What Is Instinct Theory of Motivation?

What motivates us to do things? What drives us to achieve goals or perform tasks? Human motivation has been an area of contention throughout the decades. Psychologists, sociologists, and philosophers have always tried to discover what motivates us to behave the way we behave.

Motivation is the driving force behind all human action. Without motivation, humans will stop doing anything. For this reason, the theory of motivation is one of the most influential theories in psychology. It discusses the forces that motivate people to act and how they affect behavior. 

Additionally, it describes individual differences between people and situational factors outside of the actor that influences their behavior. This article will take a closer look at the instinct theory of motivation and its role in psychology.

What Is the Instinct Theory of Motivation?

The instinct theory of motivation is an approach that finds parallels between biological instincts and motives. It asserts that motives are natural forces found in all living creatures. Organisms rely on instinct to survive in a world of conflicting needs and drives. The instinct theory of motivation suggests that survival instinct is at the core of human behavior.

According to this theory, all living beings are born with irresistible innate needs and wants. These motives drive all behaviors and assure that humans will satisfy their needs for food, water, warmth, shelter, social contact, sex, and security.

But, What Is Instinct?

Instinct is the principle of all mental and physical actions that we do not know due to our conscious motives. In plain English, it is the capability to acquire knowledge without learning or discovery that consists inside the individual.

Our biological instincts influence us. Just like animals are governed by their instincts to do things such as migrate, build nests, mate, and protect territory, early researchers proposed that certain instincts may also control human beings.

What Is William McDougall’s Instinct Theory of Motivation?

The instinct theory of motivation gained popularity in the late 19th century and the 1950s when psychologist William McDougall championed it. McDougall suggested that human behavior could be traced back to basic instincts. These could be either innate or acquired through evolution. He said that three critical components comprised instincts are:

  • Perception,
  • Emotion, and
  • Behavior.

Based on the three components mentioned above, McDougall listed 18 different instincts, such as:

  • Parental,
  • Submission,
  • Curiosity,
  • Escape,
  • Reproduction,
  • Repulsion,
  • Jealousy,
  • Self-assertiveness,
  • Sex,
  • Fear,
  • Laughter,
  • Hunger, and so on.

Let’s take a few examples of instinct theory. We act to satisfy our hunger because, without food, we will die. The second instinct is the sexual instinct because it ensures the survival of another generation to continue our species. Finally, the third instinct is self-preservation. This includes fear and aggression – fear of physical harm and attack to protect ourselves or ensure personal survival.

McDougall’s theory drew on much earlier research by Darwin, who suggested that animals exhibit behaviors analogous to human psychological traits. Animal instincts are observable behaviors passed down through generations because they provide an evolutionary advantage to survival. Many psychologists suggest neurobiological explanations for humans’ evolved instincts, but this explanation remains controversial.

What Is Sigmund Freud’s Instinct Theory?

Sigmund Freud defined “instinct” as an automatic stereotyped response to a specific stimulus and is close to the English’ reflex’. According to him, an instinct is a basic, unlearned, pre-programmed pattern of behavior that is to be found in all members of a species. To illustrate instinct, birds’ behavior of nest building may be considered.

It differs from ‘reflex’ and ‘habit’ because it is not conditional on prior action, and its direction is not due to previous experiences. For instance, if you touch a hot object, you immediately withdraw your hand, or a baby turns to your face for feeding. This response is conditioned by the mother’s touch, smell, voice, etc. Hence this response is acquired.

Freud’s theory says that two forces drive human behavior. First, there are the life instincts—eros, which cause us to seek pleasure. Second, there are the death instincts—Thanatos where he theorized that these were expressions of our impulses towards self-destruction or harm that we may be unaware of.

For example, life instincts (or Eros) are the desire for survival, sex, and the tendency to attach to others. Death instincts (or Thanatos) are aggression, destruction, and the dissolution of connections.

What Is William James’ Instinct Theory?

