The article was last updated by Gabriel Silva on February 5, 2024.

Have you ever observed animals seemingly acting on impulse, despite being trained to behave differently? This phenomenon, known as instinctive drift, has puzzled researchers and animal trainers for decades. In this article, we will delve into the history of instinctive drift, explore the theories behind this behavior, examine real-life examples, discuss its impact on animal training techniques, and learn how to prevent it. Join us as we unravel the concept of instinctive drift in psychology.

Key Takeaways:

  • Instinctive drift is a phenomenon where learned behavior is replaced by instinctual behavior in animals, even when there are rewards for the learned behavior.
  • Early studies on instinctive drift were conducted on animals such as raccoons, chimpanzees, and pigs, providing evidence for the existence of this phenomenon.
  • Understanding instinctive drift can help animal trainers and behaviorists choose effective training techniques and prevent unwanted behaviors in animals.
  • What Is Instinctive Drift?

    Instinctive drift refers to a phenomenon observed in animals during training, where their innate behaviors and instincts override conditioned responses, leading to a deviation from the intended behavior.

    This phenomenon was first described by psychologist Keller Breland and Marian Breland in the 1960s, who worked alongside B.F. Skinner, a prominent figure in behaviorism. From the perspective of Skinner, the conflict between learned behaviors and innate instincts can create challenges during operant conditioning sessions.

    In training scenarios, such as teaching an animal a trick or task, the animal’s natural tendencies might surface, disrupting the learned behavior.

    Reinforcement and punishment play crucial roles in managing instinctive drift. Positive reinforcement can help strengthen desired behaviors, whereas punishment may inadvertently trigger instinctual responses. Understanding this delicate balance is essential for trainers to navigate through this complexity effectively.

    The History of Instinctive Drift

    The history of instinctive drift traces back to the early studies in operant conditioning and conditioning theories, shedding light on the evolutionary underpinnings of behavior observed by pioneers like B.F. Skinner and Keller and Marian Breland.

    Instinctive drift, a phenomenon that fascinated psychologists and behaviorists for decades, delves into the intricate interplay between learned behaviors and innate instincts.

    Initially explored in the context of animal training and behavior modification, this concept opened new avenues in understanding the complexities of animal behavior.

    Pioneers in the field, such as Skinner, delved into the mechanisms underlying this intriguing phenomenon, highlighting how genetic predispositions and species-specific traits influence behavioral responses.

    Early Studies on Instinctive Drift

    Early studies on instinctive drift delved into the nature versus nurture debate, exploring how life experiences, stimuli, and consequences shape animal behavior and influence the emergence of automated responses.

    Researchers observed that while genetics lay the foundation for innate behaviors, environmental factors played a crucial role in refining and shaping these tendencies over time. Through experimentation and observation, scientists noted the interplay between innate instincts and learned behaviors, highlighting the complexity of animal behavior. The findings underscored how conditioning could lead to the development of habitual actions in response to specific stimuli or cues, shedding light on the intricate mechanisms governing behavioral patterns.

    The Role of B.F. Skinner

    B.F. Skinner’s work revolutionized the field of operant conditioning, introducing innovative training regimens that addressed maladaptive traits and fostered the development of adaptive behaviors in animals.

    Skinner’s comprehensive approach to behaviorism redefined the principles of reinforcement and punishment within the realm of animal training. Through his meticulous research and experimentation, he demonstrated that consistent reinforcement of desired behaviors and judicious use of punishments could effectively shape an animal’s behavior. His emphasis on positive reinforcement as a means to strengthen desired behaviors, coupled with the strategic application of punishments to deter unwanted actions, laid the foundation for modern techniques in animal training and behavior modification.

    Theories of Instinctive Drift

    Theories of instinctive drift encompass the interplay between innate instincts and acquired behaviors, examining how stimuli can trigger automated responses that override natural behavioral patterns in animals.

    One theory that contributes to our understanding of instinctive drift is the concept of biological preparedness. This theory suggests that animals have an innate predisposition to learn certain behaviors over others based on their evolutionary history and survival needs.

