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Smart Animal, Inconvenient Instincts

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For Doctor Moreau, it's easy to make men out of animals. Making gentlemen out of them is the tough part.
"She may be the smartest animal on the planet, but she's still just an animal."
Dr. Susan McCallister, Deep Blue Sea

Human beings are at the top of the food chain mainly because of their intelligencenote . So it'd surprise us all the more when the supposedly inhuman animal (who tend to be stronger, faster, etc. than humans) can think too, or even be an Uplifted Animal (or Funny Animal or Civilized Animal).

But in the end, animals still have their instincts — frequently strong enough that they're tied to it, much to their detriment.

Not to say that humans don't have instincts — the big difference of humans and animals is that the former (on average) have the thought capacity to restrain their urges, while the latter, intelligent though they might be, are still helplessly confined to their instincts. This may be Played for Laughs or Played for Drama depending on the situation.

In certain cases, humans might even exploit the smart animal's instincts to either escape from them or to redirect them to another way, either to dangerous hazards or the enemies (especially those who specifically controlled said animals). May involve Go Fetch, if All Animals Are Dogs.

Sub-Trope of Achilles' Heel. Compare Beat It by Compulsion, Emotions vs. Stoicism, Furry Reminder,note  and My Instincts Are Showing.note 

Compare also tropes where human emotions cloud their judgment: Blinded by Rage, Revenge Before Reason, Distracted by the Sexy.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Shirogane of Ayakashi Triangle is a regular cat that became a sapient ayakashi, but is easily distracted by Ritta swinging at cat tail in his face.
    Shirogane: Trying to lure me with such a cheap toy! Alas, I can't resist it! It's my nature as a cat ayakashi...
  • Carnivores and herbivores in Beastars both have troublesome instincts to deal with.
    • Herbivores have an instinctual fear of carnivores that can make interacting with them difficult.
    • Predators can lose control of themselves and involuntarily attack and eat herbivores. This can happen even to extremely gentle carnivores like Legosi. Predators who indulge in meat eating can become addicted to it similarly to a drug addiction.
    • When Legosi and Haru attempt to have sex for the first time, her instincts become confused, causing her to attempt to shove herself down Legosi's throat. This stops them from trying again for a long time.
    • The villain Melon's life is a living hell due to him having inherited a combination of instincts from being a hybrid. He has the same instinctual fear of predators, but also has urges to kill herbivores, though he lacks the urge to eat them because he has no sense of taste (and since eating meat is often compared to sex, this treated similarly to lacking sexual desire, which is also a problem he has).
  • Ein, a Welsh Corgi that was subjected to illegal scientific experimentation in Cowboy Bebop, is frequently implied to have at least human intelligence, as he is later seen to be capable of things like computer hacking or recognizing when a character is on the edge of being brainwashed by a signal transmitted through the internet and snapping them out of it. Nonetheless in Ein's first episode, the lab techs who experimented on him can still get him to respond to and blindly chase a special whistle that provokes the same reaction in just about every other animal in the vicinity.

    Comic Books 

    Fan Works 
  • Intelligence Factor: Mienshao's predatory instincts are so overwhelming that the researchers didn't realise they were sapient until they found out that they can channel these urges into martial arts.
  • A Lord of the Rings fic by A.A. Pessimal posits a rather different end to Return of the King. As the fic points out, Gandalf should really, really, have asked Radagast for advice concerning the habits of Eagles. It is asking a lot for a predator species that needs to consume its own weight in prey every day just to stay alive, to fly a long distance from the Eyrie in the Misty Mountains, fight an air war over Mordor, and then risk their lives in flying low over an exploding volcano... not to feel just a little bit peckish when they see two feebly moving prey-sized objects stranded on a rock beneath them. Well. What can you expect. The Eagles agree not tell Gandalf what happened, they can just say they were a bit late getting there and those hobbits got consumed in a pyroclastic flow, nothing left. They also agree to regurgitate the shining jewel thing and the box, we've all fed chicks, we know how to do it. and maybe we can fly over the Shire after we've digested? That way, at least some of them gets home. Mark of respect, sort of thing.
  • In The Norse Hero: Fenrir, it is routinely brought up with those with animal mutations like Izuku, Tsu and Tokoyami tend to act on instinct in certain circumstances and can sometimes be a hinderance. With Izuku's power, he is often acknowledged as the apex and not much usually comes of it until Monoma copies Izuku's quirk and uncontrollably shifts into his own Fenrir form, both Monoma and Izuku compelled by their instincts to fight for dominance.
  • This is a major and repeated plot element in the Triptych Continuum. Each sapient race has certain instinctual flaws that they can never be fully rid of: ponies must fight not to be subsumed by herd instinct, griffins must control their instinct to prey and dominate, zebras must learn to trust rather than fracturing in selfish paranoia, and so forth. Notably, the defining line between full sapients and the semi-sapient "tenant races" is not whether a race feels these instincts - all races do - but whether they can at least theoretically overcome them. Ponies and cattle both feel the herd trying to think for them when panicked, but ponies can muster the willpower to act as rational individuals rather than be part of the herd while no effort of will is enough to let cattle be more than part of the herd when panicked.

