Innovative Learning

Drive Reduction Theory (C. Hull)

Hull developed a version of behaviorism in which the stimulus (S) affects the organism (O) and the resulting response (R) depends upon characteristics of both O and S. In other words, Hull was interested in studying intervening variables that affected behavior such as initial drive, incentives, inhibitors, and prior training (habit strength). Like other forms of behavior theory, reinforcement is the primary factor that determines learning. However, in Hull's theory, drive reduction or need satisfaction plays a much more important role in behavior than in other frameworks (i.e., connectionism, operant conditioning).

Hull's theoretical framework consisted of many postulates stated in mathematical form; They include: (1) organisms possess a hierarchy of needs which are aroused under conditions of stimulation and drive, (2) habit strength increases with activities that are associated with primary or secondary reinforcement, (3) habit strength aroused by a stimulus other than the one originally conditioned depends upon the closeness of the second stimulus in terms of discrimination thresholds, (4) stimuli associated with the cessation of a response become conditioned inhibitors, (5) the more the effective reaction potential exceeds the reaction theshold, the shorter the latency of response. As these postulates indicate, Hull proposed many types of variables that accounted for generalization, motivation, and variability (oscillation) in learning.

One of the most important concepts in Hull's theory was the habit strength hierarchy: for a given stimulus, an organism can respond in a number of ways. The likelihood of a specific response has a probability which can be changed by reward and is affected by various other variables (e.g. inhibition). In some respects, habit strength hierarchies resemble components of cognitive theories such as schema and production systems .


Hull's theory is meant to be a general theory of learning. Most of the research underlying the theory was done with animals, except for Hull et al. (1940) which focused on verbal learning. Miller & Dollard (1941) represents an attempt to apply the theory to a broader range of learning phenomena.  As an interesting aside, Hull began his career researching hypnosis – an area that landed him in some controversy at Yale (Hull, 1933).


Here is an example described by Miller & Dollard (1941): A six year old girl who is hungry and wants candy is told that there is candy hidden under one of the books in a bookcase. The girl begins to pull out books in a random manner until she finally finds the correct book (210 seconds). She is sent out of the room and a new piece of candy is hidden under the same book. In her next search, she is much more directed and finds the candy in 86 seconds. By the ninth repetition of this experiment, the girl finds the candy immediately (2 seconds). The girl exhibited a drive for the candy and looking under books represented her responses to reduce this drive. When she eventually found the correct book, this particular response was rewarded, forming a habit. On subsequent