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The Drive Theory is an important concept in psychoanalysis. Developed by Sigmund Freud, it was presented in his book, ‘The Ego and the Id’, which was published in 1923. Throughout the decades, the Drive Theory has gone through various changes. It has also garnered a lot of critique. However, it is still considered a major breakthrough in the field of psychoanalysis.

Drive Theory

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Drive Theory

Drive Theory, or the Theory of Instinctual Drive, was introduced by Freud to understand aggressive behaviour. In the early stages of the development of psychoanalysis, the concept of drive was an important aspect. ‘Drive’ is an ‘appetitive internal force’. Freud says that the human body constantly strives for a homeostatic state. However, when this homeostatic state is disturbed, our body reacts by forming drives. These drives are ‘mental representations of unspecified nervous system excitation related in some way to sexual and aggressive urges.’ The individual seeks to satisfy these urges so that he can return to the homeostatic state.

According to Freud, drives are dual in nature. They consist of libidinal and sexual drives. He says that the libidinal drive is the more important one of the two.

Even though Freud described drives as reactions to certain stimuli, he, ironically, studied it in isolation. He was cognizant of the need for ‘object relations’ that is, studying drives in context with the broader environment. Hence, he made his model more flexible which would later adapt changes and new findings. Thus, he labeled all facets of personality and psychopathology as a function. This means that he juxtaposed the role of objects only against the discharge of drives.

However, in his later works, Freud reduced the emphasis on drives. He said that since the nature of drives is changeable, other factors such as social situations had an important role to play as well.

Freud’s Drive Theory has gone undergone numerous changes and modifications. Robert Zajonc used Freud’s model to explain social facilitation. The presence of an audience affects the execution of a task. This can be either positive or negative. It depends on whether the task consists of a ‘correct dominant response’ or an ‘incorrect dominant response’. A ‘correct dominant response means that that the individual finds the task to be easy while an ‘incorrect dominant response’ means that the individual finds that task to be difficult. In the presence of a passive audience, the individual goes into a state of deep arousal. This in turn leads to individual manifesting behaviors, which serve as dominant responses. If this dominant response is correct then the individual’s performance will be efficient and improvement will be seen. However, if the dominant response is negative, then the individual’s performance will inefficient and inept.


Freud categorizes the human mind into three parts – id, ego and super ego. Human beings go through psychosexual stages of development where their personality is developed and molded in the first five years of their life.

He categorizes this development into five stages

  1. Oral Stage
  2. Anal Stage
  3. Phallic Stage
  4. Latency Stage
  5. Genital Stage
  1. Oral Stage – This spans from the birth of the child to 18 months. During this stage, the baby is completely dependent on its mother. However, if it is too dependent on the mother, then it may become very dependant as an adult
  2. Anal Stage – This spans from 18 months to three years. During this stage, children learn to control their body. Thus, they learn how to control his sphincter and in turn, learn to manage bodily functions. If they becomes fixated in this stage then they may become anally retentive, which leads to a strong need to control and maintain his urges or they may become anally expulsive, which leads to an inability in controlling urges
  3. Phallic Stage – This spans from three years to six years. This is probably Freud’s most controversial concept. He says that this stage is marked by the Oedipus/Electra complex. This means that the child has sexual attraction towards the parent of the opposite gender subconsciously. Oedipus complex refers to boys who have sexual impulses towards their mothers and Electra complex refers to girls who have sexual impulses towards their fathers. However, they control these urges due to fear of repercussions. Boys fear castration by their fathers and girl fear jealousy by their mothers. Boys may develop ‘castration anxiety’ and girls might develop ‘penis envy’
  4. Latency Stage – This spans from six years to twelve years. Here, the libidinal energy is directed towards normal childhood activity like school, sports, hobbies and friendship
  5. Genital Stage – This spans beyond twelve years of age. In this stage, the individual now focuses his or her sexual energy on the opposite sex. However, if the childhood of the individual was not smooth and had issues, then difficulties are bound to happen in adult life


Thus, Drive Theory cannot be explained in isolation. While Freud was correct in saying that our body strives to satisfy our urges, he did not take the broader social and environmental situation into context. Indeed, it is the social and environmental surroundings which shape our needs and wants. The advantage that Drive Theory has is that it can be used to further test and prove other theories and phenomenon like Zajonc. Even though modern day Drive Theory has evolved and changed significantly, the foundations remain the same.

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