    The cognitive perspective emphasizes the role of mental processes in shaping behavior. It posits that animals create mental representations of their environment, which influence their responses to external stimuli and the development of learned behaviors.

    Another crucial aspect to consider is the influence of social learning on animal behavior. Through observation and imitation, animals can acquire new behaviors that may conflict with their instinctual responses, leading to the manifestation of instinctive drift.

    Classical Conditioning Theory

    Classical conditioning theory postulates the influence of innate behaviors, stimuli, and reinforcement mechanisms such as positive and negative reinforcement in shaping animal responses and behavioral outcomes.

    In the context of classical conditioning, the concept of instinctive drift plays a crucial role. Instinctive drift refers to the tendency of animals to return to their innate behaviors despite the presence of conditioning. This phenomenon showcases the powerful impact of genetics and natural instincts on behavioral responses. Stimuli act as triggers for certain responses in animals, reinforcing the association between the stimulus and the behavior. Through the process of classical conditioning, animals learn to associate neutral stimuli with specific responses.

    Operant Conditioning Theory

    Operant conditioning theory emphasizes the importance of consequences in training animals, focusing on the reinforcement and punishment mechanisms that shape learned behaviors based on operant contingencies.

    In animal training, the concept of operant conditioning plays a crucial role in understanding how behaviors are acquired and maintained. The theory suggests that behaviors are influenced by their consequences, where desirable outcomes increase the likelihood of a behavior recurring (reinforcement), while unfavorable outcomes decrease the likelihood (punishment). This process of associating actions with specific consequences forms the basis of operant contingencies. Instinctive drift can occur when an animal’s innate behavior patterns interfere with the learned behaviors, highlighting the complex nature of behavioral conditioning.

    Biological Theory

    Biological theory delves into the genetic basis of behaviors, examining how DNA, traits, and evolutionary mechanisms such as natural selection contribute to the development and expression of specific behavioral patterns in different species.

    It is fascinating to consider how DNA, the blueprint of life, plays a pivotal role in determining not just physical characteristics but also intricate behavioral tendencies. Through the intricate dance of genetic inheritance and environmental influences, species exhibit a remarkable array of behaviors that have been sculpted over millennia of evolution. Instinctive drift, a concept within biological psychology, denotes how genetically encoded behaviors can sometimes override trained behaviors, hinting at the deep-seated nature of certain instincts.

    Examples of Instinctive Drift

    Instances of instinctive drift have been observed in various animal species, including raccoons, pigeons, chickens, and pigs, showcasing the phenomenon’s impact on different behavioral contexts.

    Raccoons, known for their dexterous paws and sharp minds, have shown examples of instinctive drift in controlled experiments. Despite being trained to push levers for rewards, they sometimes revert to their innate foraging behavior by washing the food in water before consuming it, a characteristic behavior ingrained in their wild scavenging nature.

    Similarly, pigeons, although conditioned to peck a button for food, may exhibit instinctive drift by engaging in natural courtship rituals like bobbing their heads or cooing, forsaking the trained response in favor of their inherent mating behaviors.

    Chickens, domesticated for centuries, may showcase instinctive drift by displaying aggressive pecking behaviors rather than engaging in the desired operant conditioning tasks, reflecting their instinctual pecking order dynamics.

    Pigs, highly intelligent animals, have been observed to manifest instinctive drift by rooting in the ground for food even when trained to perform specific tasks, highlighting their natural inclination towards rooting behavior ingrained in their genetic makeup.

    Raccoons and Coins

    Raccoons and coins offer a compelling example of instinctive drift, where the evolutionary predispositions of raccoons can lead to the manifestation of maladaptive traits despite reinforcement attempts.

    This phenomenon sheds light on the intricate interplay between innate behaviors inherited through generations of evolution and the impact of environmental stimuli on an organism’s behavior. Evolution has endowed raccoons with certain adaptive tendencies, such as their remarkable dexterity, curiosity, and problem-solving skills.

