How Does Behavior Reduction Theory Explain Human Behavior?


Why are people motivated to do what they are doing? One of the first premises, the drive reduction theory, attempts to explain some of the basics.

Picture this: you are working remotely on your laptop when, on autopilot, you go to your kitchen, have a drink and fill it with water.

No one needed to tell you to do it. You don’t remember being consciously aware of getting up and hydrating. Yet here you are, standing in front of the sink.

What caused this behavior?

Suggested by an American psychologist Clark hull in the 1940s, drive reduction theory or drive motivation theory was conceptualized as a way to explain human learning and motivation.

It draws on the research of Charles Darwin and Ivan Pavlov on conditioning, among other notable names in psychology.

The theory of impulse reduction centers on the idea of ​​homeostasis. That is, humans are drawn to behaviors that can help them achieve physical and mental balance.

The rule of thumb is that motivation comes from your biological needs.

While this theory was popular in the 1940s and 1950s, it is no longer considered a viable explanation for human behavior.

The term “driving” refers to the tension or discomfort you feel when your biological needs are shifted into high gear, like a mental itch that needs to be scratched.

In the table below, the middle column represents the motivation that drives you to take action. The first column is the balance you reach with the action shown in the third column.

Hull suggested that if the reducing behavior – like eating, drinking, or having sex – brings you back to a state of homeostasis, you’re more likely to repeat that behavior.

This is a form of positive reinforcement (more on this later).

Hull used a mathematical formula, called Deductive Mathematical Theory of Behavior, to try to predict human behavior:

sER = V x D x K x J x sHR – sIr – Ir – sOr – sLr

It’s understood? OK, so here’s what that means:

  • sEr: excitatory potential, which is the likelihood of you responding to an internal stimulus
  • V: dynamism of stimulus intensity, which means that certain types of stimuli can drive you more than others
  • D: driving force, i.e. the strength of your biological urge, like being a little dry compared to peeing dark yellow
  • K: incentive motivation, or how big of the goal you are trying to achieve
  • J: how long you have to wait before you can try the reduction behavior again
  • sHr: strength of habit, which is the number of times you have already done this behavior
  • reflex: conditioned inhibition, which is the number of times the behavior has not given you the desired result
  • g / D: reactive inhibition, which is a fancy way of describing your fatigue
  • Where : random error
  • sLR: reaction threshold, i.e. the little reinforcement needed to learn a new behavior

Hull was a behaviorist, a popular approach to understanding motivation.

Simply put, behaviorism (also known as behavioral psychology) says that you learn by interacting with your environment.

Key concepts include:


Your excitement about life is part of what motivates you to take action. As your arousal levels change, you naturally take steps to get back to your “optimal” level, whatever it is.

If your excitement level is low, for example, you can book a ticket to a bucket list destination to find adventure and stimulate your senses.

On the other hand, if your arousal level is high, you can try spending some time on your own and catching up with a good book.


Homeostasis It is when an organism regulates its internal environment, such as body temperature, hydration levels, and blood sugar levels.

In psychology, homeostasis can also refer to keeping your mental state in balance.

Conditioning and strengthening

Conditioning is learning the world by reinforcement, for better or for worse. For example, studying to get an A on a test (positive) or being bitten by a dog (negative).

Positive reinforcement revolves around two groups of impulses:

  • main readers: thirst, hunger, sex
  • secondary disks: money social approval

Since the 1950s, more recent research pointed out a number of flaws in the drive reduction theory, which is why it is almost ignored today.

Some critics have said that while humans are wired for homeostasis, that doesn’t explain why people engage in risky behaviors, like bungee jumping or scuba diving.

On a related note, if humans are only motivated by biological needs, that doesn’t explain why people sometimes behave outside of those parameters, like when you grab a bag of crisps even though you don’t. are not hungry.

And what about motivating people with money, a secondary motivation? If the drive reduction theory states that we are only wired to reduce primary drives (thirst, hunger, sex), then that doesn’t explain why we will work harder for better pay.

Despite critical, Hull’s work helped spark other theories of learning and motivation.

In 1956, for example, a to study found that incentives had a similar effect to drive reduction, which paved the way for incentive theory. This indicates that sometimes you are motivated to do things because of the rewards.

Then there’s psychologist Abraham Maslow, who pitched his hierarchy of needs as an alternative to drive reduction theory – and it’s still in use today. This has helped shape our understanding of humanistic theory, which suggests that part of what we do is for cognitive reasons.

Although Hull’s work may have been called untenable (he cannot be supported), he certainly inspired other experts to keep digging, and made valuable contributions in this regard.

The drive reduction theory has attempted to explain simply why we take food when we are hungry or water when we are thirsty.

However, we now know that human beings are much more complicated.

This is no longer a popular theory as it cannot explain why we engage in complex behaviors when there is no biological necessity, among other reasons.

Yet the drive reduction theory has led to a number of alternatives that have led to better understanding of human behavior, learning, and motivation.


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