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The Drive Reduction Theory grows out of the concept that we have certain biological needs, such as hunger. As time passes the strength of the drive increases as it is not satisfied. Then as we satisfy that drive by fulfilling its desire, such as eating, then the drives strength is reduced. Drive Reduction Theory, developed by Clark Hull in 1943, was the first theory for motivation (Dewey, 2007). Drive is an “excitatory state produced by a homeostatic disturbance”(Seward, 1956) Drive theory is based on the principle that organisms are born with certain psychological needs and that a negative state of tension is created when these needs are not satisfied and are frustrated. When a need is satisfied, drive is reduced and the organism returns to a state of homeostasis and relaxation. According to the theory, drive tends to increase over time and operates on a feedback control system, much like a thermostat.

Learning theory

According to such theorists as Clark Hull and Kenneth Spence, drive reduction is a major cause of learning and behaviour. Primary drives are innate drives (e.g. thirst, hunger, and sex), whereas secondary drives are learned by conditioning (e.g. money). Doris Kraeling and Byron Campbell experimented to determine if “reduction would be more effective as a reinforcer if the initial drive were low than if the initial drive were high” (Campbell, Kraeling, 1953). Their findings are quite surprising; “Changes in stimuli are more discriminable at low levels of stimulus intensity than at higher levels of stimulus intensity” (Campbell, Kraeling, 1953).

Multiple drives are what happen when an organism is faced with more than one need at the same time. Research has shown that this condition has an impact on learning. In psychological vernacular “generalized conditioned reinforce has greater learned reward value than a simple conditioned reinforce” (Wike, Barrientos, 1957). These findings mean that multiple drives lead to quicker learning than a singular drive.

There are several problems that leave the validity of drive theory open for debate. The first problem is that it does not explain how secondary reinforcers reduce drive. For example, money does not itself satisfy any biological or psychological need, but it reduces drive on a regular basis by a pay check. Secondly, 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.[citation needed]

There are also the 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? A good example is when an individual leaves home to go to a potentially dangerous carnival. There is no base physiological drive to go to the carnival but the individual exhausts resources to go there. Judson Brown attempts to explain this phenomenon “the sensory consequences of most responses are practically never intense enough to provide increments to the drive level” (Brown, 1955). So the base physiological drive is vastly more powerful than other stimuli encountered. This makes sense because an organism will first learn to obtain food and water before it tries other more frivolous pursuits.

Drive is essential in order for responses to occur (i.e., the student must want to learn). Stimuli and responses must be detected by the organism in order for conditioning to occur ( i.e., the student must be attentive). Response must be made in order for conditioning to occur (i.e., the student must be active). Conditioning only occurs if the reinforcement satisfied a need (i.e, the learning must satisfy the learner's wants).

Clark Hull aimed to develop a learning theory that could be deduced mathmatically. He created the "Mathematico Deductive Theory of Behavior:" sER = (V x D x K x J x sHr) – (sIr + Ir) +/- sOr (Thomson, 1968).

Early Attachment Theory

In early attachment theory, behavioural drive reduction was proposed by Dollard and Miller (1950) as an explanation of the mechanisms behind early attachment in infants. Behavioural drive reduction theory suggests that infants are born with innate drives, such as hunger and thirst, which only the caregiver, usually the mother, can reduce. Through a process of classical conditioning, the infant learns to associate the mother with the satisfaction of reduced drive and is thus able form a key attachment bond. However, this theory is challenged by the work done by Harlow, particularly the experiments involving the maternal separation of rhesus monkeys, which indicate that comfort possesses greater motivational value than hunger.[citation needed]

Social Psychology

In social psychology, drive theory was used by Robert Zajonc in 1965 as an explanation of the phenomenon of social facilitation.[1] The audience effect notes that in some cases the presence of a passive audience will facilitate the better performance of a task, while in other cases the presence of an audience will inhibit the performance of a task. Zajonc's drive theory suggests that the variable determining direction of performance is whether the task is composed of a correct dominant response (that is, the task is perceived as being subjectively easy to the individual) or an incorrect dominant response (perceived as being subjectively difficult).

In the presence of a passive audience, an individual is in a heightened state of arousal. Increased arousal, or stress, causes the individual to enact behaviours that form dominant responses, since an individual's dominant response is the most likely response, given the skills which are available. If the dominant response is correct, then social presence enhances performance of the task. However, if the dominant response is incorrect, social presence produces an impaired performance.

Corroborative Evidence

Such behaviour was first noticed by Triplett (1898) while observing the cyclists who were racing together versus cyclists who were racing alone.[citation needed] It was found that the mere presence of other cyclists produced greater performance. A similar effect was observed by Chen (1937) in ants building colonies.[citation needed] However, it was not until Zajonc investigated this behaviour in the 1960s that any empirical explanation for the audience effect was pursued.[citation needed]

Zajonc's drive theory is based on an experiment[2] involving the investigation of the effect of social facilitation in cockroaches. Zajonc devised a study in which individual cockroaches were released into a tube, at the end of which there was a light. In the presence of other cockroaches as spectators, cockroaches were observed to achieve a significantly faster time in reaching the light than those in the control, no-spectator group. However, when cockroaches in the same conditions were given a maze to negotiate, performance was impaired in the spectator condition, demonstrating that incorrect dominant responses in the presence of an audience impair performance.[citation needed]

Evaluation Apprehension

Cottrell's Evaluation Apprehension model later refined this theory to include yet another variable in the mechanisms of social facilitation. He suggested that the correctness of dominant responses only plays a role in social facilitation when there is an expectation of social reward or punishment based on performance. His study differs in design from Zajonc's as he introduced a separate condition in which participants were given tasks to perform in the presence of an audience that was blindfolded, and thus unable to evaluate the participant's performance. It was found that no social facilitation effect occurred, and hence the anticipation of performance evaluation must play a role in social facilitation.[citation needed] Evaluation apprehension, however, is only key in human social facilitation and not observed in animals.[citation needed]


There are several problems, however, that leave the validity of the Drive Reduction Theory open for debate:

  • The first problem is that it does not explain how Secondary Reinforcers reduce drive. For example, money does not satisfy any biological or psychological need but reduces drive on a regular basis through a pay check (see: second-order conditioning).
  • Secondly, if the drive reduction theory held true we would not be able to explain how a hungry human being can prepare a meal without eating the food before the end of the preparation. Supposedly, the drive to satiate one's hunger would drive a person to consume the food, however we prepare food on a regular basis and "ignore" the drive to eat.
  • Thirdly, a drive is a theoretical construct and is not able to be measured and therefore cannot be proven to exist in the first place.

See also


  1. Zajonc, R. B. (1965). Social facilitation. Science, 149, 269-274.
  2. DOI:10.1037/h0028063
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Further reading

Key texts



Wolpe , J. (1950). need-reduction, drive-reduction, and reinforcement: A neurophysiological view. Psychological Review, 57, 19-26. Retrieved from

Campbell, B., & Krealing, D. (1953). response strength as a function of drive level and amount of drive reduction. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 45, 97-101. Retrieved from

Wike, E., & Barrientos, G. (1958). secondary reinforcement and multiple drive reduction. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 51, 640-643. Retrieved from

Brown, J. (1955). pleasure-seeking behavior and the drive-reduction hypothesis. Psychological Review, 62, 169-179. Retrieved from

Seward, J. (1956). drive, incentive, and reinforcement. Psychological Review, 63, 19-203. Retrieved from

Dewey, R. (2007). Psychology: An introduction. Retrieved from

Additional material



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