What are the similarities & differences between need theories?

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What are the similarities & differences between need theories?

Motivational Theories

What are needs theories?

All needs theories or motivational theories attempt to explain behavior, with essentially the same same premise "behavior is motivated by internal and external human needs that are a catalyst or motivational force." Contrasting motivation theories reveal these needs and their hierarchy of importance.

Why are needs theories important?

Needs theories attempt to explain behavior and this has implications for management, leadership, and other areas where behavior must be directed. Because each theory approaches motivation from a different criteria of needs, elements of these needs have merit but none are universally applicable. As well, those seeking self-motivation tactics may find these theories difficult or impossible to apply for personal behavioral changes.


Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is the most well-known example of motivation theories:


Maslow’s hierarchy of needs lists our needs in levels from lowest to highest, with the lowest being the first level that must be attained before moving on to the next while becoming progressively more challenging to attain. In Maslow’s hierarchy, the needs listed from lowest to highest are physiological and safety; love and belongingness; self-esteem; and self-actualization. Maslow’s theory, dictates people must first acquire basic physiological needs like food, water, and a safe, secure environment before ascending to the next need fulfillment. Satisfying physiological and safety needs allows the person to begin fulfilling the need for love and belonging seen in the giving and receiving of affection. Moving upwards in the need's pyramid, needs become more intrinsic and difficult to define with esteem and self-worth needs requiring fulfillment next, leading to self-actualization. Self-actualization is the complete fulfillment of needs but is perhaps the most difficult to define.

The subjective nature or Maslow's hierarchy makes defining needs different for each person despite seeming intuitive or at least superficially correct. Upon closer inspection, the theory becomes ambiguous with the first point of contradiction beginning with the interpretation of how the hierarchy applies individually. Maslow overlooks the complexity of some human needs that are often extremely challenging if not impossible to accomplish. For example, one’s esteem may not be dependent on whether or not the person feels loved by others because they may be satisfied without this feeling or that a person may require love and belongingness in a manner that causes them to forfeiture safety needs such as in some abusive relationships. Unhealthy relationships occur all the time and whatever their reasons, these relationships reveal needs are not always uniformly hierarchical.

Perhaps the most ambiguous element of Maslow’s Hierarchy is self-actualization. Self-actualization or the sense of complete fulfillment radically shifts from one person to the next and can change. If one has a sense of fulfillment because he or she graduated from college, that sense of fulfillment will eventually be replaced by a desire to get a job or raise a family, showing the ever-changing  nature of needs and goals that may not allow a clear upward path to the top of a pyramid.

Maslow’s theory says that lower needs must be met before higher ones. This makes sense because a person facing eviction cannot focus on altruism. But basic needs are not simple or universal, and they do not always come first. Many people choose goals that ignore their more pressing needs, such as those who seek risky situations that endanger their safety or stability, like day traders, firemen, soldiers, etc.

Alderfer’s ERG theory

Alderfer’s ERG theory is a refinement of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It groups human needs into three levels: growth, relatedness, and existence. These levels are hierarchical, but not rigid. People can be motivated by more than one level at a time, and their priorities can change over time.

Growth needs are the highest level of needs. They involve the development of competence and the realization of potential. People with growth needs seek to improve themselves, learn new skills, and achieve their goals.

Relatedness needs are the middle level of needs. They involve the satisfactory relations with others. People with relatedness needs seek to belong, to have meaningful interactions, and to feel accepted by others.

Existence needs are the lowest level of needs. They involve the physical well-being of humans. People with existence needs seek to have the basic material requirements for survival, such as food, water, shelter, and security.

Alderfer’s theory is similar to Maslow’s, but it has three levels of needs instead of five. These are existence, relatedness, and growth. Alderfer’s theory is more flexible and realistic than Maslow’s. For example, it does not include sex as a basic need, because sex is not essential for survival. It also recognizes that people may have different priorities and preferences for their needs.

Alderfer’s theory is based on the idea that higher needs are more motivating and satisfying than lower needs. People who have strong growth needs may pursue them even at the cost of their existence or relatedness needs. This can create a sense of passion or addiction. However, Alderfer’s theory also has some limitations. It does not explain how people choose between different needs or how they cope with frustration or conflict. It also assumes that all needs have a hierarchy, which may not be true for everyone.

Acquired Needs Theory

Acquired Needs Theory Acquired needs theory suggests that some needs are not innate, but learned from life experiences. For instance, children who are praised for winning games or contests may develop a need for achievement.

Acquired needs theory also suggests that there is a need for affiliation, creating strong bonds with others. However, as people grow older, these needs may change to needs such as having more influence or authority over others.

Like Maslow and Alderfer, acquired needs theories imply that there is a hidden order of needs that guides motivation toward certain goals before others.

