How do instinct and learned behavior influence each other in motivation?

August 12, 2023

The interplay between instinct and learned behavior plays a crucial role in shaping an individual’s motivation. Instincts are innate, biologically driven behaviors that are essential for survival, while learned behaviors are acquired through experience and education. Both instinct and learned behavior contribute to an individual’s motivation, either by influencing each other or by acting independently. This article will explore the dynamic relationship between instinct and learned behavior in motivating individuals to achieve their goals and adapt to changing environments.

The Complex Relationship Between Instinct and Learned Behavior

Understanding Instinct

Instinct can be defined as an innate, natural behavior that is present in a species without the need for conscious thought or learning. It is often associated with survival and reproduction, as it helps organisms respond to their environment in a way that ensures their continued existence. Examples of instinctual behaviors include the migration of birds, the hunting techniques of predators, and the maternal instincts of mammals.

The Role of Learned Behavior

On the other hand, learned behavior is acquired through experience, observation, and education. It involves a conscious effort to adapt and respond to specific situations or stimuli based on previous knowledge and understanding. Learned behaviors are not present at birth but are developed over time through trial and error, imitation, and reinforcement. They allow individuals to navigate complex social structures, solve problems, and adapt to changing circumstances.

The Interplay of Instinct and Learned Behavior

While instinct and learned behavior are often viewed as separate entities, they are intricately intertwined and influence each other in the realm of motivation. Instinctual drives can serve as a foundation for learned behavior, providing a starting point for individuals to build upon and refine their responses to various stimuli.

Instinct as a Motivational Force

Instincts can play a significant role in motivating behavior. They are deeply ingrained and can elicit strong emotional responses, triggering the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and adrenaline that enhance motivation and drive action. For example, the instinctual drive to seek food and water when hungry or thirsty can motivate an individual to engage in behaviors such as hunting or foraging.

Learned Behavior as a Motivational Catalyst

While instinctual drives provide a foundation, learned behaviors can act as catalysts for motivation. Through experience and education, individuals acquire knowledge and skills that enable them to pursue specific goals or fulfill certain needs. For instance, the learned behavior of studying diligently can motivate a student to excel academically, as they understand the connection between effort and success.

Instinct and Learned Behavior: A Feedback Loop

The relationship between instinct and learned behavior is not one-sided; it is a dynamic process that involves a continuous feedback loop. Instincts can shape learned behaviors, but learned behaviors can also modify and refine instinctual responses. This interaction between the two influences motivation in various ways.

Instincts Evolve Through Learning

Instincts, although innate, can be refined and modified through learned behavior. As individuals gain experience and acquire new knowledge, they can adapt their instinctual responses to better suit their environment or circumstances. This process is often observed in animals, where instincts may be enhanced or altered based on their interaction with the environment. For example, a predator may learn new hunting techniques that improve their chances of catching prey.

Learned Behaviors Enhance Instinctual Drives

Learned behaviors can also enhance the effectiveness of instinctual drives. By acquiring knowledge and skills, individuals can optimize their instinctual responses and increase their chances of success. This is particularly evident in humans, where learned behaviors such as problem-solving, planning, and strategizing can enhance instinctual drives like the desire for social interaction or the pursuit of status and achievement.

The Role of Motivation in the Interaction

Motivation acts as a guiding force in the interplay between instinct and learned behavior. It is the internal drive that compels individuals to act in a certain way to fulfill their needs and desires. Both instinct and learned behavior can influence motivation, either by triggering it directly or by providing the necessary tools and strategies to achieve desired outcomes.

Instinct and Learned Behavior: A Balancing Act

The relationship between instinct and learned behavior in motivation is a delicate balancing act. While instincts provide a foundation and drive initial responses, learned behaviors refine and adapt these responses to suit specific contexts. This interplay allows individuals to navigate complex environments and optimize their chances of success.


What is instinct and learned behavior?

Instinct refers to innate behavior that is genetically programmed and typically present in all members of a species. It is characterized by its uniformity and the fact that it is not influenced by an individual’s experience or learning. On the other hand, learned behavior is acquired through experiences, interactions, and observations. It involves modifications in behavior that result from environmental stimuli or personal experiences.

How do instinct and learned behavior influence motivation?

Instinct and learned behavior both play vital roles in motivating individuals. Instincts can provide the initial drive or impulse that prompts a certain behavior. For example, instincts like hunger, thirst, or the maternal instinct can create a strong motivation to seek food, water, or care for offspring. Learned behavior, on the other hand, can influence motivation by providing individuals with the knowledge and skills needed to fulfil instinctual needs effectively. These learned behaviors can involve problem-solving, decision-making, and socializing, among others, and contribute to the overall motivation to achieve specific goals.

Can learned behavior override instincts in motivation?

Yes, in some cases, learned behavior can override or suppress instincts. For instance, an individual may have an instinctual fear of heights, but through learned behavior and exposure therapy, they can overcome this fear and engage in activities like bungee jumping or rock climbing. Similarly, culture and societal norms often shape learned behavior that may go against innate instincts. For instance, while the instinct to hoard resources for personal survival might exist, learned behavior may prioritize sharing and cooperation within a community.

Can instincts influence the acquisition of learned behavior?

Absolutely. Instincts often serve as the foundation upon which learned behaviors are built. Instincts can create the initial motivation or drive for individuals to seek out certain experiences, opportunities, or interactions necessary to acquire new skills or knowledge. For instance, the mating instinct can motivate individuals to learn courtship rituals and behaviors, while the instinct to explore can drive individuals to learn how to navigate their environment effectively.

How do instinct and learned behavior work together in motivation?

Instinct and learned behavior work in tandem to influence an individual’s motivation. Instincts provide the basic drives and impulses that motivate individuals to fulfill their primary needs, such as survival, reproduction, and self-preservation. Learned behavior, on the other hand, equips individuals with the necessary skills, knowledge, and strategies to effectively meet these instinctual needs. As individuals acquire more learned behaviors, they become better at satisfying their instincts, thereby reinforcing motivation and the drive to pursue certain goals or activities.

Can instincts and learned behaviors change over time?

Yes, both instincts and learned behaviors can change over time. Instincts can evolve through the process of natural selection, adapting to changes in the environment or the needs of a species. Similarly, learned behaviors can change through individual experiences, cultural influences, and education. As individuals acquire new knowledge or undergo personal development, their learned behaviors can be modified, replaced, or refined, leading to changes in their overall motivation and behavior.

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