Innate Releasing Mechanisms

Have you ever seen a dog and a cat in a standoff in the middle of the street? The dog was probably staring at the cat, and the moment the cat ran away, the dog started chasing it. This is an example of an innate releasing mechanism in ethology, specifically in dogs. The cat running away triggered an innate releasing mechanism that responded to that specific stimulus and caused the dog to chase the cat - the fixed action pattern.

Innate Releasing Mechanisms Innate Releasing Mechanisms

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Table of contents
    • We are going to explore innate releasing mechanisms in ethology, proposed as an explanation of aggression.
    • First, we will define innate releasing mechanisms and highlight the difference between fixed action patterns and innate releasing mechanisms.
    • Then, we will provide various examples of innate releasing mechanisms, discussing how innate releasing mechanisms are debated in psychology.
    • Finally, we will evaluate the problems with innate releasing mechanisms.

    Innate Releasing Mechanisms Definition

    Innate releasing mechanisms (IRMs) are a neural network in the brain that responds to a specific stimulus and triggers a particular response. The response is a fixed action pattern (FAP), a sequence of actions that cannot be interrupted and must be completed even if the stimulus is no longer present.

    The Difference Between Fixed Action Patterns and Innate Releasing Mechanisms

    IRMs and subsequent FAPs are an outlet for pent-up aggression, according to Konrad Lorenz, later expanded upon by Nick Tinbergen.

    An IRM indicates a direct link between a scenario or situation and behavioural responses. Think of the IRM as the thing that needs to be activated to trigger a FAP. It takes a specific stimulus to activate the IRM, which triggers the FAP.

    Innate Releasing Mechanisms, Snarling Dog, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Dogs display aggressive behaviours, but are they innate?

    As we mentioned earlier, an innate releasing mechanism is the existing neural network in the brain that is hardwired to the species. It is what recognises the stimulus that occurs to trigger a pattern of behaviour in response. The behaviour pattern triggered is called a fixed action pattern. Fixed action patterns arise because of the innate triggering mechanism that initiates them.

    Think of it as a domino effect. The stimulus occurs (e.g., a cat running away), and the innate trigger mechanism is ready to respond and trigger the fixed action pattern (the action of the dog chasing the cat).

    Innate Releasing Mechanisms in Ethology

    Konrad Lorenz was the first to coin the term fixed action patterns, and his research has been extended several times, most notably by Niko Tinbergen, who coined the term innate releasing mechanisms.

    Both suggested that release could also be interpreted as the lifting of inhibitions.

    Hence the idea that something blocks pent-up aggression.

    The aggression is stored, and then certain stimuli remove the inhibitions to release it, which can be seen in the hydraulic model of instinctive behaviour. This is not always the case, because not all innate releasing mechanisms involve aggression. As mentioned earlier, behaviours are innate and instinctive.

    The animal knows these behaviours and has not learned them from another member of its species.

    Greylag Goose Egg-retrieval

    In this study, Lorenz and Tinbergen examined the behaviour of geese when an egg was displaced from the nest. They found that after the goose leaves the nest, it performs a series of movements to bring the egg back:

    1. The goose notices the egg first, and this is the signal stimulus.
    2. Then the goose stretches her neck over the egg so that the egg comes under her beak.
    3. With the underside of its beak, the goose rolls the egg back into its nest.

    An important note about this process is that if you moved the egg while the goose was rolling it back into its nest, the goose would continue the process until the end. It did not matter that the egg was no longer there, and here we can confidently say that it was a fixed pattern of action. The behaviour had to be completed even if the egg was moved.

    Innate Releasing Mechanisms, Greylag goose egg retrieval behaviour illustration, StudySmarterFig, 2 - Egg retrieval behaviour can be found in greylag geese¹.

    The sight of the egg outside the nest is the specific stimulus required to trigger this sequence of behaviours, and scientists were able to manipulate this further by testing what about the egg did this.

    They found that the goose responded to an object that resembled an egg in shape, size and weight in the same way it responded to an egg. This led to the term ‘sign stimulus’, also known as the release, because when the object was similar to the egg and taken away, the goose exhibited the FAP behaviour in response.

    The sign stimulus or releaser triggers the IRM to begin the FAP. Remember, the difference between an innate releasing mechanism and fixed action patterns is that the innate releasing mechanism is the neural network behind the fixed action pattern and serves as the trigger to begin the fixed action pattern.

    However, the word ‘innate’ is controversial.

    What do we mean by the Word ‘Innate’? How Does This Work in Humans?

