What is the primary and secondary drives?

Primary and secondary drives are two key concepts in understanding human motivation and behavior. Primary drives refer to our most basic biological motivations necessary for survival and reproduction. These include things like hunger, thirst, and sex. Secondary drives are motives we learn through experience, such as the need for love, power, or achievement. Both types of drives energize and direct our behavior, though primary drives are more urgent and tied to physical needs. Understanding the interplay between primary and secondary drives provides insight into what motivates people. This article will provide an overview of primary and secondary drives, their origins, how they interact, and their role in human psychology and behavior.

What are Primary Drives?

Primary drives are innate, biological motivations that are critical for survival and reproduction. They arise from physiological or biological needs such as hunger, thirst, or sexual desire. Primary drives were a key concept in Clark Hull’s drive reduction theory, which stated that organisms are motivated to reduce primary drives in order to return to a state of homeostasis or balance (https://practicalpie.com/drive-reduction-theory/).

Some examples of common primary drives include:

  • Hunger – the need for food.
  • Thirst – the need for water.
  • Sex – the drive to reproduce.
  • Sleep – the need for rest.
  • Thermoregulation – maintaining an ideal body temperature.

These drives arise from biological needs and are considered “primary” because they are critical for the survival of the individual and the propagation of the species. Reducing these drives helps maintain homeostasis and optimal functioning. Primary drives prompt behaviors aimed at satisfying needs for food, water, shelter, rest, sex, and temperature regulation.

Origin of Primary Drives

Primary drives are innate biological needs that are critical for survival and reproduction. According to drive reduction theory developed by Clark Hull, primary drives arise from physiological deficiencies that organisms are motivated to reduce or eliminate (Simply Psychology, 2023). These innate drives emerge due to an imbalance in an organism’s biological needs, such as the need for food, water, sleep, sex, and avoidance of pain. Satisfying these basic needs is essential for maintaining homeostasis and continuing the survival of the species.

The concept of primary drives was developed based on the principle of homeostasis, which refers to an organism’s tendency to maintain a stable internal state. Primary drives serve as the motivational basis for behaviors that enable organisms to meet their biological needs and restore equilibrium. For example, the primary drive of hunger motivates behaviors like food-seeking and consumption to replenish energy levels. Thirst drives fluid intake, fatigue prompts rest, and sex drive motivates mating behaviors (iResearchNet, 2016).

In summary, primary drives are hardwired, inborn motivations to fulfill fundamental biological imperatives for existence and reproduction. They originate from physiological imbalances that compel behaviors to satisfy critical survival needs.

What are Secondary Drives?

Secondary drives refer to learned motivations that are not essential for survival. They develop later in life through experience and social context (source). Unlike primary drives that motivate behaviors like eating and sleeping, secondary drives motivate behaviors that provide psychological or social rewards.

Examples of common secondary drives include the desire for money, power, status, praise, acceptance, and accomplishments (source). These motivations are learned through living in a society and culture. For instance, the drive for money emerges as people learn it enables acquiring food, shelter, and other resources. The drive for acceptance arises from the human need to belong. While secondary drives are not essential for physical survival, they heavily influence behaviors and goals.

Origin of Secondary Drives

Secondary drives are learned through experience and conditioning, in contrast to primary drives which are innate biological needs (Simply Psychology, 2023). Secondary drives arise because certain objects or outcomes become associated with the reduction or satisfaction of a primary drive.

For example, money does not satisfy any biological need directly, but through conditioning it becomes associated with obtaining food, shelter, and other resources that do satisfy primary drives. Through this process money takes on motivating properties as a secondary drive. Other common secondary drives include motivation for achievement, acquisition, and social approval (Simply Psychology, 2023).

Secondary drives are powerful motivators for learned behaviors that can obtain desired rewards or outcomes. They play a key role in achieving goals and acquiring resources beyond basic biological needs. These drives originate through experience and learning, not innate biological programming.

Interplay Between Drives

Primary drives like hunger, thirst, and sleep are innate biological needs that are crucial for survival. Secondary drives like the desire for money, status, and relationships develop through learning and life experiences. Though separate, primary and secondary drives constantly interact and influence one another.

For example, the primary drive for food may motivate someone to earn money (a secondary drive) to be able to purchase food. In this way, the primary drive activates and directs the secondary drive. Similarly, someone may be motivated by the secondary drive for social acceptance to behave in ways that satisfy their primary drives for sex or physical safety.

