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Module 8: Psychological Needs and Motivation

Module Overview

With our discussion of personality now concluded, we turn our attention to psychological needs. Though needs can also be physiological in nature, we will focus on psychological ones in this module and then cover biological needs in Modules 13 and 14. Our discussion will cover affiliation, power, cognition, achievement, autonomy, competence, closure, and meaning needs.


Module Outline


Module Learning Outcomes

  • Contrast Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with Hull’s drive theory of motivated behavior.
  • List, define, and evaluate research on the eight needs covered in this module.

8.1. Frameworks for Understanding Needs


Section Learning Objectives

  • Revisit Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
  • Explain Hull’s drive theory of needs.


8.1.1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

In Section we discussed Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as one way to understand motivation and specifically the push of motivated behavior. According to Maslow, there are five types of needs, arranged in a hierarchy, or more so in a pyramid formation. Lower-level needs must be fulfilled before higher level ones can be. At the bottom are the physiological needs, which are what we need to survive. They include food, water, sex, temperature, oxygen, etc. At the next level are needs centered on our safety and security, or living in a safe environment, being safe from Mother Nature, and having enough money to pay the bills. With this level satisfied, we can next focus on feeling socially connected to others and being in mature relationships, what he called the love and belonginess needs. Fourth are our self-esteem needs or being independent, gaining mastery, how we feel about ourselves, and being responsible. At the pinnacle of the pyramid are our self-actualization needs which Carl Rogers and other humanistic psychologists (see Module 7) discussed. This level focuses on realizing our full potential, feeling fulfilled and satisfied, and seeking personal growth. We also pursue interests out of intrinsic value and not extrinsic demands.

Maslow’s conceptualization of human needs is not without criticism. As I noted in Module 1, many college students have issues satisfying the lower needs, especially as the semester goes along and they run out of adaptation energy (see Module 4) but can satisfy middle tier needs such as self-esteem and maybe love and belonginess needs. Despite this, and the point of this module, Maslow showed that our needs are not just psychological in nature, but that we have physiological needs too, that must be met for us to survive. Remember, evolutionary theory says we will engage in behaviors that guarantee the continuation of the species and our own survival. So, it makes sense that Maslow would make physiological drives the foundation of this theory. We will discuss physiological drives in Modules 13 and 14.


8.1.2. Hull’s Drive Theory of Needs

I wanted also to call attention to the fact that Clark Leonard Hull (1943) presented a theory to explain how motivated behavior arises from biological needs, or our desire to satisfy deficiencies. These deficiencies are not pleasant states and cause tension or arousal, and thus the person or animal will engage in whatever behavior is necessary to reduce the tension, which Hull called a drive. He said that there are two types of drives. Primary drives are associated with innate need states, such as food, water, oxygen, urination, activity, etc. and are needed to survive. Secondary drives are learned, and through their association with the reduction of primary drives, become drives themselves. Basically, a secondary drive elicits a response similar to those caused by primary drives. Let’s say you touched a hot stove and were subsequently burned. Our primary drive says that the pain experienced from the burn will result in motivated behavior to relieve the pain. Our secondary drive says that in the future, simply seeing the stove may result in our avoiding the stove all together. The mere sight of the stove is the stimulus for the fear we experience, which is a learned drive (we do not normally come into the world afraid of stoves). In this case, the secondary drive became a primary drive.

Behaviors that reduce the drive will be repeated since they serve as reinforcement for the behavior. Negative reinforcement is when we take away something aversive (in this case the drive) which leads to the same behavior in the future when the aversive stimulus is present again. Hull calls this the law of primary reinforcement. It involves primary reinforcers or ‘things’ in our environment that naturally have reinforcing properties and that we do not have to learn to respond to. Food and water are examples. Hull also mentioned what he called the law of secondary reinforcement, or when a drive is reduced due to a secondary reinforcer, such as money or praise, which can be used to obtain primary reinforcers. In operant conditioning, secondary reinforcers are learned and not something we automatically respond to.

