What Is the Difference Between Instinct and Learned Behavior?

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Instinct, or innate behavior, is an action that is impulsive or immediate based on a particular trigger or circumstance. Learned behavior is an action that someone learns or develops over time through observation, education, training or experience. Many scientists believe that most human behaviors are a result of some level of both instinct and learned behavior.

Babies cooing, sucking and crying for food or diaper changes are examples of innate behaviors. Newborns often come out of the womb crying; therefore, this response to hunger, fear or discomfort is hard-wired. Basic bodily actions, such as chewing, swallowing or reacting to physical pain are instinctive as well. Flinching and closing the eyes are innate defensive behaviors in response to someone throwing a punch. However, professional boxers and martial artists improve their responsiveness by training to react more quickly to such physical threats.

Learned behaviors occur when someone develops new skills or improves on a skill that may already exist instinctively. Professional athletes learn to perform sports-based actions at peak levels through practice and the development of helpful physical attributes. Learned behaviors are often developed through repetition. Parents and managers try to motivate desirable behaviors by rewarding certain actions and implementing consequences for undesired actions.