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Drive Reduction Theory of Motivation: Definition, Examples & Quiz

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Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught Psychology and has a master's degree in Clinical Forensic Psychology, and will earn a PhD in 2015.

There is nothing as motivating to you as the need to eat and drink. You are driven by these biological needs, they motivate you to satisfy them. But why do you work? You are sitting at this computer, not out there finding deer to hunt or edible plants to eat. Why?

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Are you hungry right now? Maybe you should go get a snack. Thirsty? Go get a drink of water. If your chair is uncomfortable and causing you pain, you will need to find a new chair. When your body tells you that you, 'NEED SOMETHING!' or that you need to, 'CHANGE SOMETHING!' this is your body giving you a drive.

The Main Idea

Drive Reduction Theory of Motivation can be simply described as: you don't want to be hungry, thirsty, in pain, or horny. If your body wants something, that want is the drive. You are motivated to reduce the drive.

Normal

The title of this section is a little misleading. Normal here means your needs have been met, so you are not wanting anything like food, water, or sex. When one of these is wanted or needed, it means you are not operating at your homeostatic norm. Your homeostatic norm is when you don't need or want anything; you are satisfied. Homeostasis is a balancing act, where every need tilts and unbalances the system. When there is a drive, it means your body wants a certain something to continue functioning.

Shift

Your homeostatic norm can be shifted. Sometimes this can occur due to brain damage, but it most often occurs because a person begins taking drugs. Homeostatic shift is when your body begins to crave substances it does not originally need, but over time has come to depend on them. For example, certain drugs cause the brain to release large amounts of brain chemicals. Over time the brain only releases these chemicals when the drug is present, and in smaller and smaller amounts. At one time the drug made them high, but after several dozen uses they need the drug to feel normal.

This means their homeostatic norm has shifted. The drug becomes another need like food or water. Without the drug they are in agony because the drug has artificially changed the structure of the brain so the need for the drug is stronger than the need for food, water, or sex. Anyone's body can go a day or two without food and they will be unhappy; similarly, the changes made in the brain of a drug user make quitting extremely painful.

Drive Reduction

Drive Reduction Theory was first established by Clark Hull. Hull was interested in applying mathematical formulas to psychology, and it is simple to see how this works with the Drive Reduction Theory.

If you have achieved homeostasis your motivation is 0, since you have no drives to reduce. If you are hungry, then your drive is increased to 1. If you are really hungry, your drive becomes 2. If you are thirsty your drive to satisfy the hunger and thirst becomes 3. As drives accumulate your overall motivation increases.

Primary vs. Secondary Drives

You may have noticed that human behaviors go far beyond getting food, water, and sex, and being comfortable. If you are reading this right now, you are LITERALLY not obtaining any of those. But you are working towards them by way of a secondary drive.

Primary drives are biological needs which provide you motivation. If you are hungry, you look for food. If you are thirsty, you look for water. These drives keep you alive.

Food
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Water
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Pain Free
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Secondary drives are drives that are associated with the primary drives. Going to work is not fun, or not as fun as running around and doing whatever you want. But working gets you money, and money gets you food, water, and more. You have been conditioned to link the primary drives to the secondary drives. Meaning you are driven to accomplish secondary drives (like work for money) to satisfy your primary drives (food and water). Your brain has been conditioned so thought pathways make these secondary drives nearly as powerful as your primary drives.

Motivated to Get
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Examples

Primary Drive, Simple

  • You are hungry
  • You find food
  • You eat food
  • You are no longer hungry

It does not get more basic than this. Your body has shifted out of its homeostatic norm and you are motivated by your drive to eat.

Secondary Drive, Simple

  • You have been hungry in the past
  • You will be hungry in the future
  • To get food you need money
  • You go to work to get money
  • With money you buy food

The secondary drive, having money, is what is used to satisfy primary drives, like having food, water, and a place to live. The secondary drive, having money, is satisfied by working a job.

Shifted Primary Drive

  • Joe needs heroin
  • Joe is in severe pain without heroin in his system
  • Joe gets heroin into his system
  • Joe's homeostasis has returned to normal

Joe, in this example, has shifted his homeostatic norm. To be at his homeostatic norm he must have heroin in his system. Because heroin has rewired Joe's brain, his drive to avoid pain has overridden all other primary drives.

Summary

If you are not at your homeostatic norm, you then have a primary drive that needs to be reduced. Primary needs are things you cannot live without, like food, water, air, and a pain-free environment. Often, to obtain these primary drives we have secondary drives. Secondary drives are associated with primary drives. For example, working at a job will get you money, and money will buy you food. There is an association and a link. Your homeostatic norm can be shifted by introducing things like drugs, which rewrite your brain and turn the need for the drug into a primary drive.

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