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Drive Reduction Theory

psychology experiments tension person reduced optimal

A popular theory of the 1940s and 1950s that attributed behavior to the desire to reduce tension produced by primary (biological) or secondary (acquired) drives.

Many psychologists believed that all motivation depended upon the pleasure experienced when basic needs are met. A person who is hungry, for instance, eats in order to reduce the tension that hunger produces. All human behavior could be attributed to the pleasure gained when these drive-induced tensions were reduced.

Drive reduction theory lost favor over the years because it failed to explain human actions that produced, rather than reduced, tension. Many people enjoy riding roller coasters or skydiving, for instance, despite the fact that such activity may cause fear and anxiety. 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 thus tension was not reduced.

More modern motivational theory includes the principal of optimal arousal, that is, individuals act to maintain an appropriate—rather than a minimal—level of stimulation and arousal. Optimal levels vary from person to person, which explains why some people drive race cars and others prefer an evening at the symphony.

Further Reading

Atkinson, Rita L.; Richard C. Atkinson; Edward E. Smith; and Ernest R. Hilgard. Introduction to Psychology. 9th ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987.

Zimbardo, Philip G. Psychology and Life. 12th ed. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1988.

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