Drives, Needs & Desires Theories


Looking at wants and needs to make sense of why people do what they do

Principal Metaphors

Owing the range of foci and interpretations covered by this array of theories, a single cluster of associations cannot be specified. That said, most perspectives on “motivation” assume or assert some sort of goal– and so a large portion of Motivation Theories align with the Attainment Metaphor:
  • Knowledge is … a goal
  • Knowing is … goal-attaining action
  • Learner is … a seeker, striver (individual)
  • Learning is … journeying, arriving at, reaching, progressing, accomplishing, achieving
  • Teaching is … leading, guiding, directing, facilitating




Drives, Needs & Desires Theories are Motivation Theories that are focused mainly on meeting needs and satisfying desires. Fundamental associated constructs of these theories include:
  • Drive – a bodily tension that serves as a motivator. Most Drives are associated with either overcoming a deficiency (i.e., a Need, see below) or diminishing a negative experience. Types of Drive include:
    • Primary Drive – an innate Drive – that is, one rooted in the agent’s biology (e.g., avoidance of pain)
    • Secondary Drive (Acquired Drive) – a learned Drive – that is, one that is associated with or generalized from a Primary Drive (e.g., fear of bees, associated with stings, and thus based on an avoidance of pain)
  • Drive Theory (Drive Doctrine; Theory of Drives) – any perspective focused on defining or analyzing Drives.
  • Exploratory Drive – the label attached to whatever is motivating an agent to engage in Exploratory Behavior. Associated constructs include:
    • Exploratory Behavior ­– activities that may resemble Play (see Play-Based Learning) or Curiosity (see Motivation Theories) and that do not appear to be a matter of any basic drives or needs
    • Diversive Exploration  – those Exploratory Behaviors oriented toward novel and/or exciting experiences
    • Inspective Exploration – those Exploratory Behaviors oriented toward minimizing negative emotions (e.g., fear, anxiety)
  • Need – a state of deficiency
    • Felt Need – a conscious awareness of a physiological or emotional need
    • Need Reduction (Need Gratification) – the decrease of a need, usually by addressing the deficiency behind the need
Examples of Drives, Needs & Desires Theories (listed chronologically) include:
  • Hedonic Motivation (Hedonism) (commonly attribute to ancient Greeks) – a formalization of the commonsense realization that one moves toward something associated with pleasure and away from something threatenin
  • Behaviorisms (Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, B.F. Skinner, Edward Thorndike, late 1800s) – a suite of theories focused on associations between identifiable environmental stimuli and observable measurable behaviors
  • Psychoanalytic Theories (Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung, Harry Stack Sullivan, Jacques Lacan, and many others, 1880s) – a suite of theories focused on actions and interpretations that are not consciously mediated
  • Goal-Directed Behavior (Wallace Craig, 1910s) – activity that is oriented toward and motivated by ensuring a specific outcome. Subconstructs include:
    • Âppetitive Behavior (Wallace Craig, 1910s) – those aspects of Goal-Directed Behavior that precede the actual attainment of the goal. Appetitive Behavior is highly flexible and can be greatly influenced by learning.
    • Consummatory Behavior (Consummatory Act) (Wallace Craig, 1910s) – the culminating act of Goal-Directed Behavior, in which one partakes of the object of that activity
  • Drive-Reduction Theory (originally: Drive–Stimulus-Reduction Theory) (Clark Hull, 1940s) – a formalization of the commonplace observation that people are motivated by biological drives (e.g., hunger) that become more intense if left unsatisfied
  • Fulfillment Model – an umbrella notion that collects those Motivation Theories that position self-fulfillment as the primary consideration in human action
  • Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Abraham Maslow, 1940s) – a ranking of five categories of need (physiological, safety, love/belonging, self-esteem, self-actualization), asserting agents are motivated to meet more basic levels before higher-levels are addressed
  • Cognitive Dissonance Theory (Leon Festinger, 1950s) – a theory focusing on motivations triggered by desires to resolve inconsistent or incompatible thoughts/beliefs/claims
  • Drive-Induction Theory (Consummatory Response Theory of Reinforcement) (Frederick Sheffield, 1950s) – an alternative to Drive-Reduction Theory (see above), the suggestion that it is not the reduction in biological drive states (e.g., hunger) that motivates people, but the arousal associated with engaging in the activity associated with that drive (e.g., eating)
  • Murray’s Theory of Psychogenic Needs (Murray’s Need Theory) (Henry Alexander Murray, 1950s) – understanding “personality in terms of available possibilities for effective action, this theory is a perspective on personality that focuses on three influences that all operate mainly unconsciously: Motives, Presses, and Needs (which are subdivided into Primary Needs, which are based on biological necessities, and Secondary Needs, which are generally psychological). Associated needs with specific relevance to education include;
    • Need for Achievement (n-Ach) (Henry Alexander Murray, 1950s) – the compelling desire to high standards of performance, which is often associated with a Fixed Mindset (see Mindset)
  • Social Influence:
    • Informational Influence (Informational Social Influence) (Morton Deutsch, 1950s) – the need to be right – that is, those psychological and social processes that prompt one to question that appropriateness of one’s feelings, thoughts, and/or actions
