50 Innate Behaviors Examples

innate behavior examples and definition, explained below

Innate behavior refers to behaviors, often being subconscious reactions, that a person or animal is naturally predisposed to carry out, independent of social and cultural influence or learning experiences. These are behaviors we are born with.

Ranging from reflex actions like sneezing to complex sequences such as bird migration, these behaviors are essentially hardwired into the biology of a person, animal, or entire species.

These behaviors are automatically expressed by all members of a given species when in certain situations. Evolutionary biologists hold that such behaviors have emerged because they have an evolutionary benefit. As such, innate behaviors are often seen to play a crucial role in survival, reproduction, and adaptation.

Innate Behaviors Examples

Behaviors Innate to Humans

1. Laughing when tickled
Ticklish laughter is an automatic response hardwired into our system. It’s a spontaneous reaction designed to help us identify sensitive areas. The inability to tickle oneself reaffirms its innate status – it only occurs in response to an external, unexpected stimulus. One theory posits that tickling may have evolved as a defense mechanism to help humans identify vulnerabilities and protect vital areas against potential threats. Another more dominant theory posits that we laugh to show submission to an aggressor to prevent further harm.

2. Scratching an itch
The act of scratching an itch is one of the most primary and innate responses in humans. An itch typically arises due to irritants triggering certain nerve endings. This prompts a signal sent to your brain, which then instinctively encourages you to scratch the itch, with the intent to remove irritants that could damage the skin. As with tickling, this behavior is considered innate because it is largely automatic and typically requires no conscious thought or learning.

3. Shivering when cold
Shivering in response to cold is our body’s attempt to generate heat and maintain core body temperature. The rapid contraction and relaxation of muscles – i.e. shivering – is a universally shared reaction among humans and also many other mammals, indicating its innate character. This physiological response is crucial for our survival, ensuring that our bodies continue to operate within a safe, healthy temperature range, regardless of external conditions.

4. Yawning
While I was told that yawning is an attempt to get more oxygen into the bloodstream, research for this article shows I was mistaken. This article notes that scientists believe it helps to release hormones that can increase heart rate and alertness, allowing us to stay awake and attentive for longer. This innate behavior is something we often have to resist – our bodies naturally want to do it, but socially, it’s often considered rude as it can betray the fact the person who’s talking to you is boring you!

5. Gag reflex
The gag reflex, also known as pharyngeal reflex, is a defensive, innate reaction that prevents choking or swallowing something potentially harmful. It occurs when the back of the throat or roof of the mouth is touched or irritated. This reflex prompts a sudden, automatic contraction of the back of the throat to prevent the ingestion or inhalation of the offending object or substance. This action is so fundamental to human survival that it appears spontaneously in infancy and remains throughout life.

Full List of Innate Human Behaviors:

  • Sucking reflex in infants
  • Grasping reflex in infants
  • Startle reflex
  • Babinski reflex
  • Rooting reflex in infants
  • Crying when hungry or in pain
  • Yawning
  • Stretching upon waking
  • Blinking in response to a sudden approach
  • Gag reflex
  • Pupil dilation in response to low light
  • Sneezing when the nasal passage is irritated
  • Coughing to clear the throat
  • Shivering when cold
  • Sweating when hot
  • Pupil constriction in response to bright light
  • Swallowing reflex
  • Flinching from sudden touch or pain
  • The fight or flight response to perceived threats
  • Infant’s stepping reflex
  • The Moro reflex in infants
  • Holding breath and closing eyes when submerged in water
  • Goosebumps in response to cold or strong emotions
  • The knee-jerk reflex (patellar reflex)
  • Laughing when tickled
  • Scratching an itch
  • Salivating in response to the sight or smell of food
  • The diving reflex in infants
  • Tonic neck reflex in infants
  • The fencing reflex in infants

See More Human Behaviors Here

Behaviors Innate to Animals

1. Spinning webs by spiders
Web-spinning is a classic example of innate behavior exhibited by spiders. Starting from birth, spiders instinctively know how to spin intricate webs without any teaching or previous experience. These silk structures, often marvels of natural engineering, serve a variety of purposes, primarily for trapping prey. The pattern of the web and the procedure followed in its construction are unique to each species of spider, indicating a strong genetic basis for this behavior. This complex, instinctive action underscores the remarkable capabilities innate behaviors can encompass in the animal kingdom.

2. Birds migrating seasonally
Birds’ migratory patterns are instinctual, not taught, and migratory behaviors even emerge even in birds reared in isolation. Each species has its own distinct migratory routes, timing, and destination. Migrations serve diverse purposes such as exploiting seasonal abundance of food, escaping harsh climates, or seeking safe breeding environments. This behavior displays the acute sense of navigation and timing that exists innately in these animals, further demonstrating the diverse functionality of inherent responses.

