Drive-Reduction Theory and Human Behavior

Drive Theory in Social Psychology

Drive-Reduction Theory and Human Behavior

Drive refers to increased arousal and internal motivation to reach a particular goal. Psychologists differentiate between primary and secondary drives. Primary drives are directly related to survival and include the need for food, water, and oxygen.

Secondary or acquired drives are those that are culturally determined or learned, such as the drive to obtain money, intimacy, or social approval. Drive theory holds that these drives motivate people to reduce desires by choosing responses that will most effectively do so.

For instance, when a person feels hunger, he or she is motivated to reduce that drive by eating; when there is a task at hand, the person is motivated to complete it.

Drive Theory Background

Clark L. Hull is the most prominent figure from whom this comprehensive drive theory of learning and motivation was postulated. The theory itself was founded on very straightforward studies of rat behavior done by Hull’s students, Charles T. Perm and Stanley B. Williams. The rats were trained to run down a straight alley way to a food reward.

Thereafter, two groups of rats were deprived of food, one group for 3 hours and the other for 22. Hull proposed that the rats that were without food the longest would have more motivation, thus a higher level of drive to obtain the food reward at the end of the maze.

Furthermore, he hypothesized that the more times an animal was rewarded for running down the alley, the more ly the rat was to develop the habit of running. As expected, Hull and his students found that length of deprivation and number of times rewarded resulted in a faster running speed toward the reward.

His conclusion was that drive and habit equally contribute to performance of whichever behavior is instrumental in drive reduction.

Drive Theory Application to Social Psychology

When a person is hungry or thirsty, he or she feels tension and is motivated to reduce this state of discomfort by eating or drinking. A state of tension can also occur when a person is watched by other people or simultaneously holds psychologically inconsistent beliefs or thoughts.

The theory of cognitive dissonance, proposed by social psychologist Leon Festinger, suggests that when a person is faced with two beliefs or thoughts that are contradictory, he or she feels psychological tension. This psychological tension is a negative drive state that is similar to hunger or thirst.

Once a person feels cognitive dissonance, he or she is motivated to reduce this psychological tension, modifying beliefs or thoughts to match one another.

An interesting application of drive theory to social psychology is found in Robert Zajonc’s explanation of the social facilitation effect, which suggests that when there is social presence, people tend to perform simple tasks better and complex tasks worse (social inhibition) than they would if they were alone.

The basis for social facilitation comes from social psychologist Norman Triplett, who observed that bicyclists rode faster when competing against each other directly than in individual time trials. Zajonc reasoned that this phenomenon is a function of humans’ perceived difficulty of the task and their dominant responses: those that are most ly given the skills humans have.

When drives are activated, people are ly to rely on their easily accessible dominant response, or as Hull would suggest, their habits. Therefore, if the task comes easy to them, their dominant response is to perform well. However, if the task is perceived as difficult, the dominant response will ly result in a poor performance.

For instance, imagine a ballet dancer who was ill-practiced and often made several errors during her routine. According to drive theory, when in the presence of others at her recital, she will display her dominant response, which is to make mistakes even more so than when alone.

However, if she spent a substantial amount of time polishing her performance, drive theory would suggest that she may have the best performance of her dancing career (which she might never match in solitude).

Behavioral and social psychological perspectives, although addressing different phenomena, share an important similarity. Humans experience arousal (drive) to achieve a particular goal; habits (or dominant responses) dictate the means for reaching that goal. With enough practice, the perceived difficulty of a task will decrease, and people are ly to perform better.

How can the simple presence of other people in our environment affect our behavior? We can never be sure how others will react to us.

Will they evaluate, admire, or judge us? From an evolutionary standpoint, because we do not know how people will respond to us, it is advantageous for individuals to be aroused in the presence of others.

Our instinctive drive to notice and react to other social beings provides the foundation of Zajonc’s drive theory. For instance, imagine walking down the street late at night when you see a dark shadow approaching you. You will ly prepare yourself for this unexpected encounter.

Your heart rate will increase, you might run, or you may even choose to socialize. Nonetheless, Zajonc maintains that your impulse is to become socially aware of those in your proximity whose intentions are unknowable.

