What Is Drive-Reduction Theory?

It seems that in its simplest form, drive-reduction theory has to do with physiological (bodily) needs. One source gives this definition:

If we were to get too hot (need to be cool), we would seek shade (the drive).

There seems to be something not quite accurate about this. Actually, the physiological drive, the bodily need, is to be cool. This could be accomplished in several ways, of which seeking shade is only one possibility. Getting into the water would be another. For a human, opening the refrigerator door and standing in front of it would be another. So, seeking shade is not the drive. Seeking coolness is the drive.

In truth, when the sun is too hot, it is the drive to cool off that causes a move into the shade of a tree. Or the dive into the water. Or the erection of an umbrella. But the umbrella is not the drive. The refrigerator is not the drive. When a basic definition inspires such niggling doubts, where does the hopeful student go from there? The same page attempts to elucidate, but only sows more confusion:

Understand — “physiological need” means something without which you, or the species will die. So it’s a pretty short list — food, water, temperature regulation, sleep, air, and sex.

The situation quickly becomes more complicated. The author says,

A starving person feels driven to eat at the smell of baking bread, and the bread itself becomes the incentive.

Here is a problem. When the scent of baking bread hits their noses, non-starving people also feel driven to eat. It is a stimulus that affects even someone who has very recently finished a satisfying meal. The gigantic advertising industry is the same. Someone who has not eaten in two days might see a billboard that depicts an ice cream sandwich, and feel hunger pangs. But a very well-fed person, who is not the least bit calorie-deficient, can see that same billboard and also feel a tremendously strong desire to eat that ice cream sandwich.

An incidental question

As soon as psychology enters the equation, wouldn’t any research done on animals, to establish any of the basics, have to be eliminated? Because animal psychology is a very limited area, at best. Sure, a dog that has been beaten will show what looks very much like a psychological reaction — it will cower at the sight of a stick. And pets definitely have the psychological savvy to guilt-trip or charm their humans into handing out extra treats.

But human psychology is a vast and varied field, where so much is going on at every moment, it makes some of these notions look pathetically simplistic. Another sentence from the same page says,

Drive-reduction theory states that when a physiological needs arises, so does a psychological drive to reduce the need.

But humans are unique in a propensity to go out of their way to cultivate the existence of drives, and the advertising that sells french fries and sugar-sweetened beverages is but one example.

Recreational drug use is another place where feeble theories go to die. No one can dispute that an addict’s desire for heroin is a colossally powerful drive. But (except in the case of a patient suffering severe pain) there is nothing physiologically, on a body level, natural about a craving for opiates. It is an intentionally created and cultivated drive, caused not by nature, but by invitation, by purposeful action on the part of the human who seeks it. So it hardly deserves to be discussed in the same breath as, for instance, the physiological need to give birth when the baby is ready to come out.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Drive-Reduction,” Instructure.com, undated
Image by Roland Tanglao/CC BY 2.0

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

FAQs and Media Requests: Click here…

Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

Profiles: Kids Struggling with Obesity top bottom

The Book

OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

Food & Health Resources