Drive reduction was a popular theory of the 1940s and 1950s that attributed behavior, motivation, and learning to a desire to reduce tension produced by either primary (biological) or secondary (acquired) drives.
Clark Hull (1884–1952), who termed himself a neo-behaviorist, proposed a single overarching theory to explain all aspects of behavior: drive reduction, or the innate desire to reduce tension and restore homeostasis (equilibrium) to the system. He sought to devise a single mathematical formula to explain learning. His theoretical framework for drive reduction theory was based upon the previous work by Charles Darwin, Ivan Pavlov, Edward Thorndike, and John Watson. It was also influenced by naturalistic observation of rational behavior: when organisms become cold, they seek warmth; when hungry, food; when thirsty, water, and so on. Discomfort, or lack of equilibrium, is seen as a drive, and behavior that creates drive reduction is experienced as a return to balance. Thus the motivation for learning or engaging in specific behaviors was the discomfort of the drive and the tension it caused within the organism. Hull sought a simple solution to all behaviors: Every action hinges on conditioning, reinforcement, and maintaining homeostasis. Drive reduction was considered innately reinforcing.
While the theory garnered some initial support, problems arose when trying to explain behaviors that increased, rather than decreased tension, such as extreme sports or intentional risk-taking (cliff-diving or ski jumping, for example). Hull's work also failed to account for engaging in drive-reducing behaviors when no drive was present, such as when humans eat due to boredom or drink in social situations when not thirsty. In addition, it was unable to account for the power of secondary reinforcers, such as money and credit cards. Money does not directly reduce tension or decrease a drive, although it can provide the means to do so, but many humans find acquisition of money innately reinforcing and pleasurable.
Similarly, drive theory could not adequately explain sexual behavior in humans or animals. For example, experiments showed that rats persisted in seeking sexual gratification even when their biological urges to mate were interrupted, and tension was not reduced.
Although drive reduction theory ultimately fell into disfavor, it significantly influenced later motivational theorists, who sought to find an alternative explanation for learning, motivation, and behavior such as that provided by Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
See also Clark Leonard Hull ; Learning theory ; Motivation ; Reinforcement .
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Drug abuse see Addiction/addictive personality