What does another’s presence make people feel? One theory suggested by social psychologist Nickolas B. Cottrell includes an evaluation apprehension model. This model suggests that humans experience arousal in the form of anxiety because of the fear of being evaluated or judged by those around them.

In several experiments, it was found that the drive to present oneself as capable to avoid negative evaluation was nonexistent when the audience was blindfolded; thus, they were inattentive to the task at hand.

When the audience was attentive to the task, however, instinctive drive promoted better performance.

Drive Theory Implications

Drive theory combines motivation, learning, reinforcement, and habit formation to explain and predict human behavior. It describes where drives come from, what behaviors result from these drives, and how these behaviors are sustained.

Drive theory is also important in understanding habit formation as a result of learning and reinforcement.

For instance, to alter bad habits, such as drug use (which can be seen as a way to reduce the drive for euphoria), an understanding of how habits are created is essential; drive theory offers this insight.

In addition, drive theory as an explanation of instinctive arousal in the presence of others is apparent in people’s daily lives. Because humans do not exist in a vacuum, it is imperative that they understand how others influence them: their performance, their self-concept, and the impressions they make on the social world.


  1. Cottrell, N. B., Wack, D. L., Sekerak, G. J., & Rittle, R. H. (1968). Social facilitation of dominant responses by the presence of an audience and the mere presence of others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 245-250.
  2. Hull, C. L. (1943). Principles of behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  3. Platania, J., & Moran, G. P. (2001). Social facilitation as a function of mere presence of others. Journal of Social Psychology, 141, 190-197.
  4. Zajonc, R. B. (1965). Social facilitation. Science, 149, 269-274.


Drive Reduction Theory

Drive-Reduction Theory and Human Behavior

Drive Reduction Theory was developed by the psychologist Clark Hull in 1943, as the first theory for motivation. It was one of the popular theories of motivation during the 1940s and the 50s, not only as a theory to explain motivation, but also learning and behavior. Hull’s attempt to explain all behavior was assisted by his collaborator Kenneth Spence.

The theory states that

Reduction of the drive is a major cause of learning and behavior.

Although it was the dominant force in the world of psychology where theorists were trying to come up with ideas to explain behavior, it is largely ignored today. However, it can still be highly useful for students in order to understand the effects of his work on psychology.

Understanding Hull’s Drive Reduction Theory

Hull believed that human body continuously tries to maintain a state of balance, known as homeostasis. And, behavior was an essential factor for an organism to maintain this state of equilibrium.

This idea later led him to propose the Drive Reduction Theory. He suggested that all motivation arises as a result of the need to fulfill certain things. The term drive refers to

The state of tension or arousal caused by biological or physiological needs.

For example: hunger, thirst and sex are examples of primary drives, something that is extremely vital.

wise, drives learned by conditioning are secondary drives (money).

Drives aren’t necessarily in a singular pattern. When an organism is aroused with multiple needs at once, the condition is called multiple drives. This has an impact on earnings.

In psychological vernacular,

“Generalized conditioned reinforce has greater learned reward value than a simple conditioned reinforce.”

In simple terms, multiple drives are followed by quicker learning than a singular drive.

Hull believed that every human behavior could be explained by conditioning and reinforcement. Reduction of the drive causes satisfaction, which then acts as a reinforcement for that behavior. Thus, the behavior is most ly to be repeated again when the reinforcement increases, meaning, the same need is aroused in the future.

Hull explained that

In order to survive in its environment, an organism must behave in ways that meet these survival needs. When survival is in jeopardy, the organism is in a state of need (when the biological requirements for survival are not being met) so the organism behaves in a fashion to reduce that need.

This is nothing but the explanation of the S-R (Stimulus-Response) relationship. When response caused by the stimulus leads to satisfaction or reduction of a certain need, the chances of the same stimulus leading to the same response is high.

