Instinctive vs. Instinctual

While these words share a common bond, they’re also subtly different when used accurately.

That said, many writers do use them as they see fit, even if the word isn’t the right one, probably because so few really know what each means anyway. Even many dictionaries say that the differences, while real, are not enough to get all worried about.

But if it’s important for you to know … read on!

Instinctive: Describes any unlearned response no matter how basic, such as the fight-or-flight response to danger or the tendency for babies to cry when hungry.

  • She shot one hand out in an instinctive attempt to break her fall. 

 

Instinctual: Describes feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and tendencies born of deep, motivational forces — things that tend to be much more complex than pure instinct.

  • These herding practices are instinctual and usually imperative for an animal’s survival.