Critics point out that secondary reinforcers should not be part of the theory since they cannot reduce a drive alone and that Hull’s theory does not explain why we, for instance, eat when we are not hungry. Have you ever been out with friends and ate simply because your friends were eating? According to Hull, you should not have engaged in this behavior.

And finally, Hull talked about what he called habit strength or strengthening the connections between stimulus and responses (called S-R units) due to the number of reinforcements that have occurred. Think about when you study. If you repeat a definition over and over again, your recollection of the definition when presented with the term will be better than if you just repeated it one time. In Module 13, we will call this rote rehearsal.


Note: In the remainder of this module, I will introduce you to several of our psychological needs and some of the research demonstrating their effect on motivated behavior. This will not be an exhaustive discussion but will give you a starting point for your own self-reflection and exploration. Our focus will be on articles published from 2010 only.

8.2. Need for Affiliation


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define the need for affiliation.
  • Report what the literature says about the need for affiliation.


The need to affiliate/belong is our motive to establish, maintain, or restore social relationships with others, whether individually or through groups (McClelland & Koestner, 1992). It is important to point out that we affiliate with people who accept us, though are generally indifferent, while we tend to belong to individuals who truly care about us and for whom we have an attachment. In terms of the former, you affiliate with your classmates and people you work with while you belong to your family or a committed relationship with your significant other or best friend. The literature shows that:

  • Leaders high in the need for affiliation are more concerned about the needs of their followers and engaged in more transformational leadership due to affiliation moderating the interplay of achievement and power needs (Steinmann, Otting, & Maier, 2016).
  • Who wants to take online courses? Seiver and Troja (2014) found that those high in the need for affiliation were less likely to want to take another online course, while those high in the need for autonomy, were more likely to. Their sample included college students enrolled in classroom courses who had taken at least one online course in the past.
  • Though our need for affiliation is universal, it does not occur in every situation, and individual differences and characteristics of the target can factor in. One such difference is religiosity. van Cappellen et al. (2017) found that religiosity was positively related to social affiliation, except when the identity of the affiliation target was manipulated to be a threatening out-group member (an atheist). In this case, religiosity did not predict affiliation behaviors.
  • Risk of exclusion from a group (not being affiliated) led individuals high in a need for inclusion/affiliation to engage in pro-group, but not pro-self, unethical behaviors (Thau et al., 2015).
  • When affiliation goals are of central importance to a person, they perceive the estimated interpersonal distance between them and other people as smaller compared to participants primed with control words (Stel & van Koningsbruggen, 2015).

8.3. Need for Power


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define the need for power.
  • Report what the literature says about the need for power.


The need for power is a desire to exert influence over others, to be in charge, to be noticed, and to achieve high status (Winter, 1988). But why do people desire power? Is it really to be a master over others as the need would imply, or could another motive be at work? An interesting study by Lammers et al. (2016) showed that the motive to have power stems from a desire to master one’s own domain or to control their fate, and not a desire to rule over others. The effect held across cultures/continents too (Europe, the U.S., and India). What else does the literature show?

  • People high in a need for power have higher recognition accuracy for angry faces than for neutral faces, and the need modulates anger face processing from encoding to retrieval (Wang et al., 2017).
  • Research into the implicit power motive, or unconsciously deriving pleasure from having control over others, shows that the those high in the motive make decisions favoring dominant-looking persons as in-group leaders and submissive-looking individuals as out-group leaders (Study 1), and choose dominant-looking persons as the in-group leader and submissive-looking individuals as in-group members (Study 2). The authors explain that behavior is generally predicted by the perceived instrumentality for attaining influence over others (Stoeckart et al., 2018).
  • Leaders who are high in the need for power are perceived as strong leaders (Winter, 2010).
  • Ramsay et al. (2016) asked 149 undergraduate students to complete questionnaires measuring their intention to embark on entrepreneurial, professional, or leadership careers, and their implicit motivation. Results showed that a need for power positively predicted entrepreneurial intent while negatively predicting professional intent, and that higher need for power was positively associated with leadership and entrepreneurial career choices.
  • Is it possible that some individuals high in the need for power display submissive and not dominant behavior when they are also high in the need to belong/affiliate? Rios, Fast, and Gruenfeld (2015) explored this question and found that the social distinctiveness associated with power was threatening to individuals who desired to affiliate and motivated them to engage in submissive behaviors that downplayed their power thereby reducing their distinctiveness.

