Instinct Theory of Motivation: Overview

Instructor: Vidhi Desai

Vidhi holds a Masters in Education, B.A. in Spanish Literature from Rutgers University. Vidhi has experience working in academic affairs and staff management.

Ever wonder why or how we know how to do certain actions as babies without ever learning them? Babies know how to suck to get nutrition from milk. Birds know how to make nests for shelter. Some would say that this is due to instincts. Learn about instinct theories of motivation in this lesson.

What are Instinct Theories of Motivation?

Well, let's break this down. Motivation is the drive that guides us to behave a certain way. Instincts are our natural responses. For example, if a baby is motivated to live, it naturally sucks on its mother's nipple to gain nutrition to survive. Instinct theories state that we respond in a certain way thanks to evolution - essentially, we are programmed to do certain things to survive.

Specific Theories

In addition to theories proposed by psychologists like Clark Hull or Abraham Maslow, Sigmund Freud and William James were psychologists who developed theories that resonate with the concept of acting by instinct.

Freud's Death (Thanatos) and Life (Eros) Drives

Freud stated that humans have two instinctual drives: life and death. Each drive causes humans to behave in certain ways. Depending on which drive is dominant, the person will act in a way to promote life or death.

The life drive (Eros) causes us to engage in behaviors promoting the preservation of life such as engaging in sex, eating to survive, and exercising to maintain health.

The death drive (Thanatos) causes us to engage in risky or aggressive behaviors such as doing stunts, starting fights, or driving dangerously.

William James: Our Instinct is to Survive

James believed that we behave in ways that promote our survival. Some important factors in his theory were:

Fear - For example, fear is what keeps us away from fire and causes us to flinch if we hear gunshots. If we didn't have a sense of fear, we might get burned or shot because we wouldn't be afraid enough to move away.

Love - This includes sexual drives, care, and affection. Instinctively, people engage in sex to recreate. Parents care for their children with care and affection because they act with love. Babies cry if they need affection.

Sociability - Since groups are more powerful than individuals, we socialize and make friends. This feeds our need for company as well as protection. When walking down a street at night, we feel protected and are less targeted when with a large group.

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