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Instinct (German also natural instinct ) generally describes an innate inner basis (the "drive") of an observer perceivable behavior of animals.

In the narrower sense, instinct is a historical technical term of classical comparative behavioral research (ethology), which describes a behavior that can be induced by key stimuli via an innate trigger mechanism (AAM) and that is in an orderly sequence of constantly uniform instinctual movements (meaning: in " inherited behavior "or" inherited coordination "). The investigation of instincts and the development of an instinct theory saw that from the 1930s on from animal psychologyemerged, classical ethology as one of its key research objectives, while the proponents of behaviorism rejected the search for internal causes in principle for behavior.

Some authors refer to the phenomenon of a spontaneous - without external influence - increasing willingness to act as an essential element of an instinct, which results in a proximity to the drive theory of various psychological schools.

The term instinct , however, was never clearly defined in behavioral research or in psychology , but was used differently by different authors. As early as 1985, the Herder Lexicon of Biology said that instinct had been "an always controversial term", "in scientific terminology the word instinct should be avoided."

Word origin

The term instinct goes back to the Latin word instinctus , which means something like "incentive, drive, inspiration". It was derived from the term instinctae naturae (literally: natural instinct ) in the 18th century .

Today, the term is also used colloquially in a figurative sense for “a secure feeling for something” and describes human behavior that takes place without reflected control. The adjective instinctively means "guided by instinct, instinctively, emotionally". It was copied from the French word instinctif in the 19th century .

Definitions of "instinct"

Since the Middle Ages , the terms instinct , drive , impulse and others have been used, but not defined more precisely. Instincts were initially regarded as a divine gift, the precise analysis of which the human mind is denied, whereby the thought processes of philosophers of ancient Greece were also taken up. It was only in the 19th century, after advances in anatomy and neurology , that a more pragmatic approach to the phenomenon of innate behavior became possible. This is how William James wrote about animals in 1887:

“Most of all, God's charity provides them with a nervous system; if one pays attention to this, then the instincts suddenly appear neither more wonderful nor less wonderful than all other facts in life. "

Hermann Samuel Reimarus

In 1760, Hermann Samuel Reimarus gave the animals General Considerations on the Drives of Animals, mainly on their artistic drives. To the knowledge of the connection of the world, the Creator and ourselves instead of “instincts” - but with the same meaning - the following “drives” are ascribed: “mechanical drives of animals”, which are dependent on the structure of their bodies; “Imagination instincts”, shaped by habits, likes and dislikes; "Voluntary instincts" that served self-preservation; and finally “artistic instincts” which “served to preserve every animal and its species”.

Ernst Heinrich Weber

Occasionally, the term instinct was also applied to mental, unconscious processes in humans, for example in 1846 by the physiologist and anatomist Ernst Heinrich Weber :

“If one wants to grasp the concept of instinct in a more general way than it usually happens when one wants to call instinct the unknown cause of every innate, purposeful activity to which the soul does not determine itself, this activity may refer to the formation of In relation to ideas or the production of movements, one can also call that soul disposition an intellectual instinct. "

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin understood instinctual behavior on the one hand to be behaviors that can be mastered completely without experience when they are first performed, and on the other hand also those that have been acquired through experience. In his work The Expression of Emotional Movements in Humans and Animals , Darwin describes in 1872, for example, that by straightening up their hair, animals “look larger and more terrible to their enemies” while assuming a threatening position and “that such positions and sounds after a Time became instinctive through habit ”.

Douglas Alexander Spalding

Douglas Spalding , who already in 1873 the 60-years later, Konrad Lorenz popularized phenomenon of imprinting had investigated in 1872 described the instinct as "Inherited Association" ( inherited association ) that "the product of the accumulated experience of previous generations," Let ( the product of the accumulated experiences of past generations ).

William James

In 1872, the American psychologist and philosopher William James wrote a formulation that is still helpful today, according to which instinct is the ability to

“To behave in such a way that certain goals are achieved without foresighting those goals and without prior education or experience”.

