Drive-Reduction Theory and Human Behavior

Drive-reduction theory is based on the idea that the primary motivation behind all human behaviour is to reduce ‘drives.’

A ‘drive’ is a state of arousal or discomfort which is triggered by a person’s physiological or biological needs such as hunger, thirst, and the need for warmth.

According to the theory, when a person’s drive emerges, they will be in an unpleasant state of tension which causes them to behave in such a way that this tension is reduced.

To reduce the tension they feel, they will seek out ways to satisfy their biological needs.

Drive-reduction theory is based on the concept of homeostasis, which is the idea that the body actively works to maintain a state of balance or equilibrium.

According to the theory, as soon as there is an unmet need within the body, a person starts behaving in a manner that allows them to address this need, reduce the drive, and achieve a state of balance.

Who developed the drive-reduction theory?

Drive-reduction theory was created by behaviorist Clark Hull and was developed further by his collaborator Kenneth Spence.

Hull based his theory on the earlier theories that relate to the concepts of motivation, taking inspiration from prominent scientists such as John B. Watson, Ivan Pavlov, and Edward Thorndike.

Hull’s theory became popular during the 1940s and 1950 as a way to explain behavior, learning, and motivation.

While drive-reduction theory was once a dominant theory in psychology, it is largely ignored today with the development of newer theories.

Although it is not a widely accepted theory anymore, it is still useful to understand how earlier researchers sought to explain human motivation.

How does drive-reduction theory explain human behavior?

Drive-reduction theory suggests that human behavior results from wanting to reduce the drives we have. It is thought that there are primary and secondary drives.

Primary drives are innate biological needs such as being hungry or thirsty. Whereas secondary drives are those learned through conditioning or association with a primary drive, such as money and social acceptance.

In order to minimize the discomfort that is being caused by primary drives such as hunger, someone may go to the shop, purchase food, cook it and then eat it.

All these behaviors are caused by the drives according to drive-reduction theory. After the individual’s needs are fulfilled, they then reach homeostasis once again and the drive to fulfill their needs is reduced.

What is behaviorism?

Behaviorism, also known as behavioral psychology, is the belief that human actions are shaped by environmental stimuli.

Drive-reduction theory is founded on behaviorist principles to explain behavior. The key concepts of behaviorism include arousal, homeostasis, conditioning, and reinforcement.


Arousal in psychology is a state of physiological activation or a cortical response associated with sensory stimulation. Behaviorists believe that we are motivated by arousal.

As arousal levels change, we are said to naturally change our behavior to get back to our ‘optimal’ level of arousal.

If arousal is too low, then we may do something to stimulate ourselves. Whereas, if arousal is too high, we may try to reduce stimulation by relaxing or choosing to be alone.


Homeostasis is a term that refers to the physiological balance which is achieved when an organism’s internal needs have been met.

An organism will regulate its internal environment to achieve this balance, such as by adjusting body temperature, and blood sugar levels, or achieving hydration.

In psychology, homeostasis can also refer to keeping your mental state balanced.

Conditioning and reinforcement

Conditioning means learning about the world through reinforcement. Hull explained human behavior in terms of conditioning and reinforcement.

In terms of drive-reduction theory, the reduction of the drive functions as a reinforcement of the behavior that helped the person to satisfy their unfulfilled need.

Such reinforcement, according to the theory, increases the likelihood that the person will behave in the same manner in the future to address that particular drive.

Drive-reduction theory therefore works on the same stimulus-response relationship that is associated with the conditioning form of learning.

Critical evaluation of drive-reduction theory

While drive-reduction theory was well-received in the 1940s and 1950s as an explanation for motivation, it is not as popular in current times.

It has been criticized for not being generalizable and for being unable to account for behaviors that do not reduce drive. Some main criticisms of drive-reduction theory include:

It ignores the role of secondary reinforcers

The issue with Hull’s theory is that it fails to explain how drive can also be reinforced by secondary drives.

For instance, money and social acceptance are secondary drives that are not needed to fulfill our primary biological needs, but money can be used to buy food to survive on and meet our primary needs.

Why do we overindulge?

Drive-reduction theory does not explain why we may overindulge in our primary needs even when they are fulfilled.

For instance, eating a three-course meal or having another slice of pizza when already full, or continuing to drink when not particularly thirsty.

What about thrill-seeking behaviors?

Drive-reduction theory has been criticized for not explaining why humans engage in thrill-seeking behaviors.

For example, someone may leave the comfort of their home to go hike up a mountain or bungee jump.