Cognitive Evaluation Theory

This theory says that there are two kinds of motivation forces: intrinsic and extrinsic. They are related to internal and external factors:

  • Intrinsic motivators are things that come from doing the task or job itself, such as achievement, responsibility, and competence. For example, a writer may be intrinsically motivated by the joy of creating a novel or a scientist may be intrinsically motivated by the curiosity of discovering new things.
  • Extrinsic motivators are things that come from the person’s environment, such as pay, promotion, feedback, and working conditions. For example, a teacher may be extrinsically motivated by the salary or the recognition from the students or the principal.

Different people may have different preferences for these motivators. Some may be more driven by intrinsic motivators, while others may be more driven by extrinsic motivators.

People who are intrinsically motivated do things for their own sake and satisfaction. They may lose motivation if they think that they are doing things for other reasons, such as money or pressure. For example, a musician who loves playing music may lose interest if he or she is forced to play a certain genre or style.

The theory also says that powerful extrinsic motivators can reduce a person’s intrinsic motivation, especially if the person feels that they are controlled by others. For example, a student who enjoys learning may lose interest if he or she is rewarded or punished based on grades or test scores.

Some situations may involve both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. For example, a lawyer may be motivated by both the passion for justice and the income from the cases. Most people who are happy with their jobs have a balance of these two kinds of motivation. However, finding this balance can be hard or impossible due to budget constraints or other factors.

Two Factor Theory (Herzberg)

Herzberg’s two factor theory, also known as the motivation-hygiene theory, proposes that there are two sets of factors that influence motivation in different ways.

  • Hygiene factors are factors that prevent dissatisfaction, but do not cause satisfaction. They are things that people expect to have and miss when they are gone. A good example is air conditioning in a hot climate. People do not appreciate it when it is on, but they complain when it is off. Other examples include pay, security, working conditions, company policies, and interpersonal relationships. These are extrinsic factors that are low in the Maslow/Alderfer hierarchy.
  • Motivators are factors that cause satisfaction, but do not prevent dissatisfaction. They are things that people value and enjoy doing. A good example is learning a new skill or completing a challenging task. Other examples include achievement, recognition, responsibility, and growth. These are intrinsic factors that are high in the Maslow hierarchy.

According to Herzberg, hygiene factors and motivators are independent of each other, and people can be high or low on both.

Equity Theory

Equity theory, also known as the social comparison theory, proposes that motivation is influenced by how people perceive their rewards in relation to their efforts and to others’ rewards and efforts .

  • Perceived equity is when people think that their rewards are fair and proportional to their efforts and to what others receive. For example, a person may be satisfied with a 5% raise if everyone else gets the same raise, even if he or she worked harder than others.
  • Perceived inequity is when people think that their rewards are unfair and disproportionate to their efforts and to what others receive. For example, a person may be unhappy with a 5% raise if someone else gets a higher raise, even if he or she worked just as hard as the other person.

According to equity theory, people’s motivation depends on the ratio of reward to effort that they perceive for themselves and for others. This is complex for many reasons, such as:

  1. People do not have complete or accurate information about how others are rewarded. They rely on perceptions, rumors, and guesses.
  2. People have different sensitivities and preferences for equity issues. Some may care more about fairness than others.
  3. People have different time horizons and expectations for equity issues. Some may tolerate short-term inequities if they hope for long-term equity.

Equity theory assumes that people are rational and reactive to comparisons, but this may not be true for everyone. Some people may not care about what others receive, even if it seems unfair to them.

Reinforcement Theory

Reinforcement theory, also known as operant conditioning, is based on the idea that behavior is shaped by its consequences. This theory says that needs are learned from experience and influenced by rewards and punishments. There are four types of consequences that affect behavior:

  • Positive reinforcement is when a behavior is followed by a reward, such as a bonus for good performance. This increases the likelihood of repeating the behavior.
  • Negative reinforcement is when a behavior is followed by the removal of a negative stimulus, such as more freedom for doing chores or ending probation for good behavior. This also increases the likelihood of repeating the behavior. This is different from punishment, which adds a negative stimulus.
  • Extinction is when a behavior is ignored or not rewarded, such as no recognition for high performance. This decreases the likelihood of repeating the behavior.
  • Punishment is when a behavior is followed by a penalty, such as docking pay for lateness. This also decreases the likelihood of repeating the behavior.

Reinforcement theory focuses on external needs that are driven by rewards and punishments. However, it may not account for internal needs that are not affected by consequences, such as relationships. It may explain how people behave in relationships, but not why they need them.

Implications & Issues

Needs theories are motivational theories that assume that people are driven by certain needs that motivate their behavior. However, these theories do not account for the diversity and complexity of human nature. One of the main challenges of needs theories is the difficulty of reducing humans to sets of needs and desires that can explain motivation. As shown by Maslow’s hierarchy, people do not always follow their needs in a logical order, but may be influenced by emotions and other factors that are personally meaningful. The implication of these theories is that they may not be applicable to all people or situations, and that they may overlook some motivational components, such as values, beliefs, and goals

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