Core human drives

Understanding human drives needs is half the job of meeting them. – Adlai Stevenson, politician and former governor of Illinois.

If you are going to build a successful business, it is useful to have a basic understanding of what people want. The most well-known general theory of what people want is called “Maslov’s hierarchy of needs” proposed by the psychologist Abraham Maslov in 1943. Maslov’s theory was that people progress through five general stages in the pursuit of what they want: physiology, safety, belongingness/love, esteem, and self-actualisation. Physiology represents the “lowest” level of human needs, while self-actualisation (the exploration of a person’s innate potential) is the “highest“.

In Maslov’s hierarchy, each lower-level must be met before a person can focus on higher-order needs. If you do not have enough food, or you are in physical danger, you are probably not paying too much attention to how much other people like you or how much personal growth you are experiencing.

In practice, I prefer Clayton Alderfer’s version of Maslov’s hierarchy, which he called “ERG theory”: people seek existence, relatedness, and growth, in that order. When people have what they need to survive, they move on to making friends and finding mates. When they are satisfied with their relationship, they focus on doing things they enjoy and improving their skills in things that interest them. First existence, then relatedness, then growth.

ERG theory explains the general priority of human desires, but not the methods people use to satisfy them. For that, we must turn to other theories of human action. According to Harvard Business School professors Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria, the authors of Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices, all human beings have four Core Human Drives that have a profound influence on our decisions and actions:

  1. The drive to acquire. The desire to obtain or collect physical objects, as well as immaterial qualities like status, power, and influence. Businesses built on the drive to acquire retailers, investment brokerages, and political consulting companies. Companies that promise to make us wealthy, famous, influential, or powerful connect to this drive.
  2. The drive to bond. The desire to feel valued and loved by forming relationships with others, either platonic or romantic. Businesses built on the drive to bond include restaurants, conferences, and dating services. Companies that promise to make us attractive, well liked, or highly regarded connect to this drive.
  3. The drive to learn. The desire to satisfy our curiosity. Businesses built on the drive to learn to include academic programs, book publishers, and training workshops. Companies that promise to make us more knowledgeable or competent connect to this drive.
  4. The drive to defend. The desire to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our property. Businesses built on the drive to defend include home alarm systems, insurance products, martial arts training, and legal services. Companies that promise to keep us safe, eliminate a problem, o prevent bad things from happening connect to this drive.
  5. There is a fifth core drive that Lawrence and Nohria missed: The drive to feel. The drive for new sensory stimulus, intense emotional experiences, pleasure, excitement, entertainment, and anticipation. Businesses built on the drive to feel include restaurants, movies, games, concerts, and sporting events. Offers that promise to give us pleasure, thrill us, or give us something to look forward to connecting with this drive.

Whenever a group of people have an unmet need in one or more of these areas, a market will form to satisfy that need. As a result, the more drives your offer connects with, the more attractive it will be to your potential market.

At the core, all successful businesses sell some combination of money, status, power, love, knowledge, protection, pleasure and excitement, The more clearly you articulate how your product satisfies one or more of these drives, the more attractive your offer will become.

This concept by author: