Drive reduction theory of motivation states that people are highly motivated to satisfy their physiological and psychological needs.
The theory demonstrates that rewards that satiate base needs like hunger and discomfort are highly motivating. This has implications for everything from education to animal training to public policy.
The theory is seen as a way of bringing together the instinct and incentive theories of motivation by demonstrating how the need to satiate our instincts can be leveraged to create strong incentives for behavior.
Drive Reduction Theory Overview
In the early 20th century, psychologist Clark Hull introduced the Drive Reduction Theory as a fundamental way to understand human behavior, learning, and motivation.
Hull believed that common physiological and biological needs, such as hunger, thirst, warmth, and the urge to survive, were the primary drivers of human motivation.
He saw the act of satisfying these needs as they arise as a reward-seeking process.
According to Hull, when we obtain the expected reward (satiation of innate needs), we restore our internal equilibrium (‘homeostasis’) and our drive (motivation) subsides.
Hull’s theory suggests that any behavior that effectively reduces a drive is likely to be repeated. The drive reduction itself serves as positive reinforcement or reward for the behavior leading to its reduction.
The intensity of a need plays a significant role in determining the vigor and persistence of the associated behavior.
In simpler terms, Hull’s Drive Reduction Theory posits that our actions are motivated by the desire to fulfill our basic needs and maintain internal balance. The more urgent the need, the more persistent and focused our behavior will be in addressing it. As we successfully reduce our drives, we become more likely to repeat the behaviors that led to that reduction until we are satiated, reinforcing the cycle of motivation and behavior.
Examples of Drive Theory of Motivation
- Reducing the drive for hunger: Your stomach starts grumbling because you are hungry, so you immediately search for something to eat
- Reducing the drive for thirst: Your mouth is dry, so you want to drink something
- Reducing the drive for warmth: You are shivering because it is cold, so you put on a jacket or a sweater
- Reducing the drive for sleep: You are starting to nod off because you are tired, so you take a nap or sleep
- Reducing the drive for tension relief: You have been sitting at a computer for a long time, so you decide to do some physical activity to relieve the tension in your shoulders and legs.
- Reducing the drive for comfort: It is hot outside, so you go inside and turn on the air conditioner to cool off.
- Reducing the drive to itch: Somewhere on your body is feeling itchy, so you scratch the itch to relieve the discomfort.
- Seeking medical help: You are feeling pain or discomfort from an illness so you seek medical attention.
- The need to urinate: Your body feels discomfort because you need to use the bathroom, you find a bathroom to relieve yourself.
- Reducing the drive for social interaction: To reduce the feeling of feeling isolated or lonely you actively purse social interaction with another person
Case Study: Reducing the Drive for Hunger
Hall et al. (2022) concur that biology plays an important role of in when we eat, how much we eat, and our self-control levels in terms of over-eating. They assert: When our body tells us we need to eat, we seek to rebalance our “energy needs” and reduce the drive to eat food. This is because homeostasis and the reduction of drives is imperative to our health (Mamontov, 2006).
Criticism of the Drive Reduction Theory
While the drive reduction theory has been extremely influential in the psychological world, it has also received criticism for its inability to identify the significance and impact of secondary reinforcers (e.g., money, success, notoriety, power, control, etc.) on the reduction of drives.
These secondary reinforcers can serve as large motivations for many people.
In addition, in contrast to trying to reduce tension, people will often voluntarily place themselves in high-risk situations, which increases one’s level of fear or tension (e.g., bungee jumping, sky diving, rollercoaster rides, visiting a haunted house, participating in fighting competitions).
The question that remains is, why would someone willingly partake in any of these activities if the outcome does not satisfy the physiological need to reduce a biological drive? Do these human activities fit the framework of the drive reduction theory, or do they serve to disprove it?
Stults-Kolehmainen et al. (2020) offers a similar criticism:
“Drive reduction theory has poor performance in explaining complex human behavior, such as why humans willingly engage in strenuous and exploratory behavior that does not directly satisfy simple physiological needs (e.g., climb mountains).”
Table Summary: Strengths and Weaknesses
Drive reduction theory provides a clear and straightforward explanation for the motivation behind basic physiological and psychological needs, and clearly touches on important features underpinning motivation.
However, the theory has its limitations, as it does not account for individual differences, personal agency (i.e. free will and willpower), environmental factors, or more complex cognitive motivations.