    When faced with novel challenges like coins, their instinctual responses may override trained behaviors, leading to behaviors that seem irrational from a human perspective.

    Chimpanzees and Tokens

    Chimpanzees and tokens provide insights into instinctive drift within primate species, showcasing how positive reinforcement strategies can clash with inherent natural behaviors in training scenarios.

    Through this fascinating case study, we can observe how chimpanzees, with their complex social structure and cognitive abilities, react to the introduction of tokens as a form of positive reinforcement. These primates, known for their curiosity and problem-solving skills, interact with tokens in ways that reflect their species-specific behaviors. For instance, they may exhibit tendencies towards social learning, where observing their peers engaging with tokens influences their own behavior.

    Despite the effectiveness of positive reinforcement in training tasks, conflicts can arise due to the clash between the intrinsic behaviors of chimpanzees and the conditioned responses desired by trainers. This creates a compelling dynamic, highlighting the delicate balance between leveraging instinctual tendencies and reshaping behaviors through reinforcement. Understanding these nuances is crucial for successful animal training and behavior modification programs, as it sheds light on the complexities of conditioning in the primate world.

    Pigs and Targets

    Pigs and targets exemplify the interplay between adaptive traits and instinctive drift, illustrating how negative reinforcement techniques can enhance training regimens while addressing instinctual behaviors in pigs.

    When considering the concept of adaptive traits in pigs, it is crucial to understand how these characteristics can be utilized in training methodologies. Pigs possess innate behaviors that can sometimes conflict with the desired training outcomes, causing what is known as instinctive drift. By incorporating techniques such as negative reinforcement, trainers can guide pigs towards more adaptive behaviors while minimizing the impact of instinctual behavior patterns.

    Structured training regimens provide a framework for cultivating adaptive traits in pigs while effectively reducing the negative effects of instinctive drift. Through consistent reinforcement of desired behaviors and the gradual shaping of responses, trainers can shape the pig’s behavior towards the target outcomes.

    The Impact of Instinctive Drift on Animal Training

    Instinctive drift significantly influences animal training outcomes by shaping responses to desirable and undesirable stimuli, necessitating the strategic application of reinforcement techniques such as positive and negative reinforcement, as well as punishment methods.

    Positive reinforcement involves rewarding desired behaviors, encouraging animals to repeat them, while negative reinforcement removes aversive stimuli to reinforce the behavior. Similarly, positive punishment introduces an unpleasant consequence to deter unwanted behavior, whereas negative punishment involves removing a desired stimulus to decrease undesirable actions.

    Managing these responses during training requires careful observation and adaptation to circumvent the interference of instinctive drift, which may instinctually prompt organisms towards predefined actions, potentially diverging from the desired training objectives.

    Positive Reinforcement Techniques

    Positive reinforcement techniques leverage evolutionary contingencies to reinforce desired behaviors in animals, capitalizing on species-specific behaviors to enhance training outcomes effectively.

    This approach aligns with the principles of operant conditioning theory, where the concept of reinforcement plays a crucial role in shaping behavior. By rewarding animals with treats, praise, or other positive stimuli immediately after they exhibit the desired behavior, trainers can strengthen the connection between the behavior and the positive outcome.

    The use of positive reinforcement fosters a more cooperative and harmonious relationship between the trainer and the animal, creating a nurturing environment that promotes learning and engagement.

    Negative Reinforcement Techniques

    Negative reinforcement techniques address instinctual drift by encouraging avoidance behaviors through the removal of aversive stimuli, thereby refining training regimens to mitigate the impact of innate instincts on behavior shaping.

    Instinctual drift poses a challenge in animal training as it reflects the unwanted influence of natural inclinations on learned behavior. By utilizing negative reinforcement methods, trainers can effectively guide animals towards developing avoidance responses towards undesirable behaviors.