    • Normative Influence (Normative Social Influence) (Morton Deutsch, 1950s) – the need to be liked – that is, those psychological and social processes that prompt one to feel, think, and/or act in ways that are consistent with the norms of the situation
  • ERG Theory (Existence, Relatedness, and Growth Theory) (Clayton P. Alderfer, 1960s) – a ranking of three groups of core needs (existence, relatedness, growth), in which motivation unmet needs at a higher level will motivate amplified efforts to meet lower level needs.
  • Need Theory (Three-Needs Theory) (David McClelland, 1960s) ­– the hypothesis that every human has three basic types of motivation – namely, the needs for achievement, affiliation, and power. The manner in which these needs interact is different for each individual, as influenced by personal experience and cultural values.
  • Need–Press Theory (Henry Alexander Murray, 1960s) – a perspective on personal motivation in terms of the combined influence of need (a state of deficiency) and press (a stimulus that arouses a need)
  • Optimal Stimulation Theory (Optimal Arousal Theory; Optimal Stimulation Principle) (Daniel Berlyne, 1960s) – the suggestion that organisms are motivated to learn those behaviors that lead to a desired level of stimulations
  • Reactance Theory (J.W. Brehm, 1960s) – Understanding “reactance” to refer to negative responses to events, circumstances, and persons that might diminish (or threaten to diminish) one’s liberties, Reactance Theory looks at how negative responses orient and activate one’s motivations and interests. Types of reactance include:
    •  Ironic Mental Control (Ironic Monitoring Process) (Daniel Wegner, 1990s) – the phenomenon of increasing unwanted thoughts by attempting to suppress them
    • Reversal Theory (K.C.P. Smith, M.J. Apter, 1970s) – an emotion-focused theory of motivation based on the observation that people tend to associate positive emotions with things that are going well and negative emotions with things that are disappointing
    • Reverse Psychology – a strategy to manipulate another’s attitudes and motivations by asserting the opposite of their desires or beliefs, with the hope that person will move toward the opposite of what is asserted (i.e., toward what is, in fact, desired)
    • Streisand Effect (2000s) – the phenomenon of inadvertently amplifying interest and attention in a piece of information by attempting to conceal, block, or delete that information
  • Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory (Jeffrey Alan Gray, 1970s) – a model that explains personal motivation in terms of the interactions of three independent biological systems:
    • Behavioral Approach System (Jeffrey Alan Gray, 1970s) – a physiological system that is asserted to be sensitive to rewards and to the avoidance of punishment, and that thus influences goal-oriented behaviors associated with positive outcomes
    • Behavioral Inhibition System (Jeffrey Alan Gray, 1970s) – a physiological system that is asserted to be sensitive to potential negative experiences, and thus that suppresses behaviors might trigger such outcomes
    • Fight–Flight–Freeze System (Jeffrey Alan Gray, 1970s) – a physiological system that responds to unfamiliar and undesired stimuli
  • Reward Theories (various, 1970s) – an umbrella category that includes those perspectives that focus on the role of rewards in influencing learning, decision-making, and behavior. Most Reward Theories pay particular attention to brain-based processes associated with rewards. Reward Theories span many applications, with most focused on social-relational matters. Subdiscourses include:
    • Mutual Reward Theory – the suggestion that a relationship is likely to grow stronger when the benefits of that association are perceived to be fairly distributed between the individuals
    • Positive Reward Theory – the suggestion that addictive behavior is anchored to the perception that the object of addiction brings pleasant and gratifying effects
    • Reward Theory of Attraction (Pawel Lewicki, 1980s) – the suggestion that one is attracted to those perceived to offer or enable pleasant, gratifying, fulfilling, or otherwise positive experiences
  • Self-Determination Theory (Edward L. Deci, Richard Ryan, 1970s) – how three psychological needs (competence, autonomy, relatedness) motivate action and define personality
  • Uses and Gratification Theory (Elihu Katz, Jay. G. Blumer, Michael Gurevitch, 1970s) – a framework for making sense of how and why people seek out specific media to satisfy specific needs
  • Energization Theory (Motivational Intentional Theory) (Jack Brehm, 1980s) – the proposal that one’s perceptions of the value and attainability of a goal is related to the efforts one is willing to expend to reach that goal
  • Hedonic Psychology (Daniel Kahneman, 1990s) – a perspective concerned with the pleasure–pain continuum across physiological, psychological, and social aspects, attending specifically to implications for motivation
  • 16 Basic Desires Theory (Steven Reiss, 1990s) – desires that motivate actions and define personalities (acceptance, curiosity, eating, family, honor, idealism, independence, order, physical activity, power, romance, saving, social contact, social status, tranquility, vengeance)
  • Tend and Befriend Theory (Shelley Taylor, 1990s) – the suggestion that members of some species manage threats by protecting offspring (“tending”) and being social for mutual defence (befriending). Tend and Befriend Theory was initially articulated as one alternative to Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory (see above).


