Need Theories

Among the best-known theories of work motivation in both academic and applied settings are models predicated on the assumption that, at root, humans are need-driven creatures, most of whose behavior can best be understood by examining their need states and identifying the goals or goal states they seek to satisfy their needs.

What is a need?

A variety of definitions of need have been offered, but the one favored by the author is attributable to Henry A. Murray. In his 1938 book Explorations in Personality, Murray wrote, first, that need is a hypothetical construct, not a physical entity: We cannot assess it directly or determine its color. It has no physical mass, density, or specific gravity. Second, Murray’s definition also implies that a person in a state of need feels a force that activates and helps to direct him or her. Third, according to Murray, needs can be aroused by characteristics of the environment. A fourth feature of Murray’s definition is that it helps us understand approach behaviors as well as avoidance behaviors. Needs are also tightly connected with emotions, although whether there are one-to-one connections between particular needs and specific emotions is still being examined by psychologists.

Needs and Behavior

Perhaps the most important point in Murray’s definition has to do with the connection between needs and behavior. A number of points need elaboration here. First, not all need-driven, goal-oriented behavior is successful in reaching the goals sought. The result is defined as frustration, and sometimes fantasy must suffice to quell the force generated by a need. Nevertheless, observing behavior as a means to infer a person’s needs can be a tricky proposition. One reason for this difficulty is that most needs, except for the most basic biological ones, are said to be overdetermined—that is, instigated and directed by more than one motive. Hence, any behavior, such as quitting a job, may be motivated by the frustration of many needs, as well as by the attraction of an alternative job that may help to satisfy those frustrated needs and even satisfy other needs. Moreover, different people may seek the satisfaction of a common need through different behaviors. Jon may seek a leadership position in his union to satisfy power and affiliation needs, whereas Marie may coach junior hockey to satisfy her needs for power and affiliation. In short, there is a complex relationship between needs and behavior, and we frequently project our own need state or behavior state onto others, assuming that others behave the same way(s) we do when in need.

Consider the difficulty involved in making inferences about the need(s) that determine a person’s behavior. First, as previously mentioned, most motivated behavior is said to be overdetermined, meaning that deliberately or inadvertently, behavior is driven by the force to satisfy more than one need.

For example, an employee might seek a promotion for the sake of meeting several needs (although the person may be more conscious of the importance of some of them than others). The same need may be satisfied by any of a variety of acts. So our upwardly aspiring employee may in part be seeking greater satisfaction of esteem needs. Notice that gaining a promotion is one way—but only one way—to meet esteem needs. Volunteer service after hours or becoming president of the employees’ union are alternative behaviors that might be employed. In short, there is no one-to-one relationship between the force of a particular need and the type of behavior observed. To complicate matters, there is a common tendency for people to project: their own need-behavior styles into their interpretations of the behavior. (For example, one might conclude that a friend accepted a position at the grocery store rather than a flower shop because it is closer to his or her house. Here, the mistake would be attributing to the friend a preference for short commutes to work, mostly because the person making the attribution hates to commute long distances to work!)

Need Satisfaction

Need satisfaction is usually thought of as the feeling of relief or reduced tension that occurs after a goal has been attained or an act has been accomplished (e.g., a funny stomach following a favorite meal). In the case of certain needs, however, satisfaction may consist more of the experience one has while in the process of reducing the tension. Continuing our example, satisfaction consists of both the joy of eating and the state of having eaten. Moreover, greater satisfaction can occur when more tension is reduced, so people may be motivated to deprive themselves of gratification (within safe limits) so that they can experience greater subsequent satisfaction from the process of need fulfillment. Sexual foreplay illustrates this principle, as does the notion of not eating lunch to ensure that one has a strong appetite for a special dinner.

Typologies of Needs

Much of the modern work on need theory has been devoted to making categories of needs. David McClelland, a student of Murray, spent much of his career pursuing the measurement and behavioral significance of three particular needs: power, affiliation, and achievement. Early work in this tradition suffered from problems of measurement, inasmuch as it relied heavily on the use of projective techniques to assess the strength of these needs in individuals. Nevertheless, the tradition started by McClelland and his colleagues has revealed considerable insight into the power-need profiles of effective and ineffective leaders and managers. McClelland and D. G. Winter even demonstrated in 1969 how the levels of achievement orientation in a society relate to its prosperity, and they had some success in developing achievement motivation in Third World countries, resulting in increased levels of entrepreneurial behavior in those countries.

Hierarchical Theories

McClelland never suggested any relationships among his need categories, whereas another famous American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, did. His 1943 hierarchical theory of human motivation is among the most paradoxical approaches to work motivation. On the one hand, it is one of the most familiar theories among academics and practitioners, as noted by J. B. Miner in 2003. On the other hand, it is likely the most misunderstood and most frequently oversimplified and misrepresented. For decades after it was proposed, the theory enjoyed only mixed and poor evidence of scientific validity. But it has remained popular nevertheless.

Maslow’s theory holds that there are basically five categories of human needs and that these needs account for much or most of human behavior. The needs vary in their relative prepotency, or urgency for the survival of the individual, arranging themselves in a hierarchical order of importance. As the most prepotent needs become reasonably satisfied, the less prepotent ones (the higher-order needs) become increasingly important for causing behavior.