    • One of the key benefits of negative reinforcement techniques is their ability to remove aversive stimuli promptly, teaching animals to actively avoid behaviors that lead to discomfort or displeasure.
    • These methods help create a structured training environment focused on rewarding the absence of undesired actions, facilitating the acquisition of new, desired behaviors.
    • Through the strategic application of negative reinforcement, trainers can steer animals away from instinct-driven responses and steer them towards more desirable, learned behaviors.

    How to Prevent Instinctive Drift

    Preventing instinctive drift necessitates a comprehensive understanding of automated behaviors, effective training regimens, and conditioning processes that target specific stimuli and responses to minimize deviations from desired behaviors.

    Identifying and addressing automated behaviors is crucial in preventing instinctive drift. Automated behaviors refer to actions that animals perform without conscious thought, often influenced by their instincts or prior learning. By recognizing these behaviors, trainers can develop tailored training regimens that challenge and engage the animal’s cognitive processes, preventing the stagnation or regression seen in instinctive drift. The careful utilization of conditioning processes, such as positive reinforcement and shaping, can solidify desired behaviors and reduce the risk of instinctual drift occurring.

    The Relevance of Instinctive Drift in Modern Psychology

    Instinctive drift remains a pertinent topic in modern psychology due to its insights into how life experiences, animal behavior, behavioral patterns, and performance are influenced by responses to desirable and undesirable stimuli.

    Understanding instinctive drift sheds light on the intricate connections between environmental cues, learned behaviors, and instinctual responses. While desirable stimuli often trigger expected behaviors, undesirable stimuli may lead to a phenomenon known as instinctive drift, where innate responses override trained behaviors. This phenomenon underscores the complexity of behavioral conditioning and the enduring influence of natural instincts.


    Instinctive drift serves as a compelling intersection of operant contingencies and evolutionary influences, highlighting the delicate balance between maladaptive and adaptive traits in behavioral evolution, a concept central to the works of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.

    Operant contingencies play a crucial role in shaping behavior by reinforcing or suppressing certain responses based on their consequences. This interaction with the environment guides the development of behaviors over time, influencing the expression of innate tendencies. The interplay between maladaptive traits, which may hinder an organism’s survival or reproductive success, and adaptive traits, which enhance these chances, underscores the dynamic nature of natural selection.

    Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace proposed evolutionary theories that emphasized the significance of adaptation and variation in species survival. Darwin’s concept of natural selection, whereby advantageous traits are passed on to offspring, aligns closely with the idea of adaptive traits in behavioral evolution. Wallace’s contributions, particularly his focus on geographic isolation and divergent evolution, further enrich our understanding of how behaviors can either aid or hinder an organism’s evolutionary fitness.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    What is instinctive drift in psychology?

    Instinctive drift in psychology refers to the tendency for trained behaviors to be replaced or disrupted by innate, instinctual behaviors. It is a phenomenon that occurs in both animals and humans.

    How is instinctive drift related to operant conditioning?

    Instinctive drift is related to operant conditioning because it can interfere with the learned behaviors that were reinforced through this type of conditioning. This can happen when the innate behaviors are more rewarding or satisfying than the learned behaviors.

    What are some examples of instinctive drift?

    One example of instinctive drift is seen in raccoons who were trained to drop coins into a piggy bank. Instead of performing the trained behavior, the raccoons would revert to their natural behavior of rubbing and washing the coins. Another example is seen in dogs who were trained to play a musical instrument, but would eventually start biting and chewing on the instrument.

    Why is instinctive drift important to study in psychology?

    Studying instinctive drift can help us understand the limitations and boundaries of operant conditioning. It also highlights the influence of innate behaviors and instincts on learned behaviors.

    Is instinctive drift a permanent behavior change?

    No, instinctive drift is not a permanent behavior change. It can be influenced by various factors, such as the environment and reinforcement, and can also be overcome through additional training.

    How can we prevent instinctive drift from disrupting learned behaviors?

    One way to prevent instinctive drift is to carefully choose the behaviors that are being reinforced during training. It is also important to understand the innate behaviors of the subject and how they may interfere with the desired behaviors. Additionally, providing consistent reinforcement can help maintain the learned behaviors.

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