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All species in the animal kingdom – from bears to whales to birds to humans – exhibit instinctual behavior.

Learn how instinct works across species, see some examples, and then test your knowledge with a short quiz.

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Instinct Defined

Instinct is a term used to describe a set of behaviors that are both unlearned and set in motion as the result of some environmental trigger. Instincts are also often discussed in relation to motivation since they can also occur in response to an organism’s need to satisfy some innate internal drive tied to survival.

Instincts are present across species and are consistent within individual species. In other words, many different species rely on instincts, and if one member of a species possesses an instinct, then they all do.Before we move into a discussion of specific types of instincts, it is important to distinguish the difference between an instinct and a reflex. Both are types of unlearned behavior that tend to serve a survival purpose. The difference is that a reflex is a typically a simple reaction or a response to an environmental trigger whereas an instinct is a much more complex set of behaviors.

For instance, an example of a reflex would be when a baby turns his head toward an object that is pressed against one cheek in an effort to nurse. The head turn is a simple reactionary process. An instinct would be the manner in which a mother bird regurgitates her food to feed her young in response to their signals of hunger. Both are reactions to environmental cues; however, the mother bird must engage in a series of much more complex behaviors in order to respond to the cues the environment is providing her.

Examples of Instincts

Instinctual behavior has been identified across a wide variety of species. Instincts serve different purposes and show up at different points in development depending on the purpose each serves and the species within which it exists. In this section we will take a look at some of the more prominent instincts in both humans and non-humans and also examine the purpose behind each instinct.

Non-Human Instincts

When the seasons change and winter draws near, many species of bears prepare for hibernation. Food supplies become scarce and the extreme weather conditions make survival difficult. Hibernation is a complex set of behaviors. It requires being aware of the time of year, engaging in pre-hibernation preparation tasks, hibernating, and emerging from hibernation at the right time; quite a complex process, to say the least.Similarly, migration in whales is a complex set of behaviors that is set in motion by cues from the environment. Some whales migrate in response to food supply shortages and others for mating purposes.

Much the same as hibernation, migration is not a simple thing. It requires much energy and effort.What makes these complex sets of behavior so unique is that bears and whales do not need to be taught why hibernation or migration is important or even how to do it. Both species are compelled to do it as a result of either environmental cues or innate drives, both of which are rooted in an effort to survive.

Human Instincts

As humans, we are different in many ways from other species in the animal kingdom but similar in that our nervous systems come pre-wired to engage in certain instinctual behaviors. Have you ever had to teach someone how to sleep? Or eat? Probably not, right? Eating, drinking, and sleeping are three pretty important sets of behavioral patterns. Human infants are born with the ability to do all of these things without the need to observe or learn from an adult.

While infants rely on adults for access to safe places to eat and a supply of food, the acts of eating and sleeping do not need to be taught.Much like hibernation and migration, these survival instincts are set in motion by the nervous system in response to environmental cues and the need to satisfy internal drives. The need for nourishment to sustain life and sleep to aid in proper growth and development are complex sets of instinctual behaviors that we just simply know how to do from the day we are born.

Lesson Summary

An instinct is a set of behaviors that does not have to be learned and which is set in motion in response to an environmental cue or an internal drive.

Instincts are different from reflexes in that reflexes are simple reactions to stimuli, whereas instincts involve much more complex sets of behavior. Instincts exist across a wide range of human and non-human species. Migration, hibernation, eating, drinking and sleeping are examples of instinctual behaviors.

Most instincts are driven by the need to survive, either in response to environmental cues or internal signals from the organism itself.

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