Critical Evaluation

  • The first major issue with Hull’s reduction theory is that it fails to explain how drive is also reinforced by secondary reinforcers. For example, money itself is not responsible for the fulfillment of our psychological and biological needs, but it does assist in regular drive reduction in the form of a paycheck.
  • The theory also fails to explain the reason behind humans and other animals deliberately increasing tension by exploring their environments, even if they are not facing the drive of hunger or thirst.
  • Another limitation of the theory is seen while trying to explain pleasure-seeking behaviors. These behaviors, in fact, go completely in contrast to the theory’s general directives. For example, a person leaves the comfort of his home to explore the Amazon rainforest. Despite the lack of any biological or psychological drive, the individual puts in a lot of effort to go there.

Judson Brown has made an attempt to explain this circumstance.

the sensory consequences of most responses are practically never intense enough to provide increments to the drive level.

It makes sense to believe that the psychological drive is the most powerful one, as the individual’s first instinct will be to gather food and water no matter where he is. Only then, will he go on to reduce other needs or drives.

Mathematico Deductive Theory of Behavior

Hull even came up with a mathematical formula in order to understand and explain a complex matter that human behavior is. He named it Mathematico Deductive Theory of Behavior

The formula he developed is:

sER = (V x D x K x J x sHr) – (sIr + Ir) +/- sOr

sEr: Excitatory potential, or the lihood that an organism will produce a response (r) to a stimulus (s)

sHr: Habit strength, established by the number of previous conditioning

D: Drive strength, determined by the amount of biological deprivation

K: Incentive motivation, or the size or magnitude of the goal

J: The delay before the organism is allowed to seek reinforcement

lr: Reactive inhibition, or fatigue

slr: Conditioned inhibition, caused by previous lack of reinforcement

sLr: Reaction threshold, the smallest amount of reinforcement that will produce learning

sOr: Random error


An Introduction to Clark Hull’s Drive Reduction Theory

Drive-Reduction Theory and Human Behavior

Think about some of the things that you do every day. You eat food, usually because you’re hungry. You drink water, usually because you’re thirsty. And you sleep, usually because you’re tired.

These are all ways of getting replenished, of getting yourself back to a state where you’re sufficiently nourished and well-rested.

These are also the fundamentals of Clark Hull’s drive reduction theory of human behavior. 

Clark Hull developed the drive reduction theory when he was working as a professor at Yale University alongside one of his most well-known graduate students named Kenneth Spence.

He was primarily inspired by the theory of conditional reflexes posited by Ivan Pavlov, but also drew from John Broadus Watson’s theory of behaviorism. Hull’s theory of drive reduction states, in essence, that all human behaviors are caused by drives that result from a deviation from homeostasis.

When you’re hungry, you’re homeostasis, and so you have the drive to eat. When you haven’t slept enough, you’re homeostasis, and so you have a drive to sleep. 

Many parts of Hull’s drive reduction theory make a lot of logical sense.

Perhaps if you found yourself in a perpetual homeostatic state (never hungry, never thirsty, never tired, always comfortable), you probably wouldn’t have any drive to do anything at all. That makes total sense within the framework of this theory.

However, while Hull’s theory was a major driving force in the field of psychology for some time, modern criticisms have brought to light a couple of glaring flaws in it. 

The Conditioning and Reinforcement Framework

Much the other behaviorists of his time, such as Pavlov and Watson, Clark Hull sought to explain human behavior through conditioning and reinforcement. Conditioning is a type of learning in which a stimulus becomes increasingly effective at evoking a response. Reinforcement is the process of encouraging a certain pattern of behavior. 

In a very simplistic example, imagine that you’d never been thirsty before. Then, one day, when you become thirsty, you decide to walk over to the sink and get a drink of water.

When you have that drink of water, you no longer feel thirsty, and so you learn to associate drinking water with relieving your thirst. The next time you feel thirsty, you go to the sink again, and again the drink of water relieves your thirst.

Thus, the behavior of going to the sink when you’re thirsty has been reinforced. 

In speaking about conditioning and reinforcement, Clark Hull once said, “When survival is in jeopardy, the organism is in a state of need (when the biological requirements for survival are not being met) so the organism behaves in a fashion to reduce that need.”

In the framework of this theory, that state of need would be the stimulus, while the actions taken to reduce that need would be the behaviors that are being encouraged through conditioning and reinforcement. 

