Four basic drives are common to all human beings, but which ones affect your daily life and behavior? How do they influence the choices you make?
At the start of the 20th century, psychoanalysis pioneer Sigmund Freud proposed that people are driven by sex and power – but there’s much more to it than that. By the 1950s, psychologist Abraham Maslow identified our “hierarchy” of basic needs, which include shelter, food, clothing, ego and belonging. After these needs were met, he said, we’re driven toward self-actualization – a state very few achieve.
In the 1960s, MIT management professor Douglas McGregor applied Maslow’s ideas to the business world. He asserted that once basic salary needs were met, workers had higher drives that weren’t contingent on rewards or punishments. If managers could tap into people’s inner motivations by granting more autonomy and respect, they would spur greater performance.
Harvard psychology professor David McClelland later identified three motivators in leaders: drives to achieve, attain power and affiliate with others.
Despite all of these studies, businesses continue to use monetary incentives instead of tapping into employees’ intrinsic motivations. Perhaps one can chalk this up to fuzzy, anachronistic notions about what motivates people.
A new theory suggests each of us has four basic drives that have existed since our cavemen days. These drives, which have allowed us to survive, are embedded in our DNA and actively chart the course for our daily behaviors.
Acquiring, Bonding, Learning and Defending
In Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices (Jossey Bass, 2001), Harvard Business School professors Paul R. Lawrence and Nitin Nohria draw evidence for their four-drive theory from evolutionary psychology and Charles Darwin’s teachings, as well as the social sciences and organizational life.
Human beings seek ways to fulfill the following drives because our evolutionary heritage compels us to meet basic survival needs:
- The drive to acquire objects and experiences that improve our status relative to others. We’re driven to seek, take control, and retain objects and personal experiences. In the course of evolution, humans have been naturally selected to compete for food, water, shelter and sexual fulfillment. We’re driven to acquire both material and positional goods, as well as social status. But the drive to acquire is rarely satisfied; we always seem to want more and seek even greater status.
- The drive to bond with others in long-term relationships of mutual care and commitment. Human beings have an innate drive to form social relationships and develop commitments with others-drives that are fulfilled only when the attachment is mutual. Groups of individuals who bond to one another have always had a better chance of surviving environmental threats. This drive induces us to cooperate with others.
- The drive to learn and make sense of the world and of ourselves. Humans have an innate drive to satisfy their curiosity-to know, comprehend, believe, appreciate, and develop understandings or representations of their environment and themselves through a reflective process. This drive, without doubt, has enabled mankind to survive the elements and has given us distinct advantages over other creatures.
- The drive to defend ourselves, our loved ones, our beliefs and our resources. Humans have an innate drive to defend themselves and their valued accomplishments whenever they perceive them to be endangered. The fundamental emotion manifested by this subconscious drive is alarm, which in turn triggers fear and/or anger. This drive has obvious survival value and quite possibly may have been the first drive to have evolved in our earliest ancestors.
In modern life, the drive to defend manifests in many ways. Much of human activity is generated by this drive. It is activated by perceived threats to one’s body, possessions and bonded relationships, as well as by threats to one’s own cognitive representations of our environment and self-identity.
The Balancing Act
The four drives are intrinsic and universal, found in some physical form in our brains. While independent, the drives are highly interactive with each other.
Each drive also has a “dark side,” as when the drive to acquire becomes excessively competitive and diminishes respect for others, or when the drive to defend one’s current thinking diminishes the drive to learn new perspectives.
These four drives exist in each of us; no one is immune. They determine the choices we make.
In some people, one drive will be more developed than others, creating an imbalance. And in some jobs, specific drives will be emphasized over others.
Using Drive to Your Advantage
Understanding how each of these drives manifests in your life can help you understand how and why you make particular choices. Working with a professional coach can help you identify your strongest drives so you can understand yourself better.
You may be relying too much on your drive to acquire or be placing too much emphasis on the drive to bond, while neglecting your drive to learn.
Often, the drive to defend can overwhelm other important drives that must be satisfied to achieve and enjoy a well-balanced and successful life.
Which drives are guiding your choices-and which drive do you neglect?
The answers to these questions lie in acknowledging that all four drives are basic to human nature-and that a balanced life must include some satisfaction in all four areas.
As Lawrence and Nohria write: “The challenge is to find a course forward that fulfils all of our basic drives in some creative, balanced way … The way forward must be to use the best side of each drive to check the dark, excessive potential of human nature.”