What are the similarities & differences between need theories?

What are the similarities and differences between need theories?

Motivational Theories

All needs theories contain the same premise that 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.


Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is the most famous 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.

According to Maslow, lower needs take priority and must be fulfilled before the others are activated. There is some basic common sense here giving merit to the theory since worrying about an altruistic goal's achievement has not meaning when the person struggles against eviction. There are some basic needs, requiring attention before lofty needs can be achieved by these needs are not always easy to define and certainly don't fit a universal pyramid.

Alderfer’s ERG theory

Alderfer classifies needs into three categories, also ordered hierarchically:

· growth needs (development of competence and realization of potential)
· relatedness needs (satisfactory relations with others)
· existence needs (physical well-being)

Structured lik Maslow Alderfer's theory forms three tiers attempting to form a more practical theory. For example, Alderfer’s model removes sex from the base of needs since sex is not crucial for a person to survive, thus acknowledging that people might not need sex before fulfilling the need to attend school.

Alderfer's theory roots in power and as such higher needs are felt more intensely as drives toward power fulfillment, like an addiction. The obvious flaws in this theory are the same as Maslow's, assuming all needs have an order of fulfillment. 

Acquired Needs Theory

Acquired needs theory posits that some needs are acquired as a result of life experiences. For example, the need for achievement is acquired by children who are encouraged to win by playing sports or other competitions.

Acquired needs theory also posits that there is a need for affiliation, forming close personal relationships and that as people progress in life these needs shift to needs such as more power in the workplace or controlling others.

Again, similar to Maslow and Alderfer, acquired needs theories assume that underlying structure of needs channels motivation toward certain need fulfillment before others.

Cognitive Evaluation Theory

This theory suggests that there are actually two motivation systems: intrinsic and extrinsic that correspond to two kinds of motivators:

· intrinsic motivators: Achievement, responsibility, and competence. motivators that come from the actual performance of the task or job — the intrinsic interest of the work.
· extrinsic: pay, promotion, feedback, working conditions — things that come from a person’s environment, controlled by others.

One or the other of these may be a more powerful motivator for a given individual.

Intrinsically motivated individuals perform for their own achievement and satisfaction. If they come to believe that they are doing some job because of the pay or the working conditions or some other extrinsic reason, they begin to lose motivation.

The belief is that the presence of powerful extrinsic motivators can actually reduce a person’s intrinsic motivation, particularly if the extrinsic motivators are perceived by the person to be controlled by people. Any situation where one is being paid or rewarded would be considered an extrinsic motivation and most people (who are happy with their jobs) are most likely motivated both extrinsically and intrinsically. The extrinsic motivation may be pay or bonus but the intrinsic reward may come from the fact that the person enjoys performing their job. The balancing of these two forms of motivation is difficult and sometimes impossible due to budget constraints.

Two Factor Theory (Herzberg)

According to Herzberg, two kinds of factors affect motivation, and they do it in different ways:

· hygiene factors- These are factors whose absence motivates, but whose presence has no perceived effect. They are things that when you take them away, people become dissatisfied and act to get them back. A very good example is heroin to a heroin addict. Long term addicts do not shoot up to get high; they shoot up to stop being sick — to get normal. Other examples include decent working conditions, security, pay, benefits (like health insurance), company policies, interpersonal relationships. In general, these are extrinsic items low in the Maslow/Alderfer hierarchy.

· motivators- These are factors whose presence motivates. Their absence does not cause any particular dissatisfaction, it just fails to motivate. Examples are all the things at the top of the Maslow hierarchy, and the intrinsic motivators.

So hygiene factors determine dissatisfaction, and motivators determine satisfaction. The two scales are independent, and you can be high on both.

Equity Theory

Equity theory says that it is not the actual reward that motivates, but the perception and the perception is based not on the reward in isolation, but in comparison with the efforts that went into getting it, and the rewards and efforts of others. If everyone got a 5% raise, a person is likely to feel quite pleased with her raise, even if she worked harder than everyone else. But if one person got an even higher raise, the other person perceives that she worked just as hard and will be unhappy.

In other words, people’s motivation results from a ratio of reward to effort comparable with what they perceive others receive. This is complicated for many reasons, most of all determining the measuring factors.

1. People do not have complete information about how others are rewarded. So they are going on perceptions, rumors, and inferences.
2. Some people are more sensitive to equity issues than others
3. Some people are willing to ignore short-term inequities as long as they expect things to work out in the long-term.

Equity theory assumes people's behavior and reaction to comparisons when in reality some people simply don't care about other people's rewards even when it seems unfair to them.

Reinforcement Theory

Reinforcement theory founds on Operant Conditioning as described by B.F. Skinner in which consequences of a particular behavior drive future occurrences of that behavior. This theory posits that needs are behaviorally driven, having been learned through conditioning. Operant Conditioning is defined by Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement, Punishment, and Extinction. Both Positive and Negative Reinforcement strengthen the need for a particular behavior while both Punishment and Extinction weaken the need for a particular behavior.

· Positive reinforcement- Being rewarded for behavior forms the consequence of the behavior such as a bonus for good job performance.

· Negative reinforcement- Removal of stressor becomes the consequence of behavior such as allowing children more freedom when they do their chores or good behavior ends probation. This is often confused with punishment but negative reinforcement is really the ending of something negative as the motivation for good behavior.

· Extinction- When a behavior is ignored the motivation or need for that behavior ends seen when people perform at a high standard but stop when they receive no recognition.

· Punishment- Punishment is a consequence of behavior meant to motivate people to desired behavior such as docking pay for lateness.

Reinforcement theory views needs as external in nature and while it can explain some of the forces driving needs, the theory often overlooks intrinsic needs that are not driven behaviorally such as relationships: although it may explain future behaviors in relationships.


All needs theories, view motivation from a point of satisfying urges or drives but do not fit all people universally.


Article updated on 9-21-21

Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash


Triola Vincent. Mon, Feb 01, 2021. What are the similarities & differences between need theories? Retrieved from

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