    Films — Animation 
  • In How to Train Your Dragon, it is stated that dragons are more intelligent than most animals and are completely capable of co-habitation with humans, as shown when Hiccup was able to single-handedly turn Berk from a village of dragon-killing vikings into an island where humans and dragons coexist. However, dragons are still animals and tend to behave in ways that they are not supposed to do because they are, well, animals. They tend to take food that does not belong to them, they can attack when they feel threatened and most dangerously of all, alpha dragons (the Red Death, Bewilderbeasts and eventually Toothless) are capable of mind-controlling entire colonies worth of dragons through sheer will-power. These animalistic behaviors are proven to be especially hazardous to the dragons' safety when hunters like Viggo Grimborn, Drago Bludvist and Grimmel the Grisly are able to exploit these inherent weaknesses.
  • In Zootopia, Cliffside Asylum is guarded by wolf security guards. Judy Hopps, the rabbit police officer, gets past the guards by imitating a wolf's howl, to which the guard closest to her instinctively responds. Another wolf guard tries to calm down the howling guard before he also involuntarily starts howling. With all the guards distracted by the howl, Judy manages to sneak in.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In the Alien series, one of the Xenomorphs' only consistent weaknesses is fire. While it doesn't do most creatures many favours, it's noted that the main reason a flamethrower's a good choice is that despite the monsters' terrifying intelligence, they instinctively fear fire like any other beast.
  • The sharks in Deep Blue Sea have actually had their brains genetically fiddled with to grant them higher intelligence, rendering them smart enough to recognize weapons, figure out how to swim backwards (noted in film as something sharks "can't" donote ), and most importantly, figure out that they can exploit a weakness in the nets keeping them penned in. As the last shark, implied to be the biggest and smartest, is literally gnawing a hole through said weakness, the female main character cuts her hand and jumps into the water. The shark's animal instincts for blood immediately kick in, and said shark promptly turns around and makes a beeline for the blood scent; despite all her enhanced intelligence, she seemingly can't override her innate animal instincts. The act delays the escape enough for the humans to put together the shark's demise.
  • Godzilla vs. Kong: While Godzilla is more intelligent than the average animal, he's still an animal. That wasn't really an issue until this movie when, after he's bereft of the signal a recently revived Ghidorah is emitting to chase after, his instincts cause him to attack Kong, who had recently left the now-uninhabitable Skull Island to help Monarch enter Hollow Earth so they could relocate Kong to it as his new home. As Kong is both an Alpha-level Titan and one that has yet to formally submit to Godzilla, the latter can't help but see him as a threat to his sovereignty even though Kong has shown no interest in him or in his position. This unnecessary feud has massive consequences in the last act of the movie, as the climactic fight wears out both monsters, leaving them easy pickings for a Ghidorah-infused Mechagodzilla, even when they're fighting together.
  • Jurassic Park:
    • The velociraptors in Jurassic Park (1993) are the codifier, if not the outright Trope Maker. Their level of intelligence is played up throughout the whole film, and demonstrated repeatedly. They know how to execute feinting and flanking maneuvers. They remember what segments of the electrical fence they've tested for weaknesses. They figure out how to open doors. However, in a move that saves one of the kid protagonist's lives, they can't tell the difference between a reflection and the real deal at a glance, which results in said raptor charging headlong into the side of a stove, stunning it and allowing the kids to escape.note 
    • Jurassic World continues the trend. Owen has made great strides forming a bond with velociraptors and training them to follow commands, they are still by no means tame, and are still incredibly dangerous and unpredictable predators. At best, Owen has influence, not control, over the Raptors. The villain who can't grasp this and thinks that the dinosaurs can be trained akin to attack dogs gets killed for his idiocy.
  • The Tremors series has a few.
    • The Graboids demonstrate some of this. They have an intelligence (series protagonist Burt Gummer even remarks on it in the second film) and can figure out things like tearing out supports and digging traps to deal with structures/vehicles that are too big for them to drag down to get their prey. They also, at least once, figured out that eating dynamite was a bad idea. However, they seem to have an issue 'seeing' where they're going, which leads to the very first graboid ever killed happening because it rammed itself into the side of a concrete wall. However, this really becomes demonstrated in the sequel, which introduced...
    • The Shriekers, the next life cycle of the Graboids, starting in Tremors 2: Aftershocks. At first, the smaller but still lion sized and now aboveground creatures seem much, much smarter, seemingly tearing up radio towers (to prevent communication with the outside world) and car engines (to thwart escapes). However, once one is captured and studied, it's discovered the creatures are both blind and deaf, and detect things via an organic infra-red sensor organ. The Shriekers were not attempting to cripple the human's ability to fight back, but were tearing up the engines/wires because they were giving off heat and the Shriekers try to eat anything that gives off excess heat. Despite this though, the Shriekers still have enough intelligence to try and form a tower of themselves to reach some of the humans who are staying at a high place to keep away from them. The film sums the contradiction up well.
      Grady Hoover: You mean they're so smart because they're so stupid?
  • In Underdog, the villain gets a momentary upper hand on Underdog by throwing a metal plate like a frisbee. Underdog still has canine instincts and can't suppress the urge to chase it. The inertia flings him into a statue.

