Drive-Reduction Theory — It’s Complicated

In the area of drive-reduction theory, people seem to have different ideas about definitions.

One source says,

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. Essentially, this theory says that all human behavior connects to getting one of those needs met.

So apparently, drives are in everybody, all the time. That in itself is a bit difficult to deal with, because a study with no control group has a problem. says a drive is a “motivation, desire or interest to behave or act in a certain manner, often to meet a need.” This might be an unworkably broad definition, as it seems to include everything in life.

An uncredited writer at says,

Throughout the decades, the Drive Theory has gone through various changes. It has also garnered a lot of critique… “Drive” is an “appetitive internal force”…

[I]n his later works, Freud reduced the emphasis on drives. He said that since the nature of drives is changeable, other factors such as social situations had an important role to play as well.

According to one authority on drive-reduction theory, the term refers to “a diverse set of motivational theories in psychology,” which does seem to be the case.

A primary drive is innate and inextricably hooked into the body. A secondary drive, for something like excessive wealth accumulation, is the kind that can be planted in someone’s head, and it seems as if there should be a whole different set of rules. It might be fair to say that a secondary drive is one that can be addressed by therapy, whereas no amount of therapy would stop the need for water, and that pretty much defines a primary drive.

Dr. Pretlow says,

Displacement activity is rechanneling of overflow energy from conflicted or thwarted drives into another drive…

Displacement activity permits the resolution of conflict between two antagonistic drives by acting as an outlet through which overflow energy can be discharged…

Displacement activity is an innate, hard-wired, instinctual, automatic biobehavioral mechanism…

Displacement activity stems from situations of major opposing or thwarted behavioral drives, e.g. fight or flight…

On that last point, some authorities identify additional reactions that rank right up there with fight or flight. If so, that would make things very complicated. Also, it seems as if not everyone is on the same page when it comes to the difference between a drive and the means of satisfying a drive. If the meta-drive is to reduce tension and return to a neutral state of homeostasis, then it seems like a lot of responses, other than fight or flight, could qualify as means to reduce the drive.

(To be continued…)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Drive-Reduction,”, undated
Source: “Drive Theory,”, undated
Image by Doug Kerr/CC BY-SA 2.0

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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.
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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.

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