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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Behavior||Learned Behavior|
|Origin||Genetically determined, present at birth||Acquired through experience or taught by others|
|Flexibility||Generally fixed and unchanging||Can be modified, adapted, or changed over time|
|Examples in Humans||Sucking reflex in infants, startle reflex||Riding a bike, speaking a language, playing an instrument|
|Examples in Animals||Spiders spinning webs, salmon returning to birthplace to spawn||Dogs being trained to sit or fetch, birds learning specific songs from parents|
|Developmental Requirements||Typically appears even if an individual is isolated from others during development||Requires certain environmental stimuli or experiences for development|
|Purpose||Generally serves immediate survival needs or reproductive success||Enhances 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.
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]