The most prepotent needs in the theory are physiological in nature. They function in a homeostatic fashion, such that imbalances or deficiencies in certain physiological substances instigate behavior aimed at restoring the balance by filling the deficiencies. Hunger, sex, and thirst are three examples of such needs. Next come the physiological needs, or so-called security needs. When unfulfilled, they possess the same sort of potential for dominating a person’s behavior as the physiological needs do when they are not being met. Later versions of this model have often combined these two categories into one set, arguing that need frustration or a threat is equally powerful in instigating and directing behavior, whether posed at the physiological or security level.

The love needs are next in importance; that is, they take on comparatively more influence in behavior as the physiological and safety needs are reasonably satisfied. The individual desires relations with other people, and he or she will feel more compelled than before to achieve such relations. Feelings of loneliness, ostracism, rejection, and friendlessness will become more acute. Maslow claimed in 1954 that the thwarting of the love needs is at the root of many cases of maladjustment. The theory claims that people need both to give and to receive love, and that social interactions need not be cordial to satisfy these needs.

The esteem needs are the next most prepotent category in the hierarchy. Maslow groups them into two sets: one includes desires for strength, achievement, adequacy, mastery and competence, independence, freedom, and a fundamental confidence in facing the world. The second set consists of needs for prestige and reputation—the esteem of others. It motivates people to seek recognition, praise, dominance, glory, and the attention of other people.

The esteem needs are seen as less prepotent than the highest set of needs on the hierarchy—the so-called need for self-actualization. In his various writings, Maslow provided differing interpretations of the meaning of this need, but the clearest and most widely accepted view is that it consists of a requirement for individuals to fulfill their potentials, to become that which they are capable of becoming. An important feature of self-actualization needs is that they express themselves in different behaviors in different people. Moreover, the satisfaction of self-actualization needs tends to increase their importance rather than reduce it—they become somewhat addictive. This difference between self-actualization and the other needs in the hierarchy makes it the most unusual. These are the primary elements of Maslow’s theory. More detailed descriptions and interpretations of the research into the theory were given by C. C. Pinder in 1998.

Existence, Relatedness, and Growth

About the time Maslow completed his writings about human needs, in 1972, Harold Alderfer generated and tested an alternative to Maslow’s model, the theory of existence, relatedness, and growth. This model has its roots in Maslow’s work, as well as in the theory and research of a number of other psychologists before Maslow who had been concerned with human motivation.

The theory posits three general categories of human needs, categories similar to, and partly derived from, those in Maslow’s model. All of the needs are seen as primary, meaning they are innate to human nature, rather than learned, although learning increases their strength.

The first set in the model is referred to as the existence needs. They correspond closely to the physiological and security needs Maslow associated with species survival. Research by Alderfer and others justifies combining them into a single category.

Similarly, the goals typically sought by people to satisfy what Maslow calls love needs are fundamentally the same as those that are necessary to provide for the need for prestige or the esteem of others, as well as for the interpersonal-security needs included in the second level of Maslow’s hierarchy. Successful satisfaction of each of the needs identified by Maslow requires interaction with other human beings and the development of meaningful relationships with others. Moreover, each of these three varieties of social needs, on a logical level at least, seem equally important, or prepotent. Therefore, these specific Maslovian needs are combined by Alderfer as the relatedness needs. Alderfer’s third category roughly combines Maslow’s concepts of self-esteem and self-actualization into a category he calls the growth needs.

Current Assessment of Need Theories of Work Motivation

As mentioned, decades of research following the publication of Maslow’s work were not very encouraging. It took a while even to establish the distinctiveness of the categories. Cross-cultural work by Simcha Ronen in 1994 established at least a two-level hierarchy, with evidence that the physiological and security needs do form a coherent set, whereas the other needs may be essentially of equal importance among themselves. As in the case of so many theories of work motivation, it may be that the need theories of work motivation are more valid than social scientists are capable of demonstrating, given the practical problems of measurement, manipulation (for experimentation), and generalization, not to mention the ethics of conducting internally valid research into this subject on human beings.


  1. Alderfer, C. P. (1972). Existence, relatedness, and growth. New York: Free Press.
  2. Latham, G. P., & Pinder, C. C. (2005). Work motivation theory and research at the dawn of the 21st century. Annual Review of Psychology, 56, 485-516.
  3. Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper & Row.
  4. McClelland, D. C., & Winter, D. G. (1969). Motivating economic achievement. New York: Free Press.
  5. Miner, J. B. (2003). The rated importance, scientific validity, and practical usefulness of organizational behavior theories: A quantitative review. Academy of Management Learning and Education, 2, 250-268.
  6. Murray, H. (1938). Explorations in personality. New York: Oxford University Press.
  7. Pinder, C. C. (1998). Work motivation in organizational behavior. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  8. Pinder, C. C. (in press). Work motivation in organizational behavior (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  9. Ronen, S. (1994). An underlying structure of motivational need taxonomies: A cross-cultural confirmation. In M. D. Dunnette & L. M. Hough (Eds.), Handbook of industrial and organizational psychology (Vol. 4, pp. 241-269). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

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