All living beings give a clear indication of life through instinct or the innate mode of behavior. We can distinguish between the living and the non-living things on the basis of such an innate mode of behavior. This native tendency to react to a situation may be identified as instinct.

The instinct is the raw material for the super-structure of a man’s personality. Therefore, it assumes a greater significance for study in education. Although it may be mentioned at the very outset that the theoretical nature and concept of instinct is quite controversial in psychology. The specialists differ in regard to the identification of the nature and tendency of an instinct.

Meaning of Instinct

The living organisms have certain native tendencies or innate modes of behavior to react or respond to a specific situation. This response may be known as instinct. Such a tendency has been biologically inherited by the living organism for which it does not have to be acquired. Thus, instinct in its crude and original form may be observed in one’s unlearned behavior.

Instinct indicates the biological necessity of living organisms in their environment. A situation of danger arouses the instinct to escape from it. A situation of hunger arouses the instinct of seeking food. Also, a situation of disgust arouses the instinct of fight and so on. The instinctive behavior, being the biological necessity are, therefore, universally similar in all the living species. It also indicates the racial characteristics of a specific group of biological animals. For instance, the instinct of mating urges the birds to build their nest on top of the trees. The instinct of food-seeking urges the tiger to go out for hunting. The instinct of curiosity urges man to see the unseen, hear the unheard. Thus the instincts are the complex type of psycho-biological reactions of the organism’s experience in the Specific environmental situation.

Stages of an Instinctive Act

M.C. Dougall’s definition of instinct shows three distinct stages of experience involving an instinctive act. They are:

  1. Cognition or knowing aspect.
  2. Affection or feeling aspect.
  3. Conation or doing aspect.

In the first step, the living organism can perceive, observe, or attend to any object or situation in the environment. There is an innate or inherited tendency or disposition that makes one aware or conscious of the situation. This may be described as the cognitive step involved in instinct.

Further, in the second step, the awareness or consciousness of the situation gives rise to emotional, tension, excitement, and impulse to action in the organism. This may be known as the affective or feeling aspect of experience involve in instinct.

In the third step, the emotion and impulse to action consequently find expression in a specific mode of behavior in relation to the situation. This may be described as a conative or doing aspect of the experience of the instinctive act. Thus, instinct gives rise to knowing, knowing gives rise to feeling, and feeling gives rise to doing or behavior of a certain kind.

An example of this account may make our contention clear. I go out for an evening walk on the road. All of a sudden the raindrops pouring heavily. On being aware of the coming of rain, I feel excited and then run for shelter nearby.  This act or behavior of mine on the situation of coming of rain is instinctive of human.

Characteristics of Instinct

The true characteristics of instinct are:

  1. Instincts are the innate and inherited tendencies of the biological organism.
  2. They are not the result of training one experiences instinct prior to receiving education.
  3. Instincts are originated in the unconscious mind for which they remain unaware.
  4. They may be broadly divided into self-preserving and race-preserving, which are biological in nature.
  5. Instincts are universally similar in all the living creatures of men and animals.
  6. Also, they give expression to the racial characteristics of a specific group of species.
  7. Instincts give rise to a feeling of uneasiness in one’s body and mind.
  8. They are the complex psycho-physical experiences having far-reaching effects.
  9. All the instincts do not appear to be equally powerful throughout life.
  10. Instincts find expression through their respective emotional experiences.
  11. Instinctive behavior does not have anything new for which they are said to be mechanical and also universal in nature.
  12. Instincts in the higher animals can be trained and modified, that go to form character and personality.

The instinct of Man and Animal

Judged from an instinctive point of view, there is a basic similarity between man and animal. Human and animal babies after the birth act and behave out of their inborn instinct. Although their subsequent behavior cannot be judged in terms of the same instinctive and biological principle. Man is a rational animal. His rationality of behavior consists of his capacity to train, modify, and improve behavior from the crude animal and instinctive level.

Improved environment and education can help man acquire improved and refined behavior and exercise better control over the situation. He can exercise improved power of thinking, reasoning, and intelligence in solving problems of his immediate environment. He is also capable of bringing about necessary changes in the environment in favor of his own needs and requirements. So, it is said that man is guided by reasons and intellect and not merely out of native instincts.

On the contrary, the animals, more particularly the lower animals are utterly incapable of changing and modifying their inborn instincts. G

Godfrey Thomson maintains, “Their instinctive responses are few and fixed, and continue throughout life in the form determined by heredity. When transferred to an unnatural situation, such an animal is led astray by its instinct”.