An obvious first criticism of Motivation Theories in that, in general, they are overwhelmingly focused on individuals, with little attention paid to systems of activity. Drives, Needs & Desires Theories are frequently also accused of a reductive or diminished view of human motivation and possibility, in contrast to Cognitive Motivation Theories.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences


Status as a Theory of Learning

Some Drives, Needs & Desires Theories can be classified as theories of learning. Departing from most theories of learning, they focus more on the why’s than the how’s.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Most Drives, Needs & Desires Theories are concerned more with influencing learning than understanding learning, and so a majority are properly described as theories of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

As might be expected with the stunning range of foci and interpretations, Drives, Needs & Desires Theories span the full gamut of Folk Theories through rigorously scientific theories.


  • Âppetitive Behavior
  • Behavioral Approach System
  • Behavioral Inhibition System
  • Behaviorisms
  • Cognitive Dissonance Theory
  • Consummatory Behavior (Consummatory Act)
  • Drive
  • Drive Theory (Drive Doctrine; Theory of Drives)
  • Drive-Induction Theory (Consummatory Response Theory of Reinforcement)
  • Drive-Reduction Theory (Drive–Stimulus-Reduction Theory)
  • Energization Theory (Motivational Intentional Theory)
  • ERG Theory (Existence, Relatedness, and Growth Theory)
  • Felt Need
  • Fight–Flight–Freeze System
  • Fulfillment Model
  • Goal-Directed Behavior
  • Hedonic Motivation (Hedonism)
  • Hedonic Psychology
  • Informational Influence (Informational Social Influence)
  •  Ironic Mental Control (Ironic Monitoring Process)
  • Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
  • Murray’s Theory of Psychogenic Needs (Murray’s Need Theory)
  • Mutual Reward Theory
  • Need
  • Need for Achievement (n-Ach)
  • Need Reduction (Need Gratification)
  • Need Theory (Three-Needs Theory)
  • Need–Press Theory
  • Normative Influence (Normative Social Influence)
  • Positive Reward Theory
  • Primary Drive
  • Psychoanalytic Theories
  • Reactance Theory
  • Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory
  • Reversal Theory
  • Reverse Psychology
  • Reward Theories
  • Reward Theory of Attraction
  • Secondary Drive (Acquired Drive)
  • Self-Determination Theory
  • 16 Basic Desires Theory
  • Streisand Effect
  • Tend and Befriend Theory
  • Three Needs Theory
  • Uses and Gratifications Theory
  • Optimal Stimulation Theory (Optimal Arousal Theory; Optimal Stimulation Principle)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Drives, Needs & Desires Theories” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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