Drive reduction theory (learning theory)

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In learning theory, drive reduction theory is a type of motivational theory. Drive Reduction Theory, developed by Clark Hull in 1943, was the first theory for motivation.[1]

According to such theorists as Clark Hull and Kenneth Spence, drive reduction is a major cause of learning and behavior. Primary drives are innate drives (e.g. thirst, hunger, and sex), whereas secondary drives are learned by conditioning (e.g. money). Doris Kraeling and Byron Campbell experimented to determine if “reduction would be more effective as a reinforcer if the initial drive were low than if the initial drive were high.” Their findings are quite surprising: “Changes in stimuli are more discriminable at low levels of stimulus intensity than at higher levels of stimulus intensity”.[2]

Multiple drives are what happen when an organism is faced with more than one need at the same time. Research has shown that this condition affects learning. In psychological vernacular “generalized conditioned reinforce has greater learned reward value than a simple conditioned reinforce”.[3] These findings mean that multiple drives lead to quicker learning than a singular drive.

There are several problems that leave the validity of drive theory open for debate. The first problem is that it does not explain how secondary reinforcers reduce drive. For example, money does not itself satisfy any biological or psychological need, but it reduces drive on a regular basis by a pay check. Secondly, drive reduction theory has trouble explaining why humans and other animals voluntarily increase tension by exploring their environments, even when they are not hungry or thirsty.[citation needed]

There are also the complications to drive reduction theory caused by so-called “pleasure-seeking” behaviors, which seem to be contradictory to the theory’s precepts. Why would an individual actively seek out more stimulation if it is already in a state of relaxation and fulfillment? A good example is when an individual leaves home to go to a potentially dangerous carnival. There is no base physiological drive to go to the carnival but the individual exhausts resources to go there. Judson Brown attempts to explain this phenomenon “the sensory consequences of most responses are practically never intense enough to provide increments to the drive level”.[4] So the base physiological drive is vastly more powerful than other stimuli encountered. This makes sense because an organism will first learn to obtain food and water before it tries other more frivolous pursuits.

Drive is essential in order for responses to occur (i.e., the student must want to learn). Stimuli and responses must be detected by the organism in order for conditioning to occur ( i.e., the student must be attentive). Response must be made in order for conditioning to occur (i.e., the student must be active). Conditioning only occurs if the reinforcement satisfied a need (i.e., the learning must satisfy the learner's wants).

Clark Hull aimed to develop a learning theory that could be deduced mathematically. He created the "Mathematico Deductive Theory of Behavior:" sER = (V x D x K x J x sHr) – (sIr + Ir) +/- sOr (Thomson, 1968).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dewey, R. (2007). Psychology: An introduction. Retrieved from
  2. ^ Campbell, B., & Krealing, D. (1953). response strength as a function of drive level and amount of drive reduction. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 45, 97-101. Retrieved from[permanent dead link]
  3. ^ Wike, E., & Barrientos, G. (1958). secondary reinforcement and multiple drive reduction. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 51, 640-643. Retrieved from[permanent dead link]
  4. ^ Brown, J. (1955). pleasure-seeking behavior and the drive-reduction hypothesis. Psychological Review, 62, 169-179. Retrieved from[permanent dead link]

Further reading[edit]