George Romanes

In 1885, the British evolutionary biologist George Romanes , in his book The Spiritual Development in the Animal Kingdom, distinguished instinct from reflexes , with the emphasis on the difference between sensation and perception :

“Instinct is reflex activity into which an element of consciousness is carried. The expression [meaning: instinct] is therefore related to the species in so far as it includes all mental faculties which were involved in a conscious and adaptive action preceding the individual experience, without necessary knowledge of the relationships between the means employed and the end achieved, but similarly carried out under similar and frequently recurring circumstances in all individuals of the same kind. From this definition of instinct it follows that a stimulus which evokes reflex activity does not go beyond a sensation; on the other hand, a stimulus which results in an instinctive activity causes a perception. "

George Romanes distinguished between sensation and perception in that the sensations are classified by consciousness and thus refined into perception: Perception is "sensation plus the spiritual inconsistency of interpretation."

Heinrich Ernst Ziegler

The German zoologist Heinrich Ernst Ziegler (1858–1925) supported the reflex chain theory in 1904 and wrote that “reflexes and instincts are based on inherited (cleronomic) pathways of the nervous system” and that instincts were formed from reflexes “through major complications”.

William McDougall

William McDougall defined instinct in 1908 as "an inherited or innate psychophysical disposition" and assigned it to three sub-processes:

  • a cognitive sub-process: instinct determines how objects of a certain class are perceived through the senses and what attention is paid to them.
  • an affective sub-process: In the case of the perception of such an object, instinct determines which emotional excitement of a very specific quality is experienced.
  • a motivational sub-process: the instinct determines in which very specific way one acts in relation to the object or at least the impulse for such an act is experienced.

McDougall also assigned a corresponding emotion to each instinct (e.g. flight instinct ↔ fear)

Until the 1930s, the vitalists kept the instincts of scientific research neither accessible nor needy; “We look at instinct, but we don't explain it,” wrote Johan Bierens de Haan in 1940.

Konrad Lorenz

Konrad Lorenz wrote in 1950: “As an instinct we call a spontaneously active system of behavior that is functionally sufficiently uniform to deserve a name.” The instincts were thus based on physiological processes, ultimately hypothetically on the interconnections of nerve cells in the Brains, and they were therefore made accessible to a scientific - experimental - investigation.

Nikolaas Tinbergen

In 1951, Nikolaas Tinbergen defined instinct as a hierarchically organized mechanism in the nervous system that responds to certain internal and external, warning, triggering and directing impulses and answers them with coordinated movements that preserve life and species : a complex system of key stimuli , resulting internal changes of state (cf. innate trigger mechanism ) and subsequent instinctual movements.

Application of the concept of instinct to man

In 1926, the American sociologist and social psychologist Luther Lee Bernard compiled a catalog of the instincts found in literature and found 5684 different instincts.

In 1954, the Canadian social psychologist Otto Klineberg named three criteria that must be met in order to be able to speak of instinct in humans:

  1. Phylogenetic continuity: Behavior must be observed in different species , especially great apes .
  2. Biochemical and physiological basics: The behavior must show a predisposition in the human organism, i.e. it must be anchored there.
  3. Universality of behavior: The behavior must be found in all societies and cultures.

In the specialist literature today, the term instinct is used cautiously in relation to humans and replaced, for example, with innate behavior . There are three main reasons for this:

  • On the one hand, recent results of socialization research and behavioral biology have partially refuted the "naturalness" of behavior.
  • On the other hand, behaviors are only referred to as “drive” or “instinct” without this explaining the behavior; rather, the explanation to be found is merely shifted from observable behavior to the concept of instinct. Example: someone escapes after an accident - one obeys the 'flight instinct'; or you help - you obey the 'helper instinct'. In terms of the theory of science , one speaks here of a duplication of problems: It is no longer just the behavior that has to be explained, but also the hypothetical cause of the behavior, called instinct.
  • In addition, the hypothetical phenomenon of instinct can hardly be refuted as an explanatory variable. The impossibility of falsification , however, means that the informational content of the 'explanation' is minimal.