These behaviors go against drive-reduction theory’s general ideas as people will purposely seek out behaviors that will take them away from meeting their biological needs or make them uncomfortable.

Other behaviors that cannot fully be explained by drive-reduction theory and can be explained by other factors include:

  • Watching scary movies where people purposely make themselves uncomfortable.

  • Camping which takes someone away from their comfortable home.

  • Fasting behaviors where someone will purposely not fulfill their primary need.

  • Extreme workouts which are purposely uncomfortable.

Being aroused is not always positive

Drive-reduction theory is unable to explain why humans fail under high arousal. While excitement or feeling nervous can help someone, there is a point where the anxiety becomes too much and actually prevents someone from performing to a high standard.

For instance, someone may become so anxious about completing an examination that they falter under the pressure and do not perform as well as they could do.

How has drive-reduction theory impacted our idea of motivation?

While it is not favored in psychology today, drive-reduction theory still influenced other psychologists at the time and helped to contribute to later research.

Many of the motivational theories that emerged during the 1950s and 1960s were either based on Hull’s original theory or were focused on providing alternatives to drive-reduction theory.

An example of another motivation theory which emerged as an alternative to drive-reduction theory is Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Maslow’s famous hierarchy explains that while humans are motivated to meet their basic physiological needs, they are also motivated to meet their psychological needs of love, belonging, and self-esteem.

Once these have been achieved, the theory states that humans then strive to reach self-fulfillment needs of self-actualization.

Maslow’s theory of motivation thus expands on drive-reduction theory to explain why humans are motivated past their basic needs.

A study from 1956 found that while drive-reduction does indeed play a role in motivation, rewards seemed to do more than reduce drives and that incentives have a similar effect to drive-reduction (Seward, 1956).

This research paved the way for incentive theory which states that sometimes humans are motivated to do things because of rewards.


How do we form habits according to DRT?

Incentives or rewards can play a big role when creating a habit or behavior.

If the reward is instantly given after an action is performed, and is repeatedly given in a consistent manner, this will result in the development of a habit.

How does DRT relate to sports?

Drive-reduction theory suggests that the more an athlete is aroused, the better their performance will be.

This means that a very high arousal level would result in a higher performance, however, this only applies when the athlete is highly skilled in their sport.

Experienced athletes tend to perform better under pressure due to their superior skills. If the athletic skill of an athlete is not well-learned, performance is likely to deteriorate under pressure.

Often, a beginner’s skill level decreases if they are completing a sport using new skills. This does however explain why experienced athletes perform better under pressure.

How can DRT be applied to education?

The principles of drive-reduction theory could be applied to education if one considers the need to satisfy curiosity as the drive needed to motivate learners.

Hull reduced the art of learning to mere habit formation and its reinforcement.

The theory attached sufficient importance to the needs, drives, incentives, reinforcement, and adequate motivation for achieving satisfactory results in the process of teaching and learning.

How does DRT explain eating behavior?

According to drive-reduction theory, organisms seek food when they experience the drive of hunger.

Any behavior that reduces the drive is likely to be repeated by both humans and animals, so this is why they continue to eat.

The reduction of the drive by eating serves as a positive reinforcement (i.e., a reward) for the behavior that caused such drive reduction.

What is the mathematical formula for drive-reduction theory?

Hull created a mathematical ‘formula’ to explain his theory of human behavior, which is as follows:

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

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

  • V: Stimulus intensity dynamism, meaning some stimuli will have greater influence than others.

  • 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.

  • sHr: Habit strength, established by the amount of previous conditioning.

  • sIr: Conditioned inhibition, caused by previous lack of reinforcement.

  • Ir: Reactive inhibition, or fatigue.

  • sOr: Random error.

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

Hull was criticised for having an overly complex formula. It may be easier to consider the drive-reduction theory in 2 simpler parts:

  • Internal stimulus + response = drive reduction

  • Drive reduction = repetition


Hull, C. L. (1943). Principles of behavior: An introduction to behavior theory. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Hull, C. L. (1952). A behavior system; an introduction to behavior theory concerning the individual organism.

Pavlov, I. P. (1897). The work of the digestive glands. London: Griffin.

Seward, J. P. (1956). Drive, incentive, and reinforcement. Psychological Review, 63 (3), 195.

Watson, J. B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20, 158-178.

Watson, J. B. (1930). Behaviorism (revised edition). University of Chicago Press.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Olivia Guy-Evans

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Psychology of Education

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.