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. Examples include:
  • 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, late-1880s) – a suite of theories focused on actions and interpretations that are not consciously mediated
  • 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
  • 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
  • ERG 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.
  • Three Needs Theory (Need Theory; David McClelland, 1960s) – how three needs (achievement, power, affiliation) channel actions and attentions
  • 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
  • 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)
  • 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


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.


  • Behaviorisms
  • Cognitive Dissonance Theory
  • Drive-Reduction Theory (Drive–Stimulus-Reduction Theory)
  • ERG Theory
  • Hedonic Motivation (Hedonism)
  • Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
  • Psychoanalytic Theories
  • Self-Determination Theory
  • 16 Basic Desires Theory
  • Three Needs Theory
  • Uses and Gratifications Theory

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Drives, Needs & Desires Theories” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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