Drive-Reduction Theory

a.k.a. Drive Theory or Hull’s Motivational Theory

Needs, level of imbalance (how far from homeostasis), type of environment (stable or changing), Primary and Secondary drives.

DOMAINS:Psychology, Biology, Education, Health Science and Marketing
ContributorsBrandon Priddy
School of Information Studies
Syracuse University
Clark L. Hull primary developer, Kenneth W. Spence contributor


Key terms:

Drive (motivation) caused by an imbalance; it’s the effort that will be expended for the need to be resolved.

Primary Drives: hunger, thirst, sex and shelter.

Secondary Drives: money, material possessions, social status, fame etc…

Homeostasis (Biological term): the relaxed state for an organism where all needs are being met.  It’s the state that organisms strive to exist in.

Tension: a negative state where needs are not being met.


Hull viewed all motivation as originating from biological variances (needs). According to Hull, behavior could be considered as an external display of an individual’s quest to fulfill deficiencies (Hull, Principles of Behavior). “When a rat is placed under a drive (hunger, for example) its level of discomfort is high and it is driven to seek ways of exchanging a “product” (the labour of activities such as bar-pressing) for a source of comfort (food pellets). If the rat is successful in obtaining food then…the necessity for work will progressively decrease until satiation is reached, when work will stop. Applications of that reasoning…would lead to the conclusion that the underlying form of all learning curves approximates to a simple positive growth function” (Mills p. 125).

Regarding Learning:

A habit is formed when an action is met with an outcome that reduces need. Hull “defined habit strength as the strength of the bond between a stimulus and a response…the bond was literally considered learning” (Wilson p. 2). Key to Drive Reduction Theory is the idea of reinforcement. For example, “a hungry rat that is allowed to eat after having pressed a bar will reduce its hunger drive. Drive reduction would then reinforce bar pressing” (Balkenius p. 6). The strength of a habit “will continue to increase each time a response reduces drive” (Wilson p. 2). Therefore, a rat will associate pressing a bar with satisfying hunger.

Since humans are more complicated than rats, there is some difficulty adapting the concepts of this model to support modern theories of learning. However, “[Hull] maintains the first step in learning is to identify and eliminate competitive responses. These responses are tendencies to react which an instructor would consider inappropriate. Furthermore, the teacher should not be content with teaching one solution to a problem but instead, whenever possible, should introduce a variety of techniques for solving problems” (Dubin, Okun pp. 5-6).


There are limits to the utilization of Hullian Theory, “The empirical data that support Hullian theory are derived almost entirely from infra-human populations, especially rats…The complexity of building so comprehensive a behavior system necessarily delays the specifications of cross species generalizations from within-species data. Therefore, the vast amount of research on functional relationships between various Hullian constructs appears to have little direct applicability to humans. Another problem…is the relatively stable environment in which the studies have been conducted…Performance in educational setting, in contrast, involves complex responses in relatively labile [fluctuating] environments” (Cellura pp. 353-4). Furthermore, Drive Theory is unable to explain human actions that create, and not reduce, tension (e.g. addictions or risky behavior such as bungee jumping). It also cannot explain why organisms will yearn for an experience or resource long after the biological imperative has been satisfied.


Although Drive Reduction theory is now considered inadequate to explain the entirety of human behavior and motivation, it’s still regarded as “one of the most influential ideas in psychology ever” (Balkenius p. 6). Key to motivation is identifying the needs of an individual and promoting an environment or a behavior that satisfies them. Elements of it have been used in other psychology theories, and it has also been adapted for a wide variety of practices including education, scientific research, health science (particularly dieting and body building theories that urge the creation of smaller and easier to obtain goals than drastic hard to reach ones) and marketing tactics (e.g. promoting brand loyalty or impulse buys) (Rossiter, Foxall p. 128).
REFERENCES ~ Coding Spreadsheet - Web View

Criteria for selection: a) scholarly journal articles, b) peer reviewed, c) search terms include theory name, education, learning, library media center, library, “research skills” etc. The goal is to find articles for the theory under study which considers the theory in the domain of learning. The gems we are looking for are those that consider learning in libraries and more specifically developing research skills in libraries and school library media centers.


  • Balkenius, C. (1994). Biological Learning and Artificial Intelligence. Lund University Cognitive Science, 3(2), 6.

  • Cellura, R. (1969). The Application of Psychological Theory in Educational Setting: An Overview. American Educational Research Journal, 6(3), 353-4.

  • Dubin, S., & Okun, M. (1973). Implications of Learning Theories For Adult Instruction. Adult Education, XXIV(1), 5-6.
  • Hull, C. L. (1943). Principles of Behavior, an Introduction to Behavior Therapy. New York: D. Appleton-Century.

  • Mills, J. (1978). Hull's Theory of Learning: ll. A Criticism of the Theory and its Relationship to the History of Psychological Thought. Canadian Psychological Review, 19(2), 125.

  • Rossiter, J., & Foxall, G. (2008). Hull-Spence Behavior Theory as a Paradigm for Consumer Behavior. Marketing Theory, 8(123), 128.

  • Wilson, J. (2005). Hull’s Quantitative Equation on Human Performance. Journal of HYPERplasia Research, 5(2), 1-4.