Instinct Theory of Motivation

Behavior is one of the complex notions in psychology. And some expert psychologists say that various factors and elements direct the behavior of living beings. Similarly, several concepts explain our behavior, and the instinct theory of motivation is one of them. This article will throw light upon the instinct theory for you. 

Were you aware of this concept earlier? Do not worry. This article has covered different perspectives and theories that help you understand this concept more effortlessly. So if this has caught your interest, stay tuned. 

What is the Instinct Theory of Motivation?

The instinct theory of motivation is a crucial concept in psychology that helps people understand the cause and effect of naturally inspired behavior. So what does it mean, and who proposed them? Continue reading to know more.

Instinct Theory of Motivation Definition

The instinct theory of motivation in psychology explains that a living being is evolutionarily programmed to aid their survival in this world. Therefore, they sometimes act and behave naturally in ways that are specific to their traits. Psychologists name this naturally inspired behavior as instincts that help derive their behavior. 

So what are these instincts, and how does it govern our behavior? Keep reading to discover more about them.

What is Meant by Instinct?

Instincts are natural behavioral patterns that are usually associated with a goal. However, some stimuli to which humans or any living being respond in specific ways. Psychologists explain that we have an inborn tendency to behave in such a way. In other words, our instincts are not the result of learning. Instead, we are born with it.

Some examples of instinct in real life further explain this idea. For instance, we naturally put our hands on our mouths when we yawn. Moreover, you might shake hands when you accidentally touch a hot wok. Or, you may have noticed street animals who run away when they see a vehicle coming their way.  

These examples set the standard for our instinctive behavior, which we undergo naturally and sometimes without even realizing it. 

William McDougall Instinct Theory of Motivation

William McDougall is a social psychologist and was the first to propose the instinct theory of motivation. He developed Hormic psychology that pinpoints the goal-oriented behavior resulting from self-determination and inspired by instincts. The noun Hormic means an urge or impulse here.

He explains that behavior is usually continuous, instant, spontaneous, and variable. Although these behaviors are purposefully automatic, they can also appear as a result of learning. However, William McDougall categorizes the cause of instincts in three parts, perception, behavior, and emotion.

Moreover, he also proposed three conditions for instincts. For instance, they can be unlearned. They might be universal in a species. Or they might be uniform in expression. He also listed 18 different instincts which possibly influence our behavior. For instance, maternal instinct, curiosity, sex, laughter, food-searching, comfort, anger, cleanliness, biting, crying, clasping, constructiveness, acquisitiveness, walking, emulation, vocalization, or fear of dark places.

Instinct Theory of Motivation William James

William James is the father of American Psychology. To explain the cause and importance of instinctive motivation, James used a functionalist perspective and composed the instinct theory. However, his approach is inspired by the theory of natural selection by Charles Darwin. 

According to his theory, behavior and actions result from survival instincts which force us to react in a certain way. Moreover, the instincts tend to remain, survive, and adapt due to natural selection. 

Freud’s Instinct Theory of Motivation

On the other hand, Sigmund Freud had a broader view of the instinctive theory. He suggested that behavior is directed by life and death instincts, the two most critical biological instincts. He categorized the instincts in two terms: 

  • Eros represents life instinct. For instance, sexual motivation
  • Thanatos is defined as the death instinct such as aggression motivation.

Freud also proposed that humans exhibit an innate negative drive other than sex or hunger. He named that instinct ‘aggression’. So what is aggression, and how does it direct behavior? Find out below.

Instinct Theory of Aggression

Freud believed that a living being is born with powerful, aggressive instincts that create a disturbance within us. And they undergo some aggressive acts as a result of these aggressive instincts. These drives are a way to offer them control over disturbing situations. Moreover, it can also help them defend their territory. When he inquired, he discovered that aggression is another way to observe catharsis. This instinctual energy lets us clean our guilt. 

However, the psychologist suggested that we should replace these instincts with non-violent energy. For instance, we may read books on violent crimes, we can also occupy ourselves with some engaging and competitive activities, or we can watch aggressive sports events.

Criticism of Instinct Theory of Motivation

There are a few criticisms of instinct theory that I will highlight here. Many critics argued that the instinct theory is problematic. Critics raised the following concerns while criticizing this theory: 

  • It is difficult to test and observe instincts empirically.
  • Instincts are not always the sole reason behind the behavior.
  • Not all instincts are universal.

Instinct Theory of Motivation Examples

Instinct Theory of Motivation in Education

Some teachers use this theory to develop positive motivation in students. For instance, you might feel happier and willing to study hard when your teacher parses you. 

Instinct Theory of Motivation in Workplace

You can also find instinctive behavior in a workplace when an employee feels uplifted and willing to perform better when rewarded with incentives.

Instinct Theory of Motivation in Sports

Some psychologists have found that many athletes find sports an outlet for aggressive drives. To avoid channeling their frustration on someone else, they find hitting as a relief in the form of catharsis. 

Instinct Theory of Motivation Strengths and Weaknesses


The instinct theory of motivation justifies many behaviors as universal. Many other psychologists accept them. For instance, the natural urge in mothers to comfort their crying babies is considered a universal innate behavior.


In contrast, many psychologists argue that many of these innate behaviors are not universal. For instance, not everyone laughs at jokes. Although, laughing is a response to funny stimuli. On the other hand, some negative innate behaviors like jealousy or aggression are problematic and we need to control it. Otherwise, they might be harmful to others.


Who proposed the instinct theory of motivation?

The first person to put forward the theory of instinct motivation is William McDougall.

Which is an example of instinct?

Instinct refers to any behavior that happens naturally as a result of stimuli. There can be various instincts, for instance, hunger, anger, or thirst.

How does the Instinct Theory explain Motivation?

According to the instinct theory, a living being has a natural urge to react in a particular way given the different circumstances. For instance, we naturally close our eyes when we wash our faces. In this manner, motivation is innate and appears instantly. 

Ending Note

Our desires drive our actions and we take steps to achieve particular goals. Every human has an innate drive that directs their thoughts, emotions, and activities, and one of the most remarkable explanations of natural behavior is the instinct theory of motivation.

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