As early as 1940, the German philosopher and sociologist Arnold Gehlen (1904–1976) postulated a hereditary “instinct reduction” in humans, whom he generally saw as “ deficient beings ”.

See also

Web links

Wiktionary: instinct  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
  • The instinct. A posthumous essay by Charles Darwin. In: Georges Romanes : The spiritual development in the animal kingdom. Darwinist Writings, Second Volume, Volume V, Appendix. Ernst Günthers Verlag, Leipzig 1887 ( full text at ).

Individual evidence

  1. Duden: Naturtrieb , accessed on August 9, 2016 .
  2. Eduard Teller: Guide through the three realms of nature for teachers and students. Otto Spamer, Leipzig 1875, p. 384 f. ("All animals have an instinct (natural instinct), i.e. an innate drive to do what is necessary for their maintenance and reproduction. [...]").
  3. a b Lexicon of Biology. Volume 4. Herder Verlag, Freiburg im Breisgau 1985, p. 373, ISBN 3-451-19644-1 .
  4. “God's beneficence endows them, first of all, with a nervous system; and, turning our attention to this, makes instinct immediately appear neither more nor less wonderful than all the other facts of life. " William James: What is an Instinct? Scribner's Magazine, Volume 1, 1887, p. 356 ( full text, English ).
  5. Quoted from: Ilse Jahn (Ed.): History of Biology. 3. Edition. Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, 2000, p. 252.
  6. Ernst Heinrich Weber : The sense of touch and the community feeling. In: Wagner: Concise Dictionary of Physiology, Volume 3.3. Vieweg, Braunschweig 1846, p. 481 ff., Here p. 487 (digital copies: Google Books , Echo ).
  7. Charles Darwin: The Expression of Emotional Movements in Man and Animals. Eichborn, Frankfurt am Main 2000 (critical edition), p. 117; Originally: "such attitudes and utterances after a time becoming through habit instinctive." Charles Darwin: The expression of the emotions in man and animals. 1st edition. John Murray, London 1872, p. 103 f. ( online ).
  8. Paul Lange: The teaching of the instincts in Lotze and Darwin . 1896 ( digitized ).
  9. Douglas Alexander Spalding : On instinct. In: Nature . Volume 6, No. 154, 1872, pp. 485-486, doi: 10.1038 / 006485a0 .
  10. Quoted from: Lexikon der Biologie , Volume 4, Freiburg 1985, p. 373.
  11. George Romanes : The spiritual development in the animal kingdom. Darwinist Writings, Second Series, Volume V. Ernst Günthers Verlag, Leipzig 1887, p. 169, full text at .
  12. George Romanes: The spiritual development in the animal kingdom, p. 132.
  13. Heinrich Ernst Ziegler: The concept of instinct then and now. A study of the history and foundations of animal psychology. Jena 1904; here quoted from: Ilse Jahn (Hrsg.): Geschichte der Biologie. 3. Edition. Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, 2000, p. 587.
  14. ^ William McDougall: An Introduction to Social Psychology. 14th edition. Batoche Books, Kitchener (Ontario) 2001, p. 33 ( full text, PDF ).
  15. Quoted from: Konrad Lorenz : Comparative Behavioral Research. Basics of ethology. Springer-Verlag, Vienna and New York 1978, ISBN 978-3-7091-3098-8 , p. 2.
  16. Konrad Lorenz: Comparative behavior research. Basics of Ethology, p. 175.
  17. Nikolaas Tinbergen: The Study of Instinct. Oxford University Press, New York 1951.
  18. LL Bernard: Instinct. A study in social psychology. Henry Holt, New York 1926.
  19. ^ Otto Klineberg: Social Psychology. New York 1954, p. 69.
  20. Helmut E. Lück: Introduction to the Psychology of Social Processes. Course unit 1-4. Fernuniversität, Hagen 2000 (= course 03251).
  21. ^ Arnold Gehlen: Man. His nature and his position in the world. 16th edition, Wiebelsheim 2014, p. 26, ISBN 978-3-89104-781-1 (first edition 1940).