  • Aliens (Steve Perry Trilogy): Zig-zagged. In Nightmare Asylum, General Spears relies on the Queen's overwhelming instinct to preserve her eggs to control her, and thereby the drones she communicates with telepathically. It seems to be going well... Spears has the Queen trained not to let her drones, or even her eggs, attack the humans around the base without Spears' permission. Unfortunately, the Queen is not only at least as smart as Spears himself, but much, much more patient. When Spears brings his Alien "army" to Earth defeat the "wild strain" Aliens infesting it, the drones ignore his orders and free their captive Queen, who promptly kills Spears and leads her drones off to found a new hive. Spears' entire plan revolved around the Queen being this trope when, in point of fact, she is not.
  • Animorphs: When morphing an animal for the first time, some care must be taken to avoid letting the animal's instincts override the morpher's thoughts, especially with small prey animals whose first instinct is to flee, predators whose first instinct is to attack (such as when the entire team morphed sharks), or in the worst case, whose Hive Mind takes over (ants and termites).
  • Beware of Chicken: Despite being sapient, the Spirit Beast disciples often have to struggle with their instincts. A particular example is Spirit Beast cat Tigu, who has to restrain her instinct to attack and eat the rat disciple Ri Zu. These troublesome instincts apparently disappear when a Spirit Beast attains humanity.
  • In Jean de La Fontaine's The Cat Changed into a Woman, a, well, cat is turned into a woman who appears human in every way, but she can't stop herself from chasing mice whenever she sees them (the aesop being that you can't change your true nature).
  • The villains/main danger in Congo are a unique breed of albino gorilla that are discovered to be watching over a lost jungle city. Said gorillasnote  were bred centuries ago by the people of said lost jungle city, and are capable of using weapons (giant stone oar-like clubs), figuring out how to disable traps (they drop a tree on a crude electric fence), and perhaps most terrifying, the fact that there are still "Congo gorillas" guarding the lost city centuries after its people disappeared note  is clearly because the gorillas taught their children the skills the humans once taught them, for who knows how many gorilla generations. However, when the main human hero falls into the midst of a pack of the deadly apes, his trained gorilla Emily comes to his rescue. She does this by grabbing the man and acting as gorillas do when treating their children, hence putting forth the image that the grown human male is her infant. The congo-apes "fall" for this and leave the pair alone, having only been trained to attack and kill humans, and seemingly unable to recognize a human if said human is removed from what little context the gorillas have.
  • Discworld
    • The Fifth Elephant: In the case of werewolves, the animal instincts can override human intelligence, as Wolfgang jumps to catch a thrown object in his mouth, not knowing it was a signal flare that then explodes. Everyone present considers it murder (including the killer), but as it was the quickest and easiest way to get rid of a dangerous lunatic the matter is dropped.
    • Witches Abroad: Magrat distracts a pair of snakes transformed into women by tossing something, knowing they'll be forced by instinct to track it.
  • The ghatti of the Ghatti's Tale series may be sentient (and telepathic to boot), but in many ways still act like non-sentient felines. They lick themselves in public, can be distracted by someone thinking about fish, mate with domestic cats,note  will kill their deformed offspring and small livestock, and of course, can't read.
  • In Gone, Lana is able to outwit the talking coyotes by exploiting their instincts, since even when the Gaiaphage has given them intelligence and speech they are still animals.
  • The novel Jurassic Park, compared to the film, has a different, and arguably even bigger example of this trope. Said book-only scene has protagonist Alan Grant stalked by three raptors (whose intelligence in the narrative is again played up, in classic Crichton style) through one of the facility's nurseries. Grant ultimately kills all three raptors by hiding, sneaking around, and with a needle and some poison, injecting eggs with said poison and leaving the eggs out in the open; the raptors find the eggs while looking for Grant, eat the "free food" and die, one after the othernote , not seemingly recognizing that their fellows ate eggs and promptly went into a foaming, seizing death.
  • The Rising of the Shield Hero: Powerful filolials are intelligent bird-like creatures that can transform into a human form, as well as talk and hold conversations. Despite this, they are still primarily driven by their immediate instincts, such as food, fight-or-flight response or choosing a mate. This applies even to the Filolial queen, who (after having been reared by a legendary hero ages ago) is still single-mindedly driven to carry out the orders he gave her, unable to even consider an alternative. When protagonist Naofumi meets said queen, he sums up his opinion of her with this trope.
    Naofumi: She was very serious and powerful, but occasionally she displayed those very Filolial-like moments of animal stupidity.
  • In Stinker From Space by Pamela F Service, the alien can transfer its body between hosts. With its current body lethally damaged from a crash, it reaches out... the nearest serviceable body with a large enough brain is a skunk. Later, when one of the soldiers from the forces the alien's people are at war with comes by looking for him, the body forces him to stop and spray. He's telepathically G-rated cussing about his body doing that when it turns out the instinct wasn't that inconvenient -the enemy soldier drops like a rock and dies.
  • In the xenofiction book Tailchaser's Song, cats have a complex mythology and a system of government. Yet, they're still cats. Tailchaser thinks his own reflection is a water creature who copies a cat's appearance. It takes a few moments for him to notice that the messy-looking orange tom is the "creature" reflecting himself.note 

