In 1950 Tinbergen became member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1962. He was also awarded the Godman-Salvin Medal in 1969 by the British Ornithologists' Union, and in 1973 received the Swammderdam Medal and Wilhelm Bölsche Medal (from the Genootschap ter bervordering van Natuur-, Genees- en Heelkunde of the University of Amsterdam and the Kosmos-Gesellschaft der Naturfreunde respectively).
In 1951 Tinbergen's The Study of Instinct was published. Behavioural ecologists and evolutionary biologists still recognise the contribution this book offered the field of behavioural science studies. The Study of Instinct summarises Tinbergen's ideas on innate behavioural reactions in animals and the adaptiveness and evolutionary aspects of these behaviours. By behaviour, he means the total movements made by the intact animal; innate behaviour is that which is not changed by the learning process. The major question of the book is the role of internal and external stimuli in controlling the expression of behaviour.
Born in The Hague, Netherlands, he was one of five children of Dirk Cornelis Tinbergen and his wife Jeannette van Eek. His brother, Jan Tinbergen, won the first Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 1969. They are the only siblings to each win a Nobel Prize. Another brother, Luuk Tinbergen was also a noted Biologist.
In 1973 Tinbergen, along with Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for their discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behaviour patterns". The award recognised their studies on genetically programmed behaviour patterns, their origins, maturation and their elicitation by key stimuli. In his Nobel Lecture, Tinbergen addressed the somewhat unconventional decision of the Nobel Foundation to award the prize for Physiology or Medicine to three men who had until recently been regarded as "mere animal watchers". Tinbergen stated that their revival of the "watching and wondering" approach to studying behaviour could indeed contribute to the relief of human suffering.
Tinbergen married Elisabeth Rutten and they had five children. Later in life he suffered depression and feared he might, like his brother Luuk, commit suicide. He was treated by his friend, whose ideas he had greatly influenced, John Bowlby. Tinbergen died on 21 December 1988, after suffering a stroke at his home in Oxford, England.
Among the modern works calling attention to Tinbergen's classic work is Deirdre Barrett's 2010 book, Supernormal Stimuli.
A major body of Tinbergen's research focused on what he termed the supernormal stimulus. This was the concept that one could build an artificial object which was a stronger stimulus or releaser for an instinct than the object for which the instinct originally evolved. He constructed plaster eggs to see which a bird preferred to sit on, finding that they would select those that were larger, had more defined markings, or more saturated colour—and a dayglo-bright one with black polka dots would be selected over the bird's own pale, dappled eggs.
The studies performed by the trio on fish, insects and birds laid the foundation for further studies on the importance of specific experiences during critical periods of normal development, as well as the effects of abnormal psychosocial situations in mammals. At the time, these discoveries were stated to have caused "a breakthrough in the understanding of the mechanisms behind various symptoms of psychiatric disease, such as anguish, compulsive obsession, stereotypic behaviour and catatonic posture". Tinbergen’s contribution to these studies included the testing of the hypotheses of Lorenz/von Frisch by means of "comprehensive, careful, and ingenious experiments" as well as his work on supernormal stimuli. The work of Tinbergen during this time was also regarded as having possible implications for further research in child development and behaviour.