of shaking and heart pounding in the presence of a danger as being fear.


We include "Instinct Theory of Motivation" in this collection of motivational theories because there are still many people out there who will make the "born leader" type statements. Yet, nothing really positive can be said about the Instinct Theory of Motivation, and even a superficial look will reveal that the Instinct Theory of Motivation has little content. Hence, we do not devote much space to this idea. What is "instinctual" raises a whole series of issues of what is innate and seemingly uncontrolled behavior. It also raises questions of free will, i.e., how much control we have over our own destiny. If we are "directed" by some innate structure or process, how much control do we really have? Obsessive compulsive behavior is a mental disorder, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), so can it be said that a "born leader" is mentally disordered? The same goes for any repetitive behavior.

What are instincts? It is a "hard-wired" biological predisposition to do something. The action is not learned; it is innate in the organism. Reflexes are an example, as in a person drawing back when approached too rapidly, or having the fear of falling. The question is raised whether these are genetically bound or originated.

Instinct as a defined concept appeared originally in the psychology domain in 1870, when Wilhelm Wundt thought that any repetitive action was inherent in the organism. Because of the refinement of other ideas describing why humans behaved repetitively, the term "instinct" fell out of favor until in 2000 very few used the term [1]. Psychologists, such as Abraham Maslow argued that these drives often can be overridden by techniques, such as behavioral conditioning. Those behaviors that do remain as "instinctual" may be explained by neural nets.

One example of a comprehensive "checklist" of what can be deemed instinct was given by Mandal in the textbook of animal behavior [2]:

  1. be automatic
  2. be irresistible
  3. occur at some point in development
  4. be triggered by some event in the environment
  5. occur in every member of the species
  6. be unmodifiable
  7. govern behavior for which the organism needs no training (although the organism may profit from experience and to that degree the behavior is modifiable)

Originally, "instincts" referred to innate drives in persons resulting in uncontrolled behavior, "behavior" being the operative word. Were persons genetically predisposed to act in certain ways? Some behaviors seemed to reflect survival instincts, such as a fear of falling, reactions to fire, and startle responses. However, over time, it was discovered that some of these behaviors could be modified. Behaviorist-based psychology was "the rage" from about the time of Sigmund Freud and his theories of personalities through the 1960s with B.F. Skinner and behavior modification through conditioning. Extremely distress persons were placed in asylums, but starting in the latter 1950's psychotropic medicines started to be developed, the first major one being chlorpromazine, originally used as an anesthetic and used as a substitute for a pre-frontal lobotomy [3] to calm patients. Subsequent research produced numerous anti-psychotic medications, evidencing that behavior, including what was thought to be innate behavior, indeed could be modified. It was to become clear from about the early 1920s-onward that physical modifications to the brain could alter behavior. Before, it was well known that different parts of the brain were responsible for various functions.

To assert that behavior emanated from an innate or "instinct" started to fade away rapidly, to be replaced by "drive behavior", thus omitting the commitment to a genetic predisposition.


Saying something is an "instinct" really doesn't say much, save for providing a description of a behavior. Present an apparently vicious dog barking in front a person out in the open and watch the reaction. Chances are there will be heart palpitations, sweating, and agitation, but these only describe behavior. What really is causing the reaction? Further, some of these reactions might be attributed to another stimulus, such as a hot day, realization that the person is not protected, and so forth.

Does everyone have the same reaction to a stimulus? In the case of the dog, some people having a rapport with dogs will walk up to it and calm it down. Ascertaining whether the same stimulus will have the same effect on people has to be verified within a very controlled environment, same stimulus under the same conditions.

As with any theory of motivation, there are other possible ways of describing why people do things. People have postulate other reasons why people become motivated. While other motivation theories may not be very satisfactory alternatives, the reasons for postulating them has to be taken into account for criticizing the instinct theory of motivation.

Future of theory

Brain scans offer a hopeful way of determining what brain structures and processes give rise to various reactions to stimuli. The central question will be whether we as a species are "hardwired" to react in specific ways to various stimuli. Does everyone, for example, flinch when something jumps out at them, as in a startle process? If so are there certain parts of the brain found in everyone that can be correlated directly to this? The brain is plastic, so it may be asked whether this structure can be modified by a surgery, behavior therapy, or medication, or a combination of the three? That is, can an allegedly innate response to a phenomenon be altered? Perhaps at that time the Instinct Theory of Motivation will yield more value!

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