Drive Theory

Drive Theory Definition

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

Drive TheoryClark 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 likely 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 likely given the skills humans have. When drives are activated, people are likely 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 likely 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 likely 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 likely 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.