3. Salmon returning to their birthplace to spawn
Salmon hold a remarkable innate behavior of returning to their exact birthplace to spawn after maturing in the ocean. This spectacular journey can span thousands of miles and involve enduring numerous perils. Despite having been away for years in vastly different environments, they are instinctively capable of homing back to their natal stream. This act, often termed as ‘natal homing’, is crucial for their reproduction and survival of the species. It is believed to be guided by a complex interplay of environmental cues and innate sensory abilities.

4. Hibernation
Hibernation is an innate behavior displayed by certain animals to endure periods of food scarcity and harsh weather, typically in winter months. This involves a significant drop in body temperature, heart rate, and metabolic rates, leading to a state of deep sleep. Some animals, like bears, groundhogs, and certain species of bats, are widely known to exhibit this behavior. This response is not learned but stems from an internal biological rhythm, guided by changes in ambient temperature and day length.

5. Moths being attracted to light
The instinctual behavior of moths flying toward light is termed as ‘phototaxis’. It is exhibited by moths of most species. The precise reasons for this behavior are unclear, though some theories suggest that moths use natural lights (like the moon or stars) for navigation, and artificial lights confuse their navigational senses causing them to fly towards it. This involuntary attraction to light shows that it’s innate, as it’s observed across different species and geographical regions, regardless of their specific environmental upbringing.

Full List of Innate Animal Behaviors:

  • Spinning webs by spiders
  • Salmon returning to their birthplace to spawn
  • Hibernation in certain species during winter
  • Birds migrating seasonally
  • Turtles instinctively moving towards the ocean after hatching
  • Kangaroo joeys instinctively crawling into their mother’s pouch after birth
  • Fireflies flashing bioluminescent signals for mating
  • Skunks raising their tails and spraying a foul-smelling liquid when threatened
  • Stick insects mimicking branches or leaves as a form of camouflage
  • Newborn foals or calves standing and attempting to walk shortly after birth
  • Dogs shaking water off their fur
  • Geese’s V-shaped flying formation
  • Reflexive tail autotomy in lizards (dropping their tail when threatened)
  • Honeybees performing the waggle dance to communicate the location of food
  • Moths being attracted to light
  • Frogs and toads extending their sticky tongues to catch insects
  • Sea turtles using the moonlight to navigate to the sea after hatching
  • Birds such as cuckoos laying their eggs in the nests of other bird species (brood parasitism)
  • Cats kneading with their paws, often seen when they are relaxed or about to lay down
  • Elephants flapping their ears to regulate body temperature

See Also: A List of Instinct Examples

Innate vs Learned Behaviors

While there are many types of behaviors, we tend to compare innate behaviors to learned behaviors, which represent the broad range of behaviors that emerge through social and environmental interactions after birth:

  • Innate behaviors are automatic, fixed, inherited behaviors that do not change in response to changes in the environment or over the lifespan. They are essentially intrinsically hardwired into the organism’s biology and are typically executed in response to specific stimuli or situations. Examples include tickling, shivering when cold, gagging, and certain animal behaviors like spiders spinning webs or salmon returning to their birthplace to spawn.
  • Learned behaviors come from experience and interaction with the environment, changing in response to changing situations or environments. They involve the use of memory and often have the potential for flexibility and improvement. Examples of learned behavior include a child learning to walk, a dog being trained to sit, or a bird learning a song.

This distinction provides a fundamental framework for understanding how humans and animals interact with their environment and adapt to it. While innate behaviors guide the basic survival responses, learned behaviors offer flexibility and adaptability, allowing organisms to optimize their interactions with a dynamic environment.

Below is a summary of differences:

Innate BehaviorLearned Behavior
OriginGenetically determined, present at birthAcquired through experience or taught by others
FlexibilityGenerally fixed and unchangingCan be modified, adapted, or changed over time
Examples in HumansSucking reflex in infants, startle reflexRiding a bike, speaking a language, playing an instrument
Examples in AnimalsSpiders spinning webs, salmon returning to birthplace to spawnDogs being trained to sit or fetch, birds learning specific songs from parents
Developmental RequirementsTypically appears even if an individual is isolated from others during developmentRequires certain environmental stimuli or experiences for development
PurposeGenerally serves immediate survival needs or reproductive successEnhances adaptability to changing environments or situations


Innate behaviors form a fundamental part of human and animal life, helping us to survive and thrive without having to dedicate conscious cognitive load to those innate behaviors. Ranging from simple reflex actions to more complex behaviors, they play key roles in survival, reproduction, and adaptation.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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