Drive Reduction Theory

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The Drive Reduction Theory was created by behaviorist Clark Hull (1943). Hull believed that behavior was one of the ways that an organism maintains this balance. His term drive refers to a state of tension or arousal caused by biological or physiological needs. For instance, thirst, hunger and the need for warmth are examples of drives. A drive creates an unpleasant experience; a tension that needs to be reduced. In order to decrease this drive, humans seek out ways to fulfill these biological needs. Thus, we get a drink when we are thirsty and eat when we are hungry. Hull suggested that humans and animals will then repeat any behavior that reduces these drives. In terms of this theory drive is synonymous with arousal.

Drive Reduction Theory suggests that the more an athlete is aroused the better her/his performance. A very high arousal level would result in a high performance. However, this only happens when skills are well-learned. In contrast, if the athletic skill is not well-learned, performance will deteriorate as arousal increases. Therefore, Drive Reduction Theory suggests that novices and less skilled people tend rather not to perform well under pressure. In novices the skill level decreases due to poor habits and techniques. Habits are described as the performance which is dominant within an individual. Experienced athletes tend to perform better under pressure due to their superior skills and the use of stress management techniques.

Performance arousal Drive Reduction Theory

This theory helps explain why beginners find it difficult to perform well under pressure. Often beginners skill level decreases if they are competing in a relay race using new skills. However, it also explains how experienced athletes perform better under pressure using well-learned skills, e.g. good tennis players play better against stronger opponents.

The major weakness of the Drive Reduction Theory is its’ inability to explain why humans do things which put them into a stressed or unfulfilled state, and why they often fail under high arousal. While excitement can certainly help an athlete perform, there is a point where the anxiety becomes too much and actually prevents from high quality performing (Harmison, 2006).



Harmison, R. J., (2006). Peak performance in sport: Identifying ideal performance states and developing athletes’ psychological skills. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 37, 233-243.

Hull, C. (1943). Principles of Behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.