    Live-Action TV 
  • Dog with a Blog: Several episodes make it clear that despite possessing human-level intelligence to the point of being able to talk (and keep a blog), Stan is still a dog and is unable to resist his animal instincts. Demonstrated when in the middle of a speech of how he knows they lock him out if he goes outside and won't fall for their tricks, he can't stop himself from running outside when they toss a ball through the doorway.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Many of the mental Disadvantages applied to Uplifted Animals in GURPS books such as Bio-Tech and Transhuman Space reflect this. Notably, the core system offers the character disadvantage "Stress Atavism", which is pretty much purely for uplifted animals, and specifically models a tendency to revert to pre-sapient behaviors when under stress. One Transhuman Space vignette features a K10 postcanine who forms a criminal gang of other uplifted dogs. The owners of his followers insist that their dogs can't be held responsible because they were just instinctively deferring to a strong alpha.
  • Honey Heist is a simple TTRPG based around playing bears who are criminals off to pull off a heist for honey, dictated by two diametrically opposing stats: "Bear" (gained whenever you do bear-like things) and "Criminal" (anything that's part of the heist that isn't "bear-like"). Go too far as a criminal, you become too cunning for your own good and double-cross your team, but if you go too far as a bear, you become feral and probably berserk because you're a bear.
  • In Warhammer 40,000, Tyranids use a Hive Mind to coordinate their armies. Larger "Synapse" tyranids broadcast orders to the smaller creatures, which then act in a coordinated manner. If the smaller tyranids are out of range of a Synapse tyranids (such as if one is killed), the smaller tyranids revert to "instinctual behavior". Oftentimes, this means blindly charging the nearest hostile or even fighting each other.