    It is something that has been controversial in the course of research on this topic. After studying birds and fish to understand fixed patterns of action and innate triggering mechanisms, transferring this research to other animals, especially humans, has caused some problems.

    Innate, according to ethology, is an instinctive behaviour present at birth. They are not learned.

    Most importantly, it has been difficult to determine whether a behaviour is innate or learned. To say that a behaviour is innate, it must be observed in animals that have not yet had the opportunity to learn it, usually young animals.

    Innate Learning Mechanisms, Tiger and a Tiger cub walking in the snow, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Can we truly say behaviours are innate or learned?

    Orthoptera, a species of insect that communicates using sounds, is a clear example of a hardwired neural network that is innate. They use a method known as stridulation, in which they rub one area of their body against another to produce a sound.

    A male of the species usually produced this sound, and a female recognises it to initiate mating rituals. It has evolved over time and through evolutionary adaptations. If you hear insects’ singing’ at night, they belong to the order Orthoptera.

    In humans, however, it is much more difficult to establish an IRM and subsequent FAP because culture and social norms govern the behaviour of many people. Where a social situation triggers a smile in one group of people, it triggers nothing at all in another. Some even feel it is impolite to smile in certain situations.

    Examples of the Innate Releasing Mechanism

    Here is an example of an IRM concerning male sticklebacks.

    When a male stickleback (a fish) sees the red underbelly of another stickleback, this is a signal stimulus that triggers an innate releasing mechanism to begin a fixed pattern of action. The male stickleback then performs a series of actions in response, usually aggressive, to warn off other males and to increase the chances of mating.

    Problems with Innate Releasing Mechanisms

    There are some problems with the theory of innate releasing mechanisms and the following fixed action patterns that occur.

    • Reductionist: innate releasing mechanisms reduce complex behaviours to a simple, biological factor.

    • Measuring intention: it is difficult to measure intention in animals and humans accurately. We cannot say with certainty that IRM and FAP are due to an animal’s aggressive nature because they cannot tell us their intention.

    • Not applicable to humans: the research conducted on animals is not generalisable to human behaviour, and so far, studies have found it difficult to establish exames of IRMs and FAPs in humans.

    Humans have a complex system that determines their behaviour, namely free will. While certainly innate in some species, aggression is not so uncontrolled in humans. We have a choice to act out our anger, and most situations and stimuli do not result in instinctive behaviour in humans that must be carried out.

    Innate Releasing Mechanisms - Key takeaways

    • Innate releasing mechanisms (IRMs) are neural network in the brain that responds to a specific stimulus to elicit a specific response.
    • This response is a fixed action pattern (FAP), a sequence of actions that cannot be interrupted and must be completed even if the stimulus is no longer present.
    • Konrad Lorenz introduced the idea of fixed action patterns, and Niko Tinbergen later expanded it to introduce the notion of innate releasing mechanisms, which are responsible for fixed action patterns.
    • The egg-hunting behaviour of greylag geese is an example of innate releasing mechanisms triggering a fixed pattern of egg-hunting action as soon as they notice the shift. Male sticklebacks also display IRMs and FAPs in response to seeing the red underbelly of another fish or fish-shaped object.
    • The assumption that these behaviours are innate has been questioned since we cannot tell for sure whether a behaviour is genuinely innate or learned for most species.


    1. Fig. 2 - Greylag goose egg retrieval illustration by Profprestos, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Innate Releasing Mechanisms

    What are innate releasing mechanisms in psychology?

    Innate releasing mechanisms (IRM) are neural networks in the brain that reacts to a specific stimulus to elicit a specific response. They are a common term in ethology.

    Who first proposed the term innate releasing mechanism?

    Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz first proposed the innate releasing mechanisms. Lorenz introduced the term fixed action patterns, and Tinbergen expanded on this to include innate releasing mechanisms.

    What are the types of innate behaviour?

    Some innate behaviours are male stickleback responses to the red underbelly of other sticklebacks, the egg-retrieval behaviour of greylag geese, and the knee-jerk responses in humans (although reflexes are not innate releasing mechanisms or fixed action patterns, despite the similarities). 

    What are the advantages of innate behaviour?

    Advantages of innate behaviours include more successful chances of securing territory, mates, and food in animals without unnecessarily excessive cognitive energy. It is beneficial for a greylag goose to retrieve her egg as it increases the chances of their young hatching in the first place. 

    What is an example of an innate explanation for aggression?

    Innate explanations are instinctive explanations for aggression, suggesting certain behaviours are present within the animal from birth. This can include the aggressive displays in male sticklebacks in response to seeing other male sticklebacks (red underbellies). Similarly, a dog snarling at a threat and raising its lips to show teeth. 

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