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What drives human behavior?

Notes on Driven by Paul R. Lawrence & Nitin Nohria

There are four core human drives that shape how people think and behave. Understanding these core drives helps us understand what people want, as well as find ways to help others fulfill them — the central function of business. The more drives your offer appeals to, the more appealing it will be to your potential customers.

About Paul R. Lawrence and Nitin Nohria

Paul R. Lawrence is the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Organizational Behavior, Emeritus at Harvard Business School. Nitin Nohria is now the dean of Harvard Business School.

1. Human beings have four fundamental, biological drives: acquiring, bonding, learning, defending.

We’re in the business of helping our customers. Our customers are human beings, with wants, desires, and needs of their own. If you want to succeed in business, you must have a clear idea of what people want and need — what they’re driven to seek for themselves.

Lawrence and Nohria’s four drive theory helps to explain what humans want, as well as why they want those things. On the whole, humans love to:

  • Acquire — both material goods, as well as immaterial things like status, power, and influence.
  • Bond — form relationships and interact with other people.
  • Learn — explore new areas of life, practice new skills, and satisfy curiosity.
  • Defend — protect what is “ours,» and drive away threats to our safety and security.

2. If you want to succeed in business, it pays to understand what people want. Markets form around core human drives.

The four drive theory can serve as a starting point for discovering what people want enough to pay for. Whenever a person believes (either consciously or subconsciously) they don’t have “enough» of one of these core drives, they’ll do what they can to get more.

Understanding these drives helps you understand human behavior. As we discussed in Making Sense of Behavior, humans act when a perception is outside of a certain range. These drives help explain what people are actually controlling for on a high level.

When enough people feel a need in one of these areas, a market forms — a group of people who are willing to try something new and potentially pay for a solution.

Here’s an exercise for you: go through the list of current Fortune 500 companies — the largest businesses in the world. All of them meet a need related to one (or more) of these four drives. Wal-Mart and Target are acquiring businesses. Boeing and Raytheon are defending businesses, etc.

3. Drives are subconscious: all people want them at some level almost all of the time.

The four drives are universal — they transcend age, status, and culture. The drives describe the human experience, and we all want all of them all of the time. As a result, these drives are useful when examining how people are currently behaving, as well as predicting how they’re likely to behave in the future.

4. Drives are emotional, and serve to provide context to rationality: goals, intentions, purpose, and motive.

When it comes to making good decisions, emotions are essential. It’s common to think of rationality as being Spock-like — unemotional and coldly logical. That’s not an accurate picture of the role of emotion in decision-making.

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Emotions are an important part of rationality. The universal drives are felt at an emotional level, and help us use our minds to get what we want. These built-in control systems help ensure that our minds are focused on high-priority issues: matters that will improve our odds of biological and reproductive success vs. more trivial matters.

5. Drives evolved to help us survive and thrive in our ancestral environment.

It’s important to understand that these drives help us stay alive and in the good graces of other people. Without them, we’d make decisions that wouldn’t serve us biologically. We’d do things that jeopardized our survival, threatened our place in society, and reduced our chances of finding a suitable mate.

Any particular individual may have a greater or lesser developed need for one of these drives, but the drive is always there on some level. A “minimalist» may seek to reduce the number of items they acquire, but they still must acquire enough to live.

6. The Drive to Acquire: material goods and immaterial status, influence, and power.

Humans have the need to acquire things. Some of these items are necessary for survival, like food and shelter. Some of these items are more directly tied to social status — things that influence how other people perceive us, like luxury items, large homes, and expensive cars.

Businesses that cater to the drive to acquire include retail stores, vehicle manufacturers, and groceries.

7. The Drive to Bond: forming social relationships, communicating, and the feeling of belonging.

Humans have the need to bond with other people. We need to feel connected to others — so much so that prolonged solitary confinement is torture. Businesses that cater to the drive to bond include telecommunications, conferences, restaurants, and dating services.

Consider websites like Twitter and Facebook: they primarily fill a bonding need, with a subtext of acquiring new “friends» or “followers.» A major part of the rapid adoption of these tools came from a felt need — that it was difficult to keep in touch with far-flung friends and associates, and using these services help people feel less alone.

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8. The Drive to Learn: curiosity, exploration, questioning, and pushing boundaries.

Humans have the need to learn new things. Curiosity is a part of the human condition, and without consistently learning and trying new things, people quickly become restless and bored.

Businesses that cater to the drive to learn include publishers, seminars, and self-improvement offerings.

9. The Drive to Defend: identifying threats, protecting self and others, and seeking safety.

Humans have the need to defend themselves and their domains. Whenever we feel threatened in some way — physically or socially — we spring into defensive mode. We start to think of ways that we can defend ourselves, our property, and our clan against danger.

Defending also applies to the specter of potential loss — losses that haven’t happened yet, but might happen in the future. For example, the survivalist community has been preparing for “The End of the World as We Know It» for decades, even though major losses haven’t happened. (But they might — in the mind of a “prepper,» better safe than sorry.)

Businesses that cater to the drive to defend include martial arts studios, weapon manufacturers, and home security systems.

10. Multiple drives can be active at the same time: the more drives an action invokes, the more compelling that action becomes.

Drives combine multiplicatively — the more drives an opportunity or action engages, the more intensely we’ll feel motivated to act.

Consider social games like World of Warcraft. The game has been specifically engineered to appeal to all four core drives. The major progression element of the game is tied to getting better gear, and better gear leads to higher social status — acquisition. The only way to advance to the highest levels is to join and advance in a guild — bonding. Doing these things requires exploring new dungeons and constantly developing tactics to defeat the enemy — learning. Failing to do these things results in the death of your character and possible eviction from your guild — defending.

