Interacting Sets of Contradictory Human Needs as Drivers of Human Behavior

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Out of the many need theories, those of Abraham Maslow and David McClelland have long influenced our understanding of human behavior in organizations. Eric Berne's Transactional Analysis also included a set of needs. Maslow conceptualized a "hierarchical" arrangement of five needs; McClelland proposed an "independent" set of needs, and Berne also implicitly stated an independent set of needs. This paper examines these three theories to construct a model of human needs as a system of three "interacting" sets of contradictory needs. These three interacting sets are (1) a Need for Structure vs. a Need for Uncertainty; (2) a Need for People vs. a Need for Privacy; and (3) a Need for Satiation vs. a Need for Transcendence. The contradictory sets may explain why individuals show contradictory behaviors in real life. Need fulfillment may also result in the development of a person's self-image of competence, attractiveness and values, which in turn reflects in his or her behavior.


Psychologists have long addressed the question of motivation, i.e. what factors cause human behavior. The causal factors may be internal to the person or external to the person. Internal factors have been termed needs or drives. Goals as well as the accompanying positive or negative outcomes are considered external factors. Goals are end-states that can be achieved through a set of behaviors. These end-states may be defined vaguely or very specifically, and are usually accompanied by positive or negative outcomes for the person. In motivation theoretic terms, expectancy is the probability that a given behavior or set of behaviors as a path will achieve a particular goal, and valence is the positive or negative value of outcomes experienced by the individual as a result of goal attainment (See Figure 1).

Motivation theories differ in their treatment of the primacy of internal vs. external causes. Need theorists such as Murray, Maslow, and McClelland viewed internal human needs as the primary driver of human behavior. Operant conditioning (Skinner, 1974), the two factor theory (Herzberg, 1966), and goal-setting theories (Locke and Latham, 1990) exemplify theories that focus on motivation by external factors.

Operant conditioning theory emphasizes only observable behaviors and consequences. It examines the intensity and probability of occurrence of a particular behavior when that behavior is presented with a desirable consequence called a reinforcer, a neutral consequence, or a punisher. Operant conditioning defines a reinforcer as an outcome that will improve the probability of that behavior occurring again. This completely eliminates the question of whether the subject organism or person internally perceives the outcome as desirable or undesirable.

Herzberg's two factor theory states that certain characteristics of work environments cause avoidance behavior on the part of employees, while a different set of characteristics promote greater job effort. He called those characteristics with the primary effect of causing avoidance behavior, Hygiene Factors, and those characteristics promoting greater effort, Motivators. Hygiene factors include company policy, salary, working conditions, status, supervision, relations with fellow workers, etc. Motivators consist of achievement, recognition, and advancement.

Goal-setting theories (Locke and Latham, 1990) state that the presence of specific goals motivates an individual to produce higher outcomes. Goal-setting theories are closely related to expectancy theories of motivation which focus on the path expectancies, goals and goal related outcomes, and valences of outcomes.


Among need theories, the most prominent are those by Murray, Maslow, and McClelland. Murray (1938) defined needs as motives toward specific patterns of behavior. The list of needs is long--there is a need for Abasement, Achievement, Affiliation, Aggression, Autonomy, Counteraction, Defendance, Deference, Dominance, Exhibition, Harm avoidance, Infavoidance, Nurturance, Order, Play, Rejection, Sentience, Sex, Succourance, and Understanding. …