Instinct Theory of Motivation: Examples & Definition

instinct theory of motivation definition and concepts, explained below

The instinct theory of motivation argues that our motivational instincts are passed down from our parents through hereditary factors.

The instinct theory states that our motivations and behavior are compelled by a distinct set of instincts that are internally fixed.

Our biological or natural urges are in control of how we act, and these are the motivating force behind our actions.

Instinct theory comprises a range of sub-theories on motivation that embrace the basic tenets of biological determinism – that is, that our lives are determined by biological factors such as our inherited genetics.

Definition and Origins of Instinct Theory

Our instincts are inborn, and they are beyond our control, as they are triggered by environmental stimuli – something that has been argued is a commonality in all living things, regardless of species.

Proponents of the instinct theory of motivation include three 19th century psychologists:

  • William McDougal (1871-1938) categorized instinctive behavior into 3 areas – perception, behavior, and emotion.
  • Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) saw our motivations as being driven by two insincts: seek sex and avoid death.
  • Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) sought to answer the central question: are we in control of ourselves, or is our biological makeup and our bodies in control of us?

1. McDougal: Instinct as Innate

McDougal defined instincts as innate, consistently expressed behaviors that are common across a species (Richter et al., 2013). He proposed various human instincts such as submission, jealousy, and mating.

Moreover, McDougal argued that instincts include a cognitive aspect, which involves recognizing that a goal can fulfill the instinct, an emotional aspect triggered by the instinct-related object, and a motivational aspect that drives an individual towards or away from that object (Richter et al., 2013, p. 18).

2. Freud: Sexual and Death Drives

Freud agrees that motivational factors are instinctual, and these instincts are something that cannot be consciously controlled (Freud, 1915c, p. 3000).

Narrowing it down to two specific human drives, Freud envisages instinct as based on:

  • A sexual drive (physical pleasure), and
  • A death drive (destruction or aggression)

Freud concludes that these are what motivate a person’s behavior.   

3. Wundt: General Theory of Motivation

Wundt had a general theory of motivation. His theory believed that motivation was underpinned by biological and evolutionary forces (Fahrenberg, 2019).

By Wundt’s logic, all people are driven by the needs of their own body and mind, and this drive is an inherently internal force.

Instinct Theory Examples

  1. Survival Instinct: When a living thing is cold it seeks shelter for warmth; for example, a bird migrating South for the winter
  2. Reproductive Instinct: All species have an instinct or a sexual drive to reproduce or be intimate for pleasure.
  3. Suckling Instinct: A newborn baby instinctively knows how to suckle for milk.
  4. Crying Instinct: A human baby naturally cries when they need comfort or food
  5. Migration Instinct: A hatchling turtle instinctively crawls towards the ocean shortly after being born.
  6. Jealousy Instinct: A person gets jealous when they see that someone has been given a better living situation than they have
  7. Dominance and Submission: In-group hierarchies or dominant members in social groups are instinctively formed by all species.
  8. Nesting Instinct: Birds have an instinct to build a nest to lay their eggs, and even in humans, we have an instinct to ‘nest’ in our new homes, such as the drive to install art and furniture.
  9. Fear Instinct: We instinctively freeze, flee, or fight when we perceive a threat or danger.
  10. Territorial Instinct: Most animals, such as dogs, chimps and humans, have an instinct to mark and defend their territory in order to preserve their resources and security.
  11. Maternal Instinct: Most animals have the instinct to protect and care for their offspring. This varies fro a lioness protecting her cubs to a bird feeding her chicks. Rarely, animals like snakes appear to lack this instinct.
  12. Curiosity Instinct: Many animals have an instinct to explore. This is likely because exploration has helped our ancestors find more resources to survive.
  13. Hunting Instinct: Predatory animals have an instinct to chase and capture prey. We even see this in domestic cats who stalk mice even though they’re well-fed by their human owners.
  14. Bonding Instinct: Humans and other animals have an instinct to form social bonds and connect with others. By bonding, we receive support and protection from our bond-group.
  15. Self-Preservation Instinct: All living beings have an instinct to avoid pain, harm, or death. Similarly, we seek out food, water, and shelter for survival.

Case Studies and Research Basis

1. The Defense Cascade (River, 1923)

In notable research conducted in the early part of the 20th century, River (1923) identified five instincts that are associated with fight or flight.

Those five instincts are:

  • Flight (running away)
  • Aggression (a physical response)
  • Manipulative activity
  • Immobility
  • Collapse

While River’s (1923) experiments were conducted with animals, the cornerstone for his theory was that according to the distance and degree of the threat between the predator and the prey, a distinct response would be triggered.

He labeled this chain of responses “the defense cascade”, and researchers would later apply this theory to humans (p. 342).

2. Sexual Drive (Rotkirch et al., 2012)

While the sex drive may vary from species to species, and be expressed within different frameworks (containing different rituals), the inborn instinct to create life, or to preserve and grow your species has been considered by many scientists as universal.

Rotkirch et al. (2012) explore the intense urge to have a baby, also known as “baby fever”.

They describe it as a strong emotional and physical desire that affects a person’s reproductive behavior and innately drives their instinct.

It is characterized by a powerful longing to have a child and manifests in both psychological and physical ways such as dreams, obsessive thoughts, sudden attraction to infants and baby merchandise.

It is also combined with a physical aspect for woman as well, which she describes as a “tug in the womb”, physical sensation in the breasts, or an aching stomach.

This feeling, which may start in early adulthood, can be considered a biological motivational trait, and has been found in women at different stages of life (p. 285-286). 