The Drive to Homeostasis

The purpose of all human behavior, argued Hull, was to return the body to homeostasis, which is a state of equilibrium in which all of the human being’s physiological needs are met. Being in homeostasis would mean that you’re not hungry, not thirsty, not tired, not uncomfortable, and everything is going just right with your body.

However, over time, the human body needs to replenish itself. When the biological needs of the human body are not met, it creates tension, or drive. According to Hull, these drives are at the root of all motivation. 

For example, if you haven’t eaten anything in a while and your body is short on the nutrients that it needs, you’re going to feel hungry. Hunger is a point of tension, so your body will seek to relieve that tension.

You will develop a drive to return to homeostasis, which would be the state of not feeling hungry anymore. That drive to not be hungry anymore will motivate you to take action. You will go hunting if you’re a caveman.

You will go search through your refrigerator if you’re a 21st-century American. 

For Hull, the drive to relieve tension and return to homeostasis was at the root of all behavior, not just simple things drinking water or eating food.

The life of a human being is therefore just a cycle of certain needs being depleted, then developing a drive to replenish those needs, then engaging in behaviors to replenish those needs, then returning to homeostasis, and then having those same needs depleted once again, thus restarting the cycle.

As we humans engage in different behaviors to replenish our needs, we find which ones work the best, and we are more ly to engage in those behaviors again. 

The Formula for Motivation

Clark Hull went so far as to create an actual mathematical formula that he hoped would be able to predict a human being’s motivation, given a set of certain definable factors. This formula wasn’t really meant to have actual numbers plugged into it, but more to explain how certain factors related to each other. Here is the formula: 

sEr = V x D x K x J x sHr – sIr – Ir – sOr – sLr

  • sEr – excitatory potential, or the lihood that an organism will produce a response
  • V – stimulus intensity dynamism, or how much influence a particular stimulus has
  • D – drive strength, or the degree to which the biological need has been depleted
  • K – incentive motivation, or the size or magnitude of the goal to be undertaken
  • J – the delay before the organism is allowed to seek reinforcement
  • sHr – habit strength, or the amount of previous conditioning the organism has had
  • sIr – conditioned inhibition, or the lack of previous reinforcement
  • Ir – reactive inhibition, or fatigue
  • sOr – random error
  • sLr – reaction threshold, or the smallest amount of reinforcement needed to learn

For obvious reasons, Hull’s theory was viewed as being overly complicated by many of his contemporaries. However, this method of explaining behavior in a mathematical and formulaic way made a major impact on the field of psychology and has been used by many psychologists since Hull’s time. 

Criticisms of the Drive Reduction Theory

As you can probably tell by now, the drive reduction theory works very well for simple behaviors such as eating, drinking, or sleeping.

However, as we start to look at more complex behaviors that humans engage in, the drive reduction theory seems less universally applicable.

As humans, we engage in quite a few behaviors that don’t fulfill physiological needs and even many behaviors that increase our physiological states of depletion. 

For example, take activities snowboarding or skateboarding. These activities don’t help us fulfill any physiological needs. In fact, they are quite dangerous and they actually make us tired and thirsty and hungry.

As another example, many people will eat food even when they aren’t hungry or drink when they aren’t thirsty. If the sole purpose of human behavior is to stay as close as possible to a state of homeostasis, why would humans engage in any of these types of behaviors? These types of behaviors just simply do not fit into the framework of the drive reduction theory. 

Perhaps the greatest flaw in the drive reduction theory is that it fails to account for secondary reinforcers, the stimuli that encourage a behavior because they have been associated with a primary reinforcer.

For instance, if you get a dog to do a trick and then give him a treat and pat him on the head, he will start to associate getting patted on the head with getting a treat.

The behavior being encouraged in this scenario is the trick, the primary reinforcer is the treat, and the secondary reinforcer is the pat on the head.

However, you should notice that getting a pat on the head does nothing to help fulfill the dog’s physiological needs. This is precisely where the drive reduction theory breaks down. 