8.4. Need for Cognition


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define the need for cognition.
  • Report what the literature says about the need for cognition.


The need for cognition is a desire to understand and make reasonable the world of experience (Cacioppo & Petty, 1982; Cohen et al., 1955). Those with a high need for cognition enjoy analytical thinking and are less likely to be persuaded by others. Watt and Blanchard (1994) also found that these types of individuals are less susceptible to boredom. The need is assessed via the Need for Cognition Scale (Cacioppo & Petty, 1982). What does the literature show?

  • How might other reader’s reactions to news on internet sites affect a person’s perception of public opinion, belief about the impact of media influence, and their personal opinion? Lee and Jang (2010) found that high need for cognition individuals relied more on approval ratings than individual postings to estimate the influence of the media on the general public. Other’s comments had the greatest impact on the participant’s personal opinion when they were low in the need for cognition.
  • Leaders higher in the need for cognition were found to be less susceptible to decision bias in a study of high-level leaders given decision-making competence and personality scales (Carnevale, Inbar, & Lerner, 2011).
  • Feist (2012) found that interest in science was predicted by the personality traits of openness to experience, conscientiousness, and introversion, and by a high need for cognition, though the latter explained more variance than the three personality traits combined.
  • Students with a high need for cognition tended to engage in deep learning activities and used strategies such as critical processing, relating, and structuring compared to students with a low need for cognition who engaged in memorizing and rehearsing only (Cazan & Indreica, 2014).
  • Students were asked to report their self-uncertainty and need for cognition before evaluating a prospective prototypical or non-prototypical student leader. Results showed that students high in the need for cognition relied less on prototypicality as a heuristic compared to their low need for cognition counterparts when uncertainty was elevated (Rast, Hogg, & Tomory, 2014).
  • The need for cognition has been shown to be relatively stable across the life span and was found to be related to the personality trait of openness to experience (Soubelet & Salthouse, 2016).

8.5. Need for Achievement


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define the need for achievement.
  • Report what the literature says about the need for achievement.


The need for achievement is defined as the desire to do things well, outperform others, and overcome obstacles (McClelland et al., 1953). It centers on our own internal standard of excellence (McClelland, 1961) and those who are high in the need, wish to do well on all tasks.

Three factors affect the need for achievement. First, the motive to succeed is the extent to which you want to be successful. Success is relative though, meaning it depends on the individual. Second, the expectation of success is one’s perceived likelihood of succeeding at a task. Finally, the incentive value of success indicates that an incentive stems from the importance and level of difficulty of the task. The interesting thing about incentive value is that it is inversely related to task difficulty. Atkinson (1957/1983) said the more difficult the task, the higher its incentive value. Consider playing a video game. When you start the game, you are prompted to choose the difficulty level. Most games allow for easy, normal, or hard. If you choose to play the game on easy, you will not feel as fulfilled and accomplished as you would if you played the game on normal or hard.

So, what else does the literature suggest about the need for achievement?

  • Undergraduate students high in the need for achievement were less likely to experience emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced efficacy, all indicators of burnout, and thereby were less likely to leave their program of study (Moneta, 2011).
  • Chen, Su, and Wu (2012) examined how the need for achievement and education affect risk taking. Results showed that entrepreneurs with a high motivation to succeed (Ms) and who received a higher education were more willing to take risks than those with a low Motivation to avoid failure (Maf) and who had not received a higher education.
  • The need for achievement has also been found to predict cortisol response when a difficult task is presented to an individual, since difficulty is a cue to mastery reward (Schultheiss, Wiemers, & Wolf, 2014).

8.6. Need for Autonomy


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define the need for autonomy.
  • Report what the literature says about the need for autonomy.