Is it any wonder World of Warcraft is such an addicting game? The more drives your offer appeals to, the more compelling your offer becomes.

The Drive to Feel

I believe Lawrence and Nohria missed (or left out) a major drive: the drive to feel. Human beings have the need to be emotionally engaged on a daily basis — too little sensory stimulation (beyond that of curiosity or bonding) creates a drive to seek it.

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Consider going to the movies. You’re not acquiring anything. Any bonding that happens with others happens before or after the movie. You very rarely learn something new. Seeing the movie doesn’t remove any threat.

The major effect of a good movie is to provoke your emotions — to guide you to feel something. The movies that get the best reviews, and do the best in the box office, are the movies that provoke our emotions the most.

Never underestimate the power of appealing to your customers on an emotional level.

What Motivation Theory Can Tell Us About Human Behavior

Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the «Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)» and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.

Updated on April 17, 2021
Medically reviewed

Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more.

Researchers have developed a number of theories to explain motivation. Each individual theory tends to be rather limited in scope. However, by looking at the key ideas behind each theory, you can gain a better understanding of motivation as a whole.

Motivation is the force that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behaviors. It is what causes us to take action, whether to grab a snack to reduce hunger or enroll in college to earn a degree. The forces that lie beneath motivation can be biological, social, emotional, or cognitive in nature. Let’s take a look at each one.

Instinct Theory of Motivation

Man with snowshoes walking on a snowy mountain

According to instinct theories, people are motivated to behave in certain ways because they are evolutionarily programmed to do so. An example of this in the animal world is seasonal migration. Animals do not learn to migrate to certain places at certain times each year; it is instead an inborn pattern of behavior. Instincts motivate some species to do this.

William James identified a list of human instincts that he believed were essential to survival, including fear, anger, love, shame, and modesty. The main problem with this theory is that it did not really explain behavior, it just described it. James presumed that we act on impulse, but that leaves out all the learning/conditioning that informs behavior.

By the 1920s, instinct theories were pushed aside in favor of other motivational theories, but contemporary evolutionary psychologists still study the influence of genetics and heredity on human behavior.

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Drive Theory

According to the drive theory of motivation, people are motivated to take certain actions in order to reduce the internal tension that is caused by unmet needs. For example, you might be motivated to drink a glass of water in order to reduce the internal state of thirst.

The drive theory is based on the concept of homeostasis, or the idea that the body actively works to maintain a certain state of balance or equilibrium.

This theory is useful in explaining behaviors that have a strong biological or physiological component, such as hunger or thirst. The problem with the drive theory of motivation is that these behaviors are not always motivated purely by drive, or the state of tension or arousal caused by biological or physiological needs. For example, people often eat even when they are not really hungry.

Arousal Theory

The arousal theory of motivation suggests that people take certain actions to either decrease or increase levels of arousal.

When arousal levels get too low, for example, a person might watch an exciting movie or go for a jog. When arousal levels get too high, on the other hand, a person would probably look for ways to relax, such as meditating or reading a book.

According to this theory, we are motivated to maintain an optimal level of arousal, although this level can vary based on the individual or the situation.

Humanistic Theory

Humanistic theories of motivation are based on the idea that people also have strong cognitive reasons to perform various actions. This is famously illustrated in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which describes various levels of needs and motivations.

Maslow’s hierarchy suggests that people are motivated to fulfill basic needs before moving on to other, more advanced needs. For example, people are first motivated to fulfill basic biological needs for food and shelter, then to progress through higher needs like safety, love, and esteem. Once these needs have been met, the primary motivator becomes the need for self-actualization, or the desire to fulfill one’s individual potential.

Maslow was interested in learning about what makes people happy and the things that they do to achieve that aim, rather than focusing on problematic behaviors.

Incentive Theory

The incentive theory suggests that people are motivated to do things because of external rewards. For example, you might be motivated to go to work each day for the monetary reward of being paid.

Behavioral learning concepts such as association and reinforcement play an important role in this theory of motivation. This theory shares some similarities with the behaviorist concept of operant conditioning. In operant conditioning, behaviors are learned by forming associations with outcomes. Reinforcement strengthens a behavior while punishment weakens it.

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While incentive theory is similar, it instead proposes that people intentionally pursue certain courses of action in order to gain rewards. The greater the perceived rewards, the more strongly people are motivated to pursue those reinforcements.

Incentives can arise from outside (extrinsic) or inside (intrinsic) an individual. Intrinsic motivation is when you engage in a behavior because you find it rewarding for your own sake, rather than from the desire for an external reward.

  • Going to work to get paid
  • Studying to get a good grade
  • Working hard to get a raise or recognition from your boss
  • Tidying your house to avoid feeling embarrassed when company comes over
  • Working because you enjoy the job
  • Studying because you find the subject interesting
  • Tackling a new project because you love a challenge
  • Tidying your house because a clean home keeps you calm

Expectancy Theory

The expectancy theory of motivation suggests that when we are thinking about the future, we formulate different expectations about what we think will happen. When we predict that there will most likely be a positive outcome, we believe that we are able to make that possible future a reality. This leads people to feel more motivated to pursue those likely outcomes.

The theory proposes that motivations consist of three key elements:

  • Valence: the value people place on the potential outcome
  • Instrumentality: whether people believe that they have a role to play in the predicted outcome
  • Expectancy: the belief that one has the capabilities to produce the outcome

A Word From Verywell

While no single theory can adequately explain all human motivation, looking at the individual theories can offer a greater understanding of the forces that cause us to take action. In reality, there are likely many different forces that interact to motivate behavior.

1 Source

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. James W. Instinct. In: The Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt and Company; 1890.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the «Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)» and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.

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