Why are there instincts in organisms

One of the 5 problem strands of motivation research is the instinct theory problem strand. Since different theories refer to the machine metaphor, it is worth mentioning. Some of the instinctive features of the machine are:

- the reactions of machines are inevitable and predefined. They are triggered by certain circumstances.

- the actions are fixed and "routine".

- Machines are designed for a specific purpose and have specific functions.



1.1) Definition:

The concept of instinct is not understood in a uniform way. In general, however, all theorists assume the aspect that instinct can be defined as a "meaningful automatic sequence of non-learned behaviors".

It is therefore emphasized that an action is carried out correctly the first time without being trained.

For example: the weaving of the spider web.

In addition, this act is compulsively carried out to the end. Once the stimulus triggers it, it continues to evolve regardless of the trigger, even if the purpose is no longer achieved.

E.g .: birds fly back to the nest even if their eggs have been removed.

These stereotypical actions embody the machine metaphor.

1.2) Mc Dougall

He is considered to be the main historical proponent of this theory and was against the analysis of the will. In 1908 he made a list of 12 main instincts and believed that all behavior had an instinctive origin.

1.3) Critical response

From the 20s the enthusiasm for the instinct theory declined.

Holt said in 1931 z. For example: "if someone turns his thumb, it comes from his thumb-turning instinct; if he does not turn it, then his thumb-not-turning instinct is at work".

Berhard actually counted over 14,000 instincts in psychological literature at that time. In response, Dunlop and Kuo questioned the existence of instincts, saying "instinct is not a necessary concept in psychology".

Another criticism was the circularity of the instinct theory: "Instinct explains behavior that is just an instinct".



2.1) Definition:

The purpose of ethology is to observe the behavioral patterns of animals in their interaction with their natural environment.

With the ethologist Konrad Lorenz, the instinct theory gained a new usefulness. He said that the instinct theory should only focus on "inherited coordination of movements".

The ethologists used the key-lock metaphor: only one key fits a lock, and only one answer fits a stimulus.

2.2) Energy flow theory


The instinct is also called "internal flow of energy" by ethologists. What is meant here is that the answer is blocked and seeks its expression. To illustrate this energy, Lorenz uses the hydraulic metaphor:

An action-specific drive energy is constantly produced for each instinct, which urges discharge. If there is no discharge for a long time, the pressure increases. This way, even more energy collects that wants to get out.

In 1966, Lorenz pointed out the importance of sport in order to channel this internal pressure in people. Sport would be a catharsis for the inner instincts.

2.3) Idle actions

The key stimuli are important in ethological theory. If this does not happen for a long time, so-called "idle actions" can occur. These prove the existence of this inner energy, as they are expressed even without stimulus.

An example: in mountain birds that are kept alone in cages for a long time, it has been observed that females use their own feathers to build a nest.

Another consequence of the energy pressure is the postponed activities. These can occur if 2 incompatible answers are aroused at the same time. Then there is inappropriate behavior.

The ethologist Tinbergen gives the following example: A bird arrives in a situation where it hesitates whether to attack the competitor at the border of its territory or at least flee. Suddenly he starts cleaning himself.

Tinbergen explains this inappropriate behavior by the fact that, according to a certain level system, the animal reaches for a lower level of instinct when it hesitates.



3.1) Definition:

Sociobiology examines the biological basis of instinctive social behavior.

The sociobiologists consider motivation over a longer period of time: from the perspective of Darwin's theory of evolution. They see the ultimate cause of social behavior as the usefulness of behavior in maintaining the "genetic pool".

A major area of ​​sociobiology is the study of altruism as an instinctive motivation. Altruism could apparently challenge Darwin's theory of evolution because, according to it, all organisms are survival machines. Power meant in this sense: "Only egoism guarantees evolution".

3.2) Investigation of Altruism

Various experiments were carried out to explore the role of altruism. The following example seems to be proof of the existence of altruism: A mother instinctively sacrifices herself to save her 3 children from the fire. So she had the instinct to maintain her genetic pool through her children.

So the thesis of sociobiology is:

Compared to the high cost of aggressive and selfish behavior, altruism is the better asset for the conservation of the species.

In this respect one could speak of selfish altruism.

Weiner gave his readers a list of questions (e.g. You are on a boat that overturns. It contains your 5-year-old and your 1-year-old children (of the same sex). The boat sinks and you can save only one.Whom do you choose to save? your 5-year-old or your 1-year-old child), whose answers confirm the following thesis: The more important the living being for reproduction, the more valuable it is.

E.g. the 5 year old child is preferred because it is closer to reproductive age; Men prefer younger women because they can father more children, etc.

Emotions also support this thesis: e.g. the grief is greater for children for whom feelings were invested longer.

But there are also other factors that influence altruism: e.g. the shape of the children's faces or the external similarity.


However, the above-mentioned instinct theories meet with some criticism. It is not for nothing that ethologists have withdrawn from motivational research for some time. They responded to a criticism that they believed was correct. This concerns the risk of extrapolating from animal behavior to human behavior.

Incidentally, your opinion approaches the general humanistic view, in which people have the power of reason in addition to instincts.

Weiner (1992), Human Motivation, Metaphors, Theories and Research