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What Is The Instinct Definition? (A Scientific Understanding)

by Natasha Wanderly November 10, 2018

How do freshly hatched baby turtles know to crawl toward the ocean?

And who teaches birds to build nests and bees to build honeycombs?

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.

Here’s how Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary states its instinct definition:

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

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

In this article, we’ll explore:

1. What is the instinct definition?

2. What are human instincts?

3. What is the definition of primal instinct?

4. What is an instinct example?

5. What’s the difference between reflex and instinct?

6. What’s the difference between intuition and instinct?

How to define instincts

What Is The Instinct Definition?


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.

In fact, every individual of a species has hard-wired fixed action patterns.

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.

But how can we define human instincts?

What are human instincts?

Instincts are behaviors that are:

  1. Innate. Innate behaviors don’t require prior knowledge or learning.
  2. Pre-programmed. Present at birth.
    • With some interesting exceptions: birds do not learn to fly — their instincts for flying are activated once they become physically mature enough.
  3. Coded. Instincts are genetically coded.
  4. Shared. Instincts are present in all members of the species.
  5. Fixed in the short-term. For individuals of the current generation, instincts are rigid and fixed.
  6. Long-term adaptability. Across generations, instincts have the potential to adapt to environmental demands.
  7. Survival-oriented. Ultimately our instincts exist 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. And these behaviors were so vital to our ancestor’s survival that they were imprinted into our biology through genes.

What is the definition of primal instinct?

Primal instincts are what we use for basic survival.

In fact, any instinct that helps us survive and thrive can be considered a primal instinct.

Primal instincts are those that have been in place for thousands of years. The fight or flight instinct, for example.

And these primal instincts tend to surface in situations of extreme danger. Our older, more primitive brain takes over and we rely on our primal instincts to navigate the danger.

define instincts

What Is An Instinct Example?


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.  

So, what is an instinct?

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

So, to uncover proper examples of instinctive behavior, we have to tackle some common misconceptions first.

Intrigued? Let’s explore this further.

What’s the difference between reflex and instinct?


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.  

Reflexes can be instinctive behaviors or learned behaviors.

Human babies, for example, are born with a number of instinctive reflexes (75 to be exact). And 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. They learned these behaviors when they experience a fall or collision. 

What’s the difference between intuition and instinct?


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 survival intuition is 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, we express intuition and instinct in different ways.

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.


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

by Natasha Wanderly
Natasha is a happy no-mad with a love for living lucidly, dancing with fire, and talking to strangers. She's also an enthusiast of self-development and personal growth, and is constantly reading and writing about it. 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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