Drive Reduction Theory: Understanding Our Behavioural Motivations

Motivation is a critical component of human behaviour as it drives us towards specific goals, both short and long term. Drive reduction theory is one of several theories that help explain why humans engage in certain behaviours or actions.

What is Drive Reduction Theory?

Drive reduction theory is a psychological theory that seeks to explain how our behaviour is motivated by physiological needs. The theory is based on the concept of homeostasis and posits that individuals have certain biological needs, such as hunger or thirst, that when unfulfilled, create a drive state. This drive state motivates us to engage in behaviours that satisfy those needs and promote balance.

In simpler terms, drive reduction theory suggests that humans are motivated to take actions in order to reduce various internal tensions within the body. These tensions may be rooted in hunger, thirst, or other factors that create a state of discomfort, and the behaviour is aimed at returning the body to a more balanced physiological state.

Origins of Drive Reduction Theory

The drive reduction theory was first introduced by American psychologist Clark Hull in the 1940s. Hull saw it as a comprehensive explanation for human motivation, and it quickly became one of the most widely accepted theories of motivation.

In developing the theory, Hull was influenced by the regulatory mechanisms observed in the functioning of the human body, specifically the role of homeostasis. Homeostasis is the automated process of returning the body to a state of balance, where our internal needs are met, and we function optimally. By extension, drive reduction theory proposes that we are motivated to engage in behaviours that will return our bodies to this state of balance.

Understanding the Key Components of Drive Reduction Theory

The key components of drive reduction theory can be subdivided into four major components:


The drive refers to the internal state of tension or discomfort created when a basic physiological need is unfulfilled. For example, hunger creates a drive to seek food, and thirst creates a drive to find water. The intensity of the drive is influenced by the extent to which the need is unfulfilled and determines the degree of motivation that humans feel to engage in a particular behaviour or activity.

Drive-Reducing Behaviour:

Drive-reducing behaviour refers to the actions humans take to satisfy a physiological need and remove the tension or discomfort that was created by the drive. These behaviours, whether eating or drinking, release energy and promote the return to homeostasis.


Incentive refers to the external stimuli that motivate humans to engage in drive reducing behaviours. For example, the incentive for a thirsty person might be a glass of cold water, as such, incentives can significantly influence the intensity of drive and the actions an individual takes to reach a state of homeostasis.

Arousal Theory:

The arousal theory component of drive reduction theory suggests that individuals are motivated not just by the need to remove tension, but also to maintain an optimal level of arousal. This optimal level can differ between individuals and cultures, but in general, humans seek out activities that will produce the right amount of arousal for them.

Applying Drive Reduction Theory to Our Daily Lives

The drive reduction theory helps to explain a wide range of human behaviours, including many that we take for granted every day. For instance, most people have experienced the discomfort of hunger and the motivation that it creates to find food. Once we have met this basic need, the feeling of tension dissipates, and we are left feeling more content and comfortable.

The theory also explains why we engage in behaviours that might not be in our best interest in the long term, such as smoking or using drugs. These behaviours offer short-term relief from tension or discomfort but can lead to long-term negative health consequences.

Additionally, drive reduction theory helps us understand why external factors such as advertisements and social influence play such a massive role in our daily lives. Advertising works because it creates a need or desire and promotes products as the solution. Social influence also works by creating a desire to fit in with a particular group or peer pressure to engage in certain behaviours that may be irrelevant or counterproductive to our internal needs or homeostatic balance.

The Limitations of Drive Reduction Theory

Drive reduction theory has been a critical framework for understanding human behaviour for almost a century. However, some criticisms have been levelled at this theory:

Lack of Universalism:

Some critics argue that drive reduction theory cannot be universally applied and that its principles cannot fully explain the complexities of human behaviour. The theory’s framework is centred on homeostasis, which varies from person to person, thus making it challenging to create a universal theory.

Overemphasis on Biological Needs:

Another criticism against drive reduction theory is that it overemphasises biological needs to the detriment of other critical motivations. Emotions, socialisation, and other internal and external factors that influence human motivations may not be satisfactorily accounted for by the theory.

The Multitude of Needs:

The theory tends to be overly simplistic because it reduces human motivations and behaviours into basic physiological needs, such as hunger and thirst. The needs of people go beyond basic needs such as hunger or thirst; these complexities of human behaviour are inadequately addressed by drive reduction theory.


Drive Reduction Theory is an essential framework for understanding human behaviour and has helped explain the motivations behind our actions for almost a century. The theory focuses on the importance of physiological needs, such as hunger and thirst, and the tension and discomfort that arise when these needs are not met. It posits that humans are motivated to take action to satisfy these needs and reduce the discomfort or tension they create.

Although drive reduction theory has some limitations, it remains a valuable tool for understanding human behaviour today, and it has provided numerous insights into how and why we act the way we do. Its principals have even been applied in modern psychology with the development of therapeutic approaches geared to motivation regulation.


What is Drive Reduction Theory?

Drive Reduction Theory is a psychological theory which explains why individuals are motivated to satisfy their basic needs. It suggests that physiological needs, such as hunger, thirst, and sexual desire, create an internal state of tension or drive. This state of discomfort motivates individuals to act in a way that reduces the drive, thus satisfying their basic needs.

How does Drive Reduction Theory apply to daily life?

Drive Reduction Theory explains why individuals are motivated to satisfy their basic needs. It suggests that we are motivated by the desire to reduce tensions and restore a sense of balance or equilibrium. For example, when we feel thirsty, we are motivated to drink water to satisfy our need for water. When we feel hungry, we are motivated to eat food to satisfy our need for energy. This theory helps individuals understand their behavior and motivation in everyday life.

What are the limitations of Drive Reduction Theory?

Drive Reduction Theory has several limitations. First, it assumes that all behavior is motivated by physiological needs, which may not always be the case. Second, the theory does not consider the importance of psychological factors, such as social and cultural influences, which may also motivate behavior. Finally, the theory does not explain why some individuals are driven to seek out new experiences and challenges, which may contradict the basic drive to reduce tension.


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

2. Nunnally, J. C. (1978). Drive reduction: A critical review. Psychological Bulletin, 85(5), 1047-1078.

3. Solomon, R. L., & Corbit, J. D. (1974). An opponent-process theory of motivation: I. Temporal dynamics of affect. Psychological Review, 81(2), 119-145.