Before we directly jump into the methods of modification of instinct, let us first understand the meaning and importance of Instinctive Behaviour.

Meaning and Importance of Instinctive

Instincts are the raw materials of character. Character is formed in the service of the instincts. Thus, the biological superiority or rationality of man over the other animals rests in his capacity for modification of the instincts. Mere possession and exhibition of the inborn instincts in their crude form only indicate his animality. But to make himself upgraded to rationality, man’s thought, behavior, and activity are required to be made ideal, refined, and socially desirable. He is to make an improved adjustment and exercise better control of his environment. He is to satisfy his basic psycho-physical needs in a more refined, cultured, and civilized way.

Human instincts at birth do not attain maturity and perfection. They are in the process of gradual changes, modification, and improvement through training. The long dependence of human child gives the power of plasticity to modify and improve the instincts from their crude biological level. Improved experience, learning, and education can gradually modify the animal characteristics that lead to the emergence of man’s desirable qualities of character and personality. So, it is evident that rationality or the educability of man rests in the act of instinctive modification. Education in its psychological sense is nothing more than an act of modification of instinct

Methods of Modification of Instinct

Modification of human instinct takes place through many more forms. Some of them are healthy and more effective, while some others are not. Therefore, we focus on some of the commonly adopted healthy and unhealthy devices of the methods of modification of instinct.


It means not using an instinct or putting a stop to its repetition in view of making it ineffective. Lack of repetition may make an instinct weak and gradually its effect may fade away.

By adopting the technique of disuse, we can remove undesirable instincts. For instance, we can remove the combative instinct of a child by changing his playgroup.

But it may be maintained that instincts being the native springs of energy may be weakened by disuse, but could not be rooted out altogether. There is every possibility of reappearance of the instinct if a suitable environment to this effect is provided.

Use of pleasure and pain

Man has a natural tendency to accept pleasure and avoid pain or punishment. An instinctive act when followed by pleasure through giving rewards may be reinforced to repeat and strengthen it. When it is followed by pain through inflicting of punishment may be weakened and ultimately made ineffective. It is the law of effect that comes to operate in the process of modification of instinct. The use of reward and punishment in school for removing undesirable behavior of students may be based on this technique of modification.

However, the effectiveness of this method depends on the reasonable and proportionate use of reward and punishment given. Moreover, if their use is conditioned through repetition, they may appear as less effective for modification.

Use of complete freedom

The use of complete freedom is one of the most preferred methods of modification of instinct. Educationists like Rousseau believed that complete freedom or the state of natural freedom given may modify instincts in their own natural way. It is believed that instincts are the native and natural tendencies of man that need to develop unhampered by any external sources. Restriction or control over them may only create complexity that leads to repression and artificiality if behavior. So, a condition of natural freedom for automatic training and modification has been suggested by the naturalists.

The use of complete and absolute freedom is a debatable point in education. It is reasonable and restricted freedom rather than complete freedom that may work well. Complete freedom is neither possible nor desirable to children for their desirable modification of instincts.


Repression is driving an instinctive desire deep into the region of the unconscious mind. It is the opposite state of freedom. Our hopes, wishes, and instinctive desires that remain unfulfilled in the reality may usually give us pain and discomfort. Their unpleasant memory impression may be driven back to the region of the unconscious. This mechanism of the mind is called repression. Ordinarily, we call it the process of voluntary forgetting. It may help one to forget unrealized instincts in the reality.

However, repression is obviously a harmful means of instinctive modification. Habitual repression may create mental complexity resulting in abnormality and ailments. It may lead to an extreme form of introversion and a shut-in personality.


In order to avoid the harmful effect of repression, we can substitute the instinctive tendencies by adopting an alternative healthy means. For example, a man unable to satisfy the tendency of witnessing a cinema in the picture hall may satisfy it to some extent by witnessing a TV show at home. It is an act of redirecting the instinct for its partial realization through a substitute means. This substitution may help in satisfaction of the instinct indirectly that would otherwise have remained unfulfilled.

Substitution may help to avoid the harmful effect of repression. It may give a suitable outlet to discharge the instinct without causing any psychological harm.


Catharsis is a psychological term that goes to mean ‘to purge out’ or ‘to drive out’. The harmful repressed elements in the mind may be purged out through a healthy means. The instincts that could not be normally realized in the reality are usually thwarted and repressed in mind that causes mental trouble.

Catharsis is a device through which such repressed elements may be driven out of mind to keep one healthy and normal. Play is a suitable means of catharsis. It may give a suitable outlet to unfold the mind.

Catharsis is a clinical device of mental treatment. As such, it has a psychologically good effect on instinctive modification of human behavior. The need and the use of play for children have been highlighted by this technique of modification. Thus, we can say that catharsis is one of the main methods of modification of instinct.


It goes to mean redirecting or channelizing an instinctive tendency into a constructive and creative way without causing any harm. Ross define Sublimation as, “Sublimation is the word that describes the process of redirecting an instinct from its primitive, biological goal to one that is socially and individually uplifting”

It is believed that instincts, as they are the native springs of the energy of thought and action need to be used purposively. They should be raised from their crude biological level and then redirected to the socially desirable channel. For instance, sex is the vital life-giving instinct of man that should be sublimated to its creative channel through the culture of art, literature, and music. Music may satisfy the instinct of sex in adolescents in a sublimated form that is socially desirable. There are various other healthy means through which instincts may be promoted from their crude primitive level to socially desirable and sublimated form. The study of the biography of great creative artists and scientists of the world may only confirm the idea of instinctive sublimation in their personal life.


Higher Secondary Education for HS 1st Year

By: Jatin Borua

Note: There are some changes in the Length and Text of the Article.

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