At times, secondary drives can even temporarily overwhelm primary drives. Someone focused intensely on the secondary drive for money may neglect their need for sleep. However, primary drives will eventually reassert themselves when deprived for too long, as in the case of someone so sleep deprived they fall asleep despite their drive for money.

In essence, primary and secondary drives maintain a complex dynamic where primary drives initiate many secondary drives, yet secondary drives can also gain momentary strength over primary ones. Their interaction and mutual influence help explain the full range of human motivation.

Individual Differences

There are many individual differences that can lead to variations in drive strengths between people. Some of these differences are rooted in genetics, while others result from environmental factors and life experiences.

According to a study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, genetic factors can significantly influence ecological interactions and drive density-independent variation in survival and growth over time (Individual differences determine the strength of ecological interactions, https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2000635117). This suggests that our innate, genetically determined temperament and tendencies affect the potency of primary and secondary drives.

Additionally, the social and physical environment plays a major role. Exposure to trauma, adversity, nurturing, or enrichment in childhood can calibrate the sensitivity and motivational power of different drives. Cultural norms and values also shape drive expressions. An individualist culture may amplify certain drives, while a collectivist culture dampens them.

Furthermore, habits, interests, and past experiences strengthen neural connections associated with meaningful rewards. As such, drive strength evolves across our lifespan based on what motivates us most. Athletes may develop a dominant drive for competition, while caregivers harbor an innate drive for compassion.

In essence, nature and nurture both contribute to individual differences in drive strength. While primary drives have biological roots, their intensity emerges from an interplay between genes and life exposures that make each person unique.

Drive Management

Managing primary drives like hunger and thirst is often about establishing healthy routines around eating and drinking. Setting regular meal times, staying hydrated throughout the day, and keeping healthy snacks on hand can help prevent extreme hunger or thirst from building up (https://www.arcserve.com/blog/primary-storage-vs-secondary-storage-whats-difference). For secondary drives, it’s important to find a balance between indulging these desires and not letting them rule your behavior. Setting aside designated times for leisure activities or socializing can help satisfy secondary drives without disrupting other obligations.

Tips for managing strong drives include:
– Practice delayed gratification – wait for a better time or opportunity to indulge a drive if acting on it immediately would be disruptive or unhealthy.
– Prioritize basic needs like food, water, and rest to keep primary drives satisfied.
– Limit exposure to drive triggers that you may overindulge, like avoiding stocking junk food if you’re prone to binge eating.
– Find healthier substitutions for destructive drives, like calling a friend when lonely instead of emotional eating.
– Keep a balanced schedule with time for work, relationships, hobbies, self-care, and relaxation.
– Set limits on drive indulgence, like leaving a party at a set time or limiting social media use to 30 minutes a day.
– Cultivate mindfulness and self-discipline to make wise choices around drive satisfaction.
– Seek support from counselors or support groups if drives feel out of control.

By focusing on moderation and balance, finding drive substitutes, and employing self-control strategies, people can enjoy satisfying their drives while avoiding harmful excesses (https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/social-psychology-theories/drive-theory/). The goal is a healthy, well-rounded lifestyle.

Drives in Society

Human drives play a significant role in shaping society and culture. According to drive theory, drives motivate much of human behavior and influence norms, values, economics, and politics (Simply Psychology). For instance, the drive for bonding and belonging is associated with social norms and pressures to conform, while the drive for acquisition can fuel materialism, consumerism, and competition for resources. The sexual drive influences courtship rituals, gender roles and attitudes about sexuality. Meanwhile, drives for caregiving and autonomy shape debates about social services and the role of government (Psychology Today).

Some argue that basic human drives should be guided by ethics, compassion and social responsibility, lest they lead to greed, exploitation, or conflict. Others believe drives like curiosity and mastery spurred advancements in science, technology, and human rights. Overall, human drives profoundly influence the fabric of human civilization, though individuals and societies differ on how to manage them (Wikipedia).


When it comes to understanding human motivation and behavior, analyzing primary and secondary drives provides important insights. Primary drives like hunger, thirst, and sex are innate biological motivations wired into us for survival and reproduction. Secondary drives like power, approval, and competence develop later through learning and socialization. While primary drives ensure our basic physical needs are met, secondary drives allow us to pursue higher pursuits like achievement, relationships, and self-actualization.

Though drives manifest differently between individuals based on upbringing, culture, and personality, they interact in important ways. For example, the drive for money often intertwines with drives for security, status, and power. Understanding both innate primary drives and learned secondary drives provides a more complete picture of what motivates people. By identifying dominant drives in oneself and others, we can find better alignment in relationships, improve workplace culture and performance, and ultimately lead more fulfilling lives.