Learning, education, and exercise of intellect and reasoning are beyond their capability. As such, they can manage to satisfy their biological needs with their native instincts in the usual normal situation but show utter helplessness when faced with the problems. Thus, it is said that animals are guided by instinct and men by reason.

Reflex-action and Instinct:

Reflex or reflex-action is essentially a physical reaction of the organism due to physical changes in the environment. Any change in the physical situation affects the body organ that finds expression through reflex. A sudden bright light immediately affects the eyelids. As a result, human blinks their eyes.

Also, when there is a change in the air, human beings sneeze. Such physical reactions are called reflex which does not have any effect on one’s mental life. Reflexes are experienced in the peripheral region of the body and are controlled and regulated by the spinal cord. Their effects are also simple, momentary, and short-lived.

Instinct and reflex-action have certain similarities too. Both are inherited reactions or responses of the organism experienced in the physical situation. Also, both of them are fixed types of reactions under fixed and mechanical. Both are the experiences prior to any training received. Due to their similarity in nature, it creates confusion.

However, we can differentiate between them from the following points.

Reflexes are the sensory reactions of the organism.Instincts are emotional reactions of body and mind.
They affect only their specific parts of the body.Also, they affect the body and mind as a whole.
They are regulated by the spinal cord.The brain regulates the instinct.
Reflexes are not possible to be trained.It is possible to train our instincts.
Their experiences are momentary and short-lived.They have a lasting impression on the body and mind.
Reflex-action does not have its aims or motives.Instincts through innate have their aims and motives.
They do not have a feeling aspect of the experience.Instinct finds expression through emotional experience.
They serve immediate physical needs.Also, they serve comprehensive psycho-physical needs.
They have some kind of effect throughout life.They are modifiable that go to form character.
Education has nothing to do with them.Their training is the major task of education.

The Importance of Instincts in Education

There are certain instincts that are educationally significant. Therefore, the importance of instincts in education are as follows:


It is the native tendency to know the unknown and see the unseen potentially present in every inquisitive child’s mind. Sensitivity to new knowledge and experience may only make one intellectually alive and active. It shows the capability of acquiring more knowledge. Little child in his environment naturally shows native curiosity by asking some searching questions. Hence, elders need to satisfy the child quite convincingly. A child unable to ask questions is indicative of his native feeble-mindedness.


It is the native tendency to construct and create something out of anything. Thus, it gives rise to the feeling of creativity. Creative potential and constructive skill may find expression through this instinct. Little children usually exhibit this tendency when given some blocks of wood, clay, or piece of paper in hand. It may be systematically trained and developed through the use of hand-work and craft-work in school.


The tendency to acquire and possess objects more and more may give rise to the feeling of ownership. The more we have, the more we want, so goes the saying. This instinct of acquisition in children may be redirected to their healthy channel. Collection of rare materials that have their educational, historical, cultural, and scientific value may be encouraged to children I school. Moreover, it may urge them to develop their interest in a special line in the future.


The instinct of gregariousness may lead to develop the social senses and promote group feeling and group unity. But, the gregarious sense is not identical to social sense. Gregariousness is the animal instinct that may be trained to promote social senses in man. Man is a social animal. So, group participation and group play on children may make their gregarious instinct more social, organized, and democratic.


It is the tendency to assert one’s own superiority over the others. It may develop positive self-feeling that may act as an inspiring source for future achievement. Further, it may develop self-confidence in mind to further success and achievement in life. A competitive spirit for self-assertion in children may be developed through curricular and co-curricular activities and programs provided in school.


The instinct to combat is the tendency to fight with others. When one acquires more physical or mental strength, he naturally has the tendency to fight with others. Its emotional experience at the moment is that of anger. Children usually exhibit this tendency to fight physically. It may be redirected to socially acceptable by training in boxing, wrestling, judo, and the like.

Mating or Sex

The instinct of sex in the wider sense is the life-giving tendency and source of energy to all forms of creativity. In its narrow sense, it is the pleasurable physical excitement experienced in the presence of a suitable member of the opposite sex. It takes a different form of experience in different stages of a man’s life. In early infancy, it appears as self-love, whereas in childhood, it appears as homo-sexuality and in adolescence, it takes the form of hetero-sexuality. The creative development of man rests in the sublimation of this instinct of sex.


It is a healthy instinctive tendency that gives amusement. According to M.C Dougall, laughter is the peculiar tendency experienced only by human species. It helps to normalize the unpleasant tendency of anger and other painful situation. One may derive amusement through play and keep the mind healthy. Thus, laughter and amusement are motivating factors of a child’s learning and doing.


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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