Instinct is an innate behavior that is not learned. All animals (including humans) have innate instincts that we have developed during our evolution.
Instinctive behavior often appears to be complex, but it is actually just a simple stimulus-response behavioral mechanism.
For example, consider the way a mother bird cares for her chicks. The sight and sound of a chick begging for food trigers the instinctive feeding response in the mother bird. The mother bird does not need to learn or think about what she is doing; she naturally has the inclination to respond to her chick’s cues.
Many instincts, of course, have to do with flight or fight. That is, instinct is built into us because it helps protect us (and our loved ones) from danger.
Animal Instinct Examples
1. A Dog Protecting its Owner – Sometimes, a dog who is lovely and affectionate to its owner can turn mean if someone the dog doesn’t know approaches.
When the dog snarls at people, the owner tells everyone not to worry, their dog is so kind and gentle. What the owner isn’t accepting is that dogs have a strong evolutionary instinct to protect their tribe which can come out and cause it to be quite dangerous in some circumstances.
2. A Snake’s Knowldege of how to Hunt – Snakes are not raised by their mothers and fathers. In fact, in many breeds, once the mother has laid its eggs, it takes off and never even sees its offspring. Baby snakes survive because they have instincts that are pre-installed in their DNA before they’re born.
3. A dog Barking at Fireworks – A dog who barks at fireworks is exercising their fight or flight instinct. The noise is perceived as a threat, so the dog is barking as a way of communicating to its tribe (that’s you – the owner!) that there’s a threat nearby.
4. A Dog Chasing a Bird – Despite being domesticated and having no need to hunt, dogs’ animal instincts kick-in when they see birds, which they see as a great meal.
5. A dog shaking after it gets wet – When a dog gets out of the ocean, it almost has to shake its smelly water all over everyone. It is an instinctive action that they can rarely hold back.
6. A sea turtle heading to the ocean after hatching – Baby sea turtles have an in-born knowledge to walk to the ocean after hatching. It hasn’t been taught. It’s pre-programmed into them.
7. Monarch Butterfly Migration – Fascinatingly, no monarch butterfly has ever completed the full migration route from Canada to Mexico and back again. Their lifespans are so short that they die during migration. Nevertheless, the butterflies that get to Mexico know to turn around and start heading north again – it’s built-in based on years of evolution and likely triggered by weather patterns.
8. Bears Going into Hibernation – A bear’s body will tell it that it’s time to go into hibernation and it will do so naturally, without prompting or teaching.
The 7 Core Human Instincts
1. Seeking – The seeking instinct is the instinct within all humans that make us want to explore. It’s built into us because it has evolutionary benefits: by seeking, we find food, shelter, and water. It helps us sustain ourselves. However, we can temporarily pause this instinct during times of fear and depression.
2. Anger – Anger is a natural emotion that all humans experience. It is believed to have evolved as a response to perceived threats. It is part of our ‘fight’ response (as opposed to flight). As a result, we can see that anger is a part of our survival mechanisms. Anger can also be positive if harnessed well: it can motivate us to take action and solve our problems.
3. Fear – Fear has evolved as a human instinct because it protects us. We can even see this instinct in animals because it’s so important to keeping us alive. In every environment, we are always looking around trying to prepare for potential dangers around us.
4. Grief – Grief is our emotional response to loss, generally of a person we care for. However, we might experience grief for a lost relationship or pet. It is a normal instinct and can involve into other related emotions such as sadness, anger, and guilt.
5. Care – We have the instinct to feel care and even love for others. We are social animals and have learned that caring for our in-group gets us all ahead. In particular, we feel an instinct to care for our family.
6. Pleasure and Lust – Humans instinctively feel pleasure when exposed to stimuli that stimulate us; lust is a desire for pleasure, especially in a romantic sense.
7. Play – Humans, both children and adults, feel a desire to play. While we usually think of play as a child’s activity, we can also see that adults engage in organized play when going on dates with our partners, playing sports, and playing games on our phones.
Additional Human Instincts
1. A Mother Responding to a Distressed Baby – Perhaps the strongest of instincts humans feel is that of a mother or father for their child. Parents have a built-in instinct to protect their offspring. It feels impossible not to comfort your baby when it’s got a high-pitched distressed cry. Furthermore, we have some amazing stories of mothers lifting cars to save their babies in what seem like feats of superhuman skill.
2. The Desire to Procreate – The desire to procreate appears to be present in all cultures and societies. We can explain it through studies of biology, society, and psychology. On a biological level, we want to procreate to ensure the continuity of our species. Sociologically, we want to preserve our customs and traditions. Psychologically, we have a need for intimacy and connection to others.
3. A Baby Crying when it is Hungry – Babies don’t have to learn to cry. It’s instinctive. We’re born knowing that we should cry when we’re in need because it will call our parents who will look after us and tend to our needs. As we grow older, we develop the ability to resist the instinct to cry.
4. Flinching at Shadows – Flinching is instinctive. In fact, it’s known as the “startle reflex”. Reflexes are involuntary and instantaneous responses to stimuli. They aren’t linked to conscious cognitive processes; rather, they are designed to protect our bodies from potential harm.
5. Greed and Jealousy – Despite our best efforts, many of us feel greed and jealousy. These emotions are linked to the sense that we live in a world with limited resources. Historically, it has been beneficial to our survival to feel these emotions as they motivate us to amass resources that we can use to protect ourselves and our families.
6. Empathy – Most humans feel sympathy when we see someone experiencing pain that we can relate to. It’s even more intense when we witness other people in situations that we’ve been in the past, or, in situations where we could see ourselves being in at no fault of our own.
Other Examples of Instincts
- Fight or flight
Instincts are powerful things. They subconsciously shape much of our behavior and affect our cognitive biases. They are present in all animals and humans and underpin so much of who we are – everything from our reactions in stressful moments to our political beliefs. Understanding our instincts and how they influence our actions can help us to have stronger metacognitive capacity.
Panksepp, J. (2010). Affective neuroscience of the emotional BrainMind: evolutionary perspectives and implications for understanding depression. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 12(4), 533-545.
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]