William James was another American philosopher and psychologist who is famous for the theory that human thoughts, actions, and emotions are much more complex than can be explained by simple human instincts. He proposed that one could look at human actions as manifestations of instinctive behavior, similar to the spontaneous activities of animals. James grounds his research in evolutionary theory, arguing that all survival functions of human beings are driven by several instincts that lead to a series of behaviors.

In his theory, he outlined some instincts such as:

  • Anger,
  • Fear,
  • Shame,
  • Love,
  • Cleanliness, and so on.

McDougall’s, James’, and Freud’s instinct theories were widely influential studies. Many other psychologists expanded upon their work in the years that followed their original findings. For example, Carl Jung suggested that certain behaviors were motivated by the inner desire to harmonize with one’s environment.

Observations on the Instinct Theory of Motivation

The instinct theory of motivation suggests that we function by following a set of innate behaviors and inclinations. These inclinations help us “survive” in our physical environment. These inclinations are hard-coded into our brains, and thus, they are biological. Take hunger, for example; it is the cue that tells us to search for food. The desire to seek food is honed to ensure survival—if you never felt hungry, you wouldn’t be motivated to eat.

For a behavior to be considered instinctive, it must meet this definition. Instinctive behaviors are unlearned responses that are reasonably automatic, occur in all species members, and typically develop before birth. For example, the child does not have to be taught how to breathe.

Criticisms of the Instinct Theory of Motivation

The theory of Instincts states that particular behaviors are innately connected to specific drives. It is said that all living things have instinctual drives to achieve particular goals. However, this theory has been proven to have its limitations, and it has been criticized because the theory cannot be adequately demonstrated or proven.

Some psychologists believe that combining causes can ultimately explain every psychological phenomenon. However, there is no hard evidence to suggest an instinctual basis for human behaviors, and instinct does not mean that all people with the drive will carry out the behavior.

If all human actions were determined by instincts alone, then the same behavior should result from the same set of conditions every time. For example, if we are hungry and see food, we will always eat that food. This is not the case, as many people resist eating some foods even when hungry.

Likewise, certain behaviors, such as seeking new intellectual challenges, can be explained by combining social learning theory with reinforcement principles. A new challenge, such as taking a new job within an organization or learning a new skill at work, can provide positive reinforcement for new behavior that will lead to tremendous success at the particular job or task being performed.

There is nothing inherent about seeking new intellectual challenges that makes it an “instinct.” It can be explained by the combination of two well-known psychological principles. Instincts are often used as a catch-all term for behaviors that seem to occur without much cognition behind them, but just because we have no idea why we behave the way we do, it doesn’t mean there is no reason.

Another criticism was that instincts cannot be readily observed or scientifically tested. As the human mind is so complex and vast, it would be impossible to try or observe a person’s instinctual behaviors in a scientific setting.

Instinct is a powerful concept in psychology. Psychologists have tried to understand how they affect human behavior since the time of Darwin. Although there are many other criticisms around the instinct theory of motivation, psychologists are more focused on exploring how these instincts demonstrate an underlying process that can lead to functional explanations of instinctual behaviors.

Final Thoughts

The fundamental question of human nature is why people are motivated to perform actions. Humans are characterized by extraordinary creativity, innovation, aspiration for freedom, altruism, or cruelty. Some individuals are ingenious, while others are dull-witted. This diversity suggests that motivation is not a unified concept.

It is a common belief that we are motivated by what we desire and, therefore, we do things because we want to achieve specific outcomes. At the core of every human being is an inner drive that guides our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and instinct theory is one of the most substantial theories of motivation.


  • Valarmathie GopalanJuliana Aida Abu BakarAbdul Nasir ZulkifliAsmidah Alwi, and Ruzinoor Che Mat. A review of the motivation theories in learning. AIP Conference Proceedings 1891, 020043 (2017).
  • Zilbersheid, U. (2013). The historical character of human nature in Freud’s theories. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 73(2), 184–204.

Hi, I am Happy. I'm a professional writer and psychology enthusiast. I love to read and write about human behaviors, the mind, mental health-related topics, and more.