Drive-Reduction Theory of Motivation

Drive-Reduction Theory and Human Behavior

Motivation describes the wants or needs that direct behavior toward a goal. Motivations are commonly separated into two types: drives are acts of motivation thirst or hunger that have primarily biological purposes, while motives are fueled primarily by social and psychological mechanisms.

Drives and Homeostasis

An early theory of motivation proposed that the maintenance of homeostasis is particularly important in directing behavior. Homeostasis is the tendency to maintain a balance, or optimal level, within a biological system.

In a body system, a control center (which is often part of the brain) receives input from receptors (which are often complexes of neurons).

The control center directs effectors (which may be other neurons) to correct any imbalance in the body detected by the control center.

The purpose of biological drives is to correct disturbances of homeostasis. Unsatisfied drives are detected by neurons concentrated in the hypothalamus in the brain. These neurons then produce an integrated response to bring the drive back to its optimal level.

For instance, when you are dehydrated, freezing cold, or exhausted, the appropriate biological responses are activated automatically (e.g., body fat reserves are mobilized, urine production is inhibited, you shiver, blood is shunted away from the body surface, etc.).

While your body automatically responds to these survival drives, you also become motivated to correct these disturbances by eating, drinking water, resting, or actively seeking or generating warmth by moving. In essence, you are motivated to engage in whatever behavior is necessary to fulfill an unsatisfied drive.

One way that the body elicits this behavioral motivation is by increasing physiological arousal.

Drive-Reduction Theory 

Drive-reduction theory was first developed by Clark Hull in 1943. According to this theory, deviations from homeostasis create physiological needs. These needs result in psychological drive states that direct behavior to meet the need and, ultimately, bring the system back to homeostasis.

When a physiological need is not satisfied, a negative state of tension is created; when the need is satisfied, the drive to satisfy that need is reduced and the organism returns to homeostasis. In this way, a drive can be thought of as an instinctual need that has the power to motivate behavior.


Clark Leonard Hull developed drive-reduction theory, one of the earliest theories of motivation.

For example, if it’s been a while since you ate, your blood sugar levels will drop below normal. Low blood sugar induces a physiological need and a corresponding drive state (i.e., hunger) that will direct you to seek out and consume food. Eating will eliminate the hunger, and, ultimately, your blood sugar levels will return to normal. 

Drive-reduction theory also emphasizes the role that habits play in the type of behavioral response in which we engage. A habit is a pattern of behavior in which we regularly engage; once we have engaged in a behavior that successfully reduces a drive, we are more ly to engage in that behavior whenever faced with that drive in the future (Graham & Weiner, 1996).

Primary and Secondary Drives

Drive-reduction theory distinguishes between primary and secondary drives. Primary drives are innate biological needs (e.g., thirst, hunger, and desire for sex) that are usually necessary for survival.

Secondary drives, on the other hand, are not usually necessary for survival and are often linked to social or identity factors (e.g., the desire for wealth).

Secondary drives are associated with primary drives because the satisfaction of secondary drives indirectly satisfies primary drives.

For example, the desire for wealth is not necessary for survival; however, wealth provides you with money that can be used to acquire food, shelter, and other basic needs, thereby indirectly satisfying these primary drives. Secondary drives become associated with primary drives through classical conditioning. 

Drive-Reduction Theory and Learning

According to Hull, drive reduction is a major aspect of learning. Drives are thought to underlie all behavior in that behaviors are only conditioned, or learned, if the reinforcement satisfies a drive. Individuals faced with more than one need at the same time experience multiple drives, and research has shown that multiple drives can lead to more rapid learning than a single drive.

Critiques of Drive-Reduction Theory

There are several issues that leave the validity of drive-reduction theory open for debate. For one, drive-reduction theory has trouble explaining why humans and other animals voluntarily increase tension by exploring their environments, even when they are not hungry or thirsty.

There are also complications to drive-reduction theory caused by so-called «pleasure-seeking» behaviors, which seem to be contradictory to the theory's precepts.

Why would an individual actively seek out more stimulation if it is already in a state of relaxation and fulfillment? Proponents of drive-reduction theory would argue that one is never in a state of complete fulfillment, and thus, there are always drives that need to be satisfied. 


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