How Do We Really Define Instinct?

Define instincts

How do freshly hatched baby turtles know to crawl toward the ocean? Who teaches birds to build nests and bees to build honeycombs?

How did primitive humans know how to make babies when they didn’t even understand how, or why, babies were formed?

These are examples of instinctive behaviors.

“Instinct” is a widely used term (a bit too widely used) and its definition has changed drastically over time.

Merriam-Webster’s biological perspective would define instinct as:

A largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason.

While we may think we have a pretty good idea of what instincts are based off our experience with survival, sexual, or parental instincts, there is more to instincts than meets the eye.

Characteristics That Define Instinct

How to define instincts

Instincts and instinctive behavior can also be called fixed action patterns (FAP) — sequences of actions that can be triggered by environmental signals to increase the chances of survival.

Fixed action patterns are hard-wired into every individual of a species.

And, instinctive behaviors are mostly the same within species —  the instincts you were born with are nearly identical to the instincts every other Homo sapien was born with.

Instincts are behaviors that are:

  1. Known and expressed without learning. They are innate.
  2. “Pre-programmed” and are mostly present at birth.
    • But, for instance, birds do not learn to fly — their instincts for flying are activated once they become physically mature enough.
  3. Coded and passed down genetically.
  4. Shared within the same species.
  5. Highly adaptable across many generations, but rigid within individuals.
  6. Ultimately there to increase our chances of survival.

Other human instincts you may relate to are the fear of snakes and the tendency to gather around a fire. These behaviors were so vital to our ancestor’s survival that they were imprinted into our biology through genes.

While these behaviors are less important for our survival today, they are still strongly expressed (partly because people without these behaviors likely did not live to pass on their genes).

Some Misconceptions About Instincts

defining instincts

Do you think that immediately reaching for your pocket when you hear that pleasant ding sound from your phone is an instinct?

Perhaps it will be for future generations, but for us, that reaction is something entirely different; it’s a conditioned response, rather than an instinct.  

While we tend to believe we fully understand how to define instinct, there are still some common misconceptions at play.

Intrigued? Let’s explore this further.

Reflexes vs. Instincts

There is a subtle distinction between reflexes and instincts.

Reflexes are always triggered by external stimuli and are usually simple behaviors.

Instincts, however, are sometimes triggered without external stimuli and encompass a broader set of more complex behaviors.  

Some reflexes are instinctive behaviors, while other reflexes are learned behaviors.

Human babies, for example, are born with a number of instinctive reflexes (75 to be exact). Mouthing reflexes in babies are some of the most essential for survival:

Rooting — Opening the mouth in response to touch on the cheek to help find a mother’s nipple.

Suckling — Sucking in response to light touch on the mouth or tongue, to help drink milk.

Gagging — An automatic response to anything that touches the back of the throat to avoid choking.

However, babies are not born with flinching or bracing reflexes — those are learned behaviors that are developed from experience with falling and colliding.

Intuition vs. Instincts

While most people believe intuition and instinct to be completely synonymous, there is an important distinction between the two.

Intuition is the ability to access knowledge or information without learning. Or, “To understand something instinctively,” according to the Oxford Dictionary.

Our intuition regarding survival can be considered the basis of our instinct.

Intuition and instinct both tap into a part of our mind that is outside of our logical consciousness — they are both involuntary, driven by unexplainable reasons. And they both contribute to our success and survival.

However, the fundamental distinction is in how they are expressed:

Intuition is often expressed as a feeling or thought.

Instinct is expressed as an action (or reaction).

To learn more about intuition and how to tap into it like a pro, check out our article on all things intuition.

What instincts do you use most regularly? What defines those actions as instincts? Share with us in a comment below!


Natasha Wanderly

Natasha is a happy no-mad with a love for living lucidly, dancing with fire, and talking to strangers. From living with Shamans in the Amazon to studying hieroglyphs in Egypt, she is always on some type of adventure. Every day, she wakes up with two goals: 1.) Be here 2.) Be love.

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