Additionally, the theory oversimplifies human motivation and may not capture the full range of factors influencing behavior.Top of Form
|Explanation of Motivation||Provides a logical and reasonable explanation for the motivation behind basic physiological needs||Limited to explaining motivation based on biological needs (primary needs) but does not address secondary needs, higher-order desires, or cognitive motivations|
|Applicability||Applicable to both humans and animals, making it useful for understanding behavior across species.||Does not account for individual differences in motivation or the role of environmental factors in affecting our responses to our physiological needs.|
|Predictability||Offers predictable outcomes by suggesting that behaviors reducing drives will be repeated||Fails to explain behaviors that do not align with the drive reduction model, such as thrill-seeking or engaging in activities that increase drives|
|Simplicity||Straightforward and easy to understand, making it useful for initial investigations into motivation||Oversimplifies complex human motivation and may not capture the full range of influences on behavior.|
|Application||Reinforcement concept (drive reduction) can be applied in various fields, such as education and therapy.||May be found to be of limited value, particularly when people ignore basic needs, when two physiological needs compete for attention, or we exercise personal agency.|
Drive Reduction Theory vs Arousal Theory
Drive reduction theory has many overlaps with arousal theory, another key theory of motivation. Indeed, arousal is linked to a core human drive – the drive for reproduction.
The core idea in arousal theory is that people are motivated by the desire to achieve an optimal level of arousal. This optimal level may vary among individuals and can depend on factors such as age and situational context. For example, some people prefer low arousal levels and gravitate to calming environments, while others seek high arousal levels (e.g. thrill seekers).
The arousal theory suggests that individuals are motivated to maintain their preferred level of arousal in order to optimize personal happiness and wellbeing.
The connection between arousal theory and drive reduction theory lies in the fact that both theories involve seeking internal equilibrium. It is this equilibrium that provides us with motivation:
- Drive reduction theory seeks to balance physiological needs (e.g., hunger, thirst)
- Arousal theory focuses on balancing mental alertness.
However, there is a difference in the way the balance is achieved:
- Drive reduction theory seeks to achieve balance by reducing a drive or fulfilling a need.
- Arousal theory seeks to achieve balance by adjusting arousal levels, either by increasing or decreasing stimulation, depending on the individual’s preference for arousal at any given time.
Here’s a table comparing the drive reduction theory and the arousal theory:
|Aspect||Drive Reduction Theory||Arousal Theory|
|Focus||Fulfilling basic physiological needs||Maintaining an optimal level of arousal|
|Motivation||Driven by the need to alleviate internal drives||Driven by the need to achieve a preferred arousal state|
|Balance||Achieved by reducing a drive or fulfilling a need||Achieved by adjusting arousal levels (increasing or decreasing stimulation)|
|Rewards||Reduction of a drive serves as a reward||Achieving optimal arousal serves as a reward|
|Repeatability of Behavior||Likely to repeat behavior that reduces a drive||Likely to repeat behavior that achieves optimal arousal|
|Examples of Needs/Drives||Hunger, thirst, warmth, safety||Excitement, mental stimulation, relaxation|
|Applicability to Animals||Applicable to both humans and animals||Primarily focused on humans, but may apply to animals in some cases|
Drive reduction theory of motivation holds that our desire to achieve internal equilibrium is a central motivator. It holds that whenever our inner needs – for food, shelter, protection, and so on – are not met, we feel the urge to take action to reduce the drive to meet those needs.
While this theory helps to explain instinctual motivation, it also fails to account for human agency and willpower, where we often have strong motivations to achieve other tasks that are not directly rated to our base needs.
Keramati, M., & Gutkin, B. (2014). Homeostatic reinforcement learning for integrating reward collection and physiological stability. ELife, 3. https://doi.org/10.7554/elife.04811
Hall, K. D., Fitzpatrick, D., Friedman, J. M., Klein, S., Loos, R. J. F., Mangelsdorf, D. J., O’Rahilly, S., Ravussin, E., Redman, L. M., Ryan, D. H., Speakman, J. R., & Tobias, D. K. (2022). The energy balance model of obesity: beyond calories in, calories out. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 115(5), 1243–1254. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqac031
Hull, C. L. (1943). Principles of Behavior: An Introduction to Behavior Theory.
Stults-Kolehmainen, M., Blacutt, M., Bartholomew, J. B., Gilson, T. A., Ash, G. I., McKee, P., & Sinha, R. (2020). Motivation States for Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior: Desire, Urge, Wanting, and Craving. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.568390
Mamontov, E. (2006). Homeorhesis and evolutionary properties of living systems: From ordinary differential equations to the active-particle generalized kinetics theory. In Minisurvey presented at the 10th Evolutionary Biology Meeting at Marseille.
Vansteenkiste, M., Ryan, R. M., & Soenens, B. (2020). Basic psychological need theory: Advancements, critical themes, and future directions. Motivation and Emotion, 44(1), 1-31. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-019-09818-1