The need for autonomy is the desire to feel in control of our own actions rather than at the whim of outside forces, being independent, and self-reliant. Van Yperen, Wortler, and De Jonge (2016) investigated the conditions under which work overload may occur to include the perceived opportunity to both work from home and in the office. Using a sample of 657 workers from a variety of industries, they found that workers high in the need for autonomy did not mind increasing job demands and maintained an intrinsic work motivation if there was a chance their employer would allow them to work from home at least part of the time. The authors propose that this is an effective coping resource, at least for those high in autonomy.

8.7. Need for Competence


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define the need for competence.
  • Report what the literature says about the need for competence.


The need for competence is the desire to feel that we can handle tasks and when we do so, to feel satisfaction. Competence is linked to self-efficacy or believing that we can accomplish our goals, and mastery or the knowledge that we can gain the necessary skills and overcome all obstacles to achieve our goals.

One study examined the need for competence in employees and found that the more tasks went unfinished during the week, the lower level of competence need satisfaction the employees felt. As competence went down, work-related rumination during the weekend went up. The detrimental effects of the unfinished tasks on competence needs satisfaction were reduced when the employee engaged in proactive work behaviors. In other words, they engaged less in rumination (Weigelt, Syrek, Schimtt, & Urbach, 2018).

In another study, Sailer, Hense, Mayr, and Mandl (2016) found that for gamers, badges, leaderboards, and performance graphs affected competence needs satisfaction positively, while meaningful stories, having teammates, and avatars had a positive effect on individuals high in social relatedness, or the need to have warm relations with other people. The authors suggest that specific game design elements have specific psychological elements worth researching. If you wish to know, as a gamer myself, I find this study particularly interesting and true. I have a high need for competence which motivates my behavior in games and I love, for instance, seeing the percent of trophies completed as I play the game. What about you?

 8.8. Need for Cognitive Closure


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define the need for cognitive closure.
  • Report what the literature says about the need for cognitive closure.


The need for cognitive closure reflects our desire to have answers, predictability, order and structure, be decisive, and avoid uncertainty, and is measured by the Need for Closure Scale (Webster & Kruglanski, 1994). How might an employee’s need for cognitive closure interact with a supervisor’s power need? Belanger et al. (2015) investigated this using a sample of 290 employees from six different Italian organizations. Results showed that employees high in the need used more solution-oriented conflict management strategies to deal with supervisors that utilized harsh power tactics, while those low in the need for closure used the same strategies, but when the manager relied on soft power tactics. The results also showed that when the supervisor used harsh power tactics, their employees relied on control-oriented conflict management strategies, especially if they were low in the need for closure.

In another study, researchers found that when uncertainty was made salient, discrimination against outgroup members increased among individuals low in the need but not among those high in cognitive closure. High cognitive closure individuals were already more discriminatory regardless of uncertainty. The authors conclude that uncertainty salience causes those low in cognitive closure to act more like those high in the need (Brizi, Mannetti, & Kruglanski, 2015).

8.9. Need for Meaning


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define the need for meaning.
  • Report what the literature says about the need for meaning.


And finally, the need for meaning is our desire to make sense of our life and can be made salient by personal tragedies. As you might expect, religiosity (the topic of Module 9) is positively associated with meaning. When our meaning is threatened, religiosity increases (Abeyta & Routledge, 2018), but we also have a greater tendency to make magical, evil attributions with higher levels of religiosity (likewise when our level of perceived meaning is low; Routledge, Abeyta, & Roylance, 2016).

Module Recap

Like biological needs, psychological needs can be deficient, and a drive created to restore the balance. We discussed several psychological needs and ways behavior is motivated by them. These include affiliation, power, cognitive, achievement, autonomy, competence, closure, and meaning needs. You will see many of them discussed again and hence, why I provided an overview with some research on the needs. I encourage you to further explore any or all of them now if you cannot wait to read about them again.

With this module now complete, we will move to an application of needs – the psychology of religion and man’s quest for meaning. We will see how religion motivates behavior and this will conclude Part III of this book.

Please let your instructor know if you have any questions.

2nd edition


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Module 8: Psychological Needs and Motivation by Lee William Daffin Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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