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Smart Animal, Inconvenient Instincts

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"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).

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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.

Subtrope of Achilles' Heel. Compare Beat It by Compulsion, Emotions vs. Stoicism, Furry Remindernote , My Instincts Are Showingnote .

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


Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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).

    Comic Books 

    Fan Works 
  • 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.
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    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.
  • Jurassic Park series:
    • The velociraptors in Jurassic Park 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. But in a move that saves one of the kid protagonist's lives, they can't, at a glance, tell the difference between a reflection and the real deal. 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.
  • Deep Blue Sea: The sharks in said film 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" do note ), 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.
  • 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.
  • Godzilla vs. Kong: Godzilla. While 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.

    Literature 
  • 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).
  • 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).
  • Appears again in Michael Crichton's novel Congo. The villains/main danger are a unique breed of albino gorilla that are discovered to be watching over a lost jungle city. Said gorillas note  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. But, 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 
  • 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.

    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 
  • 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.
  • 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 their dogs can't be held responsible because they were just instinctively deferring to a strong alpha.

    Video Games 
  • 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.
  • It's hard to pin how smart it is but the green mouse from Grow Maze wear clothes, use a bag and fit 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 enjoying a hot spring like an human would.

    Web Comics 

  • Girl Genius: Krosp has this issue, more then once people bribe him or trick him using food or distract him using cat toys. The miniature military maven hates it.
  • 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.

    Western Animation 
  • Family Guy: A recurring 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).note .
  • 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.
  • Played for Tragedy in The Animals of Farthing Wood. 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, they curl up and are run over by a lorry.
    • In an earlier 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.

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