    Video Games 
  • It's hard to pin how smart it is, but the green mouse from Grow Maze wears clothes, uses a bag and fits a thief archetype, giving it human-like sentience, yet it's still attracted by a cheese like a normal mouse would and gets captured by the cat-bucket creature that was connected to the cheese. Later in the game, the mouse is seen enjoying a hot spring like a human would.
  • Kha'zix of League of Legends is a Void-born, who, like his fellow void-dwellers, have breached into the real world of Runeterra. His schtick is LEGO Genetics and Assimilation — by eating beings, he can gain traits from them. Intelligence would thus seem an obvious adaptation, and he is indeed quite cunning, but he never gets more intelligent than that because his urge to predate and 'kill, consume, adapt' is such a fundamental drive in him that even if he assimilated an intelligence which told him there were more efficient ways to "kill, consume, adapt" than being a predator, he'd discard the intellect in favour of continuing to predatorially kill, consume, and adapt.
  • Psychonauts: The anthropomorphic bulldog painter in Black Velvetopia refuses to help Raz with Dingo's mission because the bull is still running around. Raz gets around his reluctance by asking "Who wants to go for a walk?" in the same way dog owners typically talk to their dogs. The painter curses his "stupid dog brain" for its weakness and wearily concedes to painting the street ad.

  • Awful Hospital: The giant Moldsucker worm is mistaken for non-sapient at first because of how voraciously it chases Celia the Mushroom Man. They later have a civil conversation with the worm, who's careful to leave before her instincts can take over and force her to attack them again.
  • Freefall: Florence is an uplifted wolf and an FTL engineer, but she can't help but chase a thrown ball and has issues with people eating before her. Her instincts get more pronounced when she's recovering from blood loss in one arc, going so far as to bury her leftovers in the freezer.
  • Girl Genius: Krosp I, Emperor of All Cats has this issue; more than once, people bribe him or trick him using food or distract him using cat toys. The miniature military maven hates it. When his mind is not disrupted by inherent baser natures, he is a sharp expert on pragmatism and Realpolitik and is still entirely capable of eavesdropping on unsuspecting folk around him even as he's distracted by their food.
  • Homestuck: Jade Harley, who through a complicated series of fusions became part-dog, at one point found herself instinctively chasing Jaspersprite, who herself was created with cat DNA. This despite Jade routinely being one of the most intelligent of the four protagonists any other day.
  • Pet Foolery: Anubis comes to take a critically injured dog trainer to the next world, only for her to use her experience on him. She first guilts him into sitting, calling him a "bad god of death". When he does, she calls him "good boy" and throws a stick for him. The next panel shows Ra holding up a newspaper about her survival and Anubis shamefacedly saying she's very persuasive.

    Web Original 
  • Serina: This is one of the of the main aspects about the near-sapient animals that become more common during the Ultimocene era such as the orca-like seastrikers or the raven-like bluetails. They are highly intelligent for animals (comparable to young children) which makes them capable of more complex problem solving and can even possess their own forms of language and culture. However, they are still ruled by their basic instincts despite this and are generally incapable of thinking beyond immediate survival. This causes no small amount of angst for rare members of their species who are born with genetic mutations that make them fully sapient, as not only are they smarter and more capable of restraint than their peers but they can also think more about the future and other abstract concepts, leaving them unable to relate to their own kind.

    Western Animation 
  • The Animals of Farthing Wood:
    • In one episode, Toad's instincts start getting the better of him as they keep drawing him back to Farthing Wood instead of towards White Deer Park, forcing Owl and Kestrel to lead the way instead.
    • Played for tragedy when the animals attempt to cross a busy motorway but the two hedgehogs keep wanting to curl up due to being scared. Eventually (as Toad puts it), their instincts get the better of them when they curl up and are run over by a lorry.
  • Family Guy: A Running Gag is that Brian (a talking dog) is the more intellectual and dignified member of the cast, but every once in a while, his instincts as a dog take over and he can't help himself, such as being tricked into playing fetch with a ball, chasing after a car, or bark at a stranger, or something a normal dog does. Often adding to the humor is how he'll then try and justify it with his human-esque intelligence ("I'm going to get that evil mailman THIS TIME!", etc.). He also once, ahem, "tended to himself" while looking at what appeared to be the dog equivalent of an adult magazine.
  • The Simpsons: Early in "El Misterioso Viaje De Nuestro Jomer", Homer meets a spirit animal: A coyote, which gives him a talk that makes Homer question whether or not Marge is truly his soulmate (not really a spoiler — she is). At one point, the coyote just randomly tries to bite Homer, because that's what a coyote would do if he was within biting distance of a human. The coyote even points it out sheepishly.