Weaknesses and Criticism of the Instinct Motivation Theory

One the theory’s major criticisms is that it fails to account for all behaviors.

This is mainly due to the fact that behavior can be influenced by individual life experiences as well as biological programming.

Critics claim that instinct motivation theories are not explicit, or clearly defined. Kispal-Vitai (2016) states, for example, that:

“…although the research was and is abundant about motivation, a clear-cut explanation is not available even good approximations may not be of any help in particular situations” (p. 2).

In other worse, while the instinct theory proposes that behaviors are driven by fundamental instincts, it is limited in explaining the more intricate facets of human behavior and the impact that accumulated individual experiences can have on them.

Incentive vs Instinct Theories of Motivation

Instinct theory is often contrasted to the incentive theory. The two theories describe motivation from different perspectives.

Whereas instinct theory is determinist in nature, arguing that our motivations are based on innate human desires that we have developed through generations of evolution, incentive theory focuses on conscious, deliberate actions that are under human control.

For example, incentive theory might hold that we’re primarily driven to take actions based on the strength of a reward or punishment for that behavior rather than an in-built drive to do so.

So, while instinct theory holds that the cat will chase the mouse based on a built-in instinct to do so, incentive theory would argue that the cat is acting based on rational thought processes: the incentive for catching the mouse is food. If the cat is satiated, it may choose not to chase the mouse at all.

Below is a brief table summary contrasting the two theories:

FactorIncentive Theory of MotivationInstinct Theory of Motivation
Primary FocusExternal stimuli (incentives, rewards)Internal stimuli (innate, biologically determined behaviors)
TheoristsB.F. Skinner, Edward Thorndike, Clark Hull, Leon FestingerWilliam James, William McDougall, Sigmund Freud
Basis for MotivationAnticipation of rewards or avoidance of negative outcomes. Degree of drive for the reward may be affected by valence of the reward or degree of habituation and saturation.We are motivated by fixed-action patterns that are pre-programmed into our minds through years of evolution. Our motivations tend to be automatic and based on unlearned responses to stimuli, e.g. a snake does not need to learn how to hunt.
Learning & AdaptabilityMotivation can be learned, adapted, and shaped by experiences and environment. As a result, motivational rewards and punishments can be used as the basis for teaching.Motivation is predetermined by biological drives and not subject to change.
Human AgencyDecision-makers have agency to choose to engage in a behavior (or not) based on the desirability of the reward or desire to avoid an adverse consequence.We lack agency because our innate drives – for food, shelter, protection, community, sex, etc. – cannot be denied. Our brains are wired to seek them out.

See Also: Examples of Incentives


The incentive theory of motivation continues to be utilized in a range of fields, from education to parenting to public policy. While it tends to be a highly effective strategy in the short-term, its long-term effects and consequences (due to its lack of moral compass) mean it is often derided as a Band-Aid rather than a solution to demotivation.


Berridge, K. C. (2000). Reward learning: Reinforcement, incentives, and expectations. Elsevier EBooks, 223–278.

Gneezy, U., Meier, S., & Rey-Biel, P. (2011). When and Why Incentives (Don’t) Work to Modify Behavior. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 25(4), 191–210.

Jeffery, R. W. (2012). Financial incentives and weight control. Preventive Medicine55, S61 -S67.

Krishnan, I. (2014). A Review of B. F. Skinner’s ‘Reinforcement Theory of Motivation. Journal of Research in Education Methodology. 5. Accessed April 4th, 2023 from

Liu, W., & Liu, Y. (2022). The Impact of Incentives on Job Performance, Business Cycle, and Population Health in Emerging Economies. Frontiers in Public Health, 9. Doi:

Saracho, O. N. (2021). Theories of Child Development and Their Impact on Early Childhood Education and Care. Early Childhood Education Journal51(1), 15–30.


Instinct theory holds that we are motivated primarily by innate, unchangeable instincts that we have developed and inherited through evolution. Such instincts – such as the desire for shelter, reproduction, and food, have been fundamental in motivating survival behaviors and allowed humans to thrive through the centuries.


Blumberg, M. S. (2017). Development evolving: the origins and meanings of  instinct. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science8(1–2), e1371.

Freud S. (1915c). “The unconscious,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete          Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. Strachey J. (London: The Hogarth Press; ), 2989–3024.

Fahrenberg, J. (2019). Wilhelm Wundt (1832 – 1920): Introduction, quotations, reception, commentaries, attempts at reconstruction. Accessed on April 4th, 2023 from

Kispal-Vitai, Z. (2016). Comparative analysis of motivation theories. International Journal of Mathematical, Engineering and Management Sciences1–14

Kozlowska, K., Walker, P. J., McLean, L., & Carrive, P. (2015). Fear and the Defense Cascade. Harvard Review of Psychiatry23(4), 263–287.

Richter, M., Wright, R. A., Brinkmann, K., & Gendolla, G. H. E. (2013). Motivation. Oxford Bibliographies Online Datasets

Rivers, W. H. R. (1923b). Instinct and the Unconscious. A Contribution to a Biological Theory of the Psycho-Neuroses. The Philosophical Review32(3), 342.

Rotkirch, A., Basten, S., Väisänen, H., & Jokela, M. (2011). Baby longing and men’s reproductive motivation. Vienna Yearbook of Population Research9, 283–306.


Gregory Paul C. (MA)

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Gregory Paul C. is a licensed social studies educator, and has been teaching the social sciences in some capacity for 13 years. He currently works at university in an international liberal arts department teaching cross-cultural studies in the Chuugoku Region of Japan. Additionally, he manages semester study abroad programs for Japanese students, and prepares them for the challenges they may face living in various countries short term.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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