Instinctive Behavior

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Instinctive behavior

A relatively complex response pattern which is usually present in one or both sexes of a given species. These responses have a genetic basis, are essentially unlearned, and are generally adaptive.

Instinctive behavior occurs when an animal has a particular internal state while it is in the presence of a specific external stimulation called a releaser or a sign stimulus. Neither the internal state nor the external stimulus alone is adequate for the elicitation of the response. Many animals show particular instinctive behaviors only during the mating season, when hormonal changes associated with sexual behavior sensitize specific portions of the central nervous system, which will then be active in the presence of the releaser. The external stimulus may be relatively simple or incredibly complex.

Within limits, the instinctive behaviors can be modified by learning. There is evidence, for example, that some predators learn to attack their prey at the back of the neck because when held in that position the prey cannot counterattack. See Migratory behavior, Reproductive behavior

McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Bioscience. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Instinctive Behavior


the totality of genetically fixed, innate manifestations of the external activity of animals.

Instinctive behavior appears in all representatives of a particular species in approximately identical form and is directed toward ensuring the life functions that are most important for the existence of the individual and for the continuation of the species. The relative autonomy and comparatively slight variability of instinctive behavior are determined by the stable connections in the central nervous system (genetically fixed “programs of action”) formed in the course of phylogenesis. Hence, instinctive behavior does not depend directly on the concrete individual experience of the animal, although it develops during ontogenesis in connection and interaction with processes of learning. In a number of cases, the attributes of objects toward which instinctive behavior is directed are fixed in the memory by means of imprinting. The instinctive actions that constitute instinctive behavior consist of complexes of precisely coordinated instinctive movements and postures and of sound and other signals, secretory processes, phenomena of thermoregulation, changes in pigmentation, and other processes, which are effected in a definite sequence. Thus, instinctive behavior is a complex, integral reaction of the entire organism.

The biological problems of the instinctive behavior of animals and its development in phylogenesis and its role as a factor in evolution are studied by ethology. Here, instinctive behavior is studied in various aspects: functional (the role of instinctive actions in various spheres of life activity—feeding, reproduction, defense); causal, or motivational (analysis of the internal and external factors of instinctive behavior); and evolutionary-genetic (the origin of instinctive actions, the development of phylogenetically newer instinctive movements from older ones, and so forth). Comparative psychology and animal psychology study instinctive behavior as a source and manifestation of genetically fixed, species-characteristic forms of mental reflection in animals and as one of the biological premises and foundations of human mental activity. In modern studies, the concept of instinctive behavior is gradually displacing the less accurate and insufficiently differentiated concept of instinct.


Vagner, V. A. Biologicheskie osnovaniia sravnitel’noi psikhologii (Biopsikhologiia), vols. 1–2. St. Petersburg-Moscow, 1913.
Vagner, V. A. Vozniknovenie i razvitie psikhicheskikh sposobnostei, fascs. 1–2. Leningrad, 1924–25.
Ladygina-Kots, N. N. Razvitie psikhiki v protsesse evoliutsii organizmov. Moscow, 1958.
Tinbergen, N. Povedenie zhivotnykh. Moscow, 1969. (Translated from English.)
Tinbergen, N. The Study of Instinct. Oxford, 1951.
Lorenz, K. Vber tierisches und menschliches Verhalten, vols. 1–2. Munich, 1965.
Hinde, R. A. Animal Behaviour. New York, 1966.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

instinctive behavior

[in′stiŋk·tiv bi′hā·vyər]
Any species-typical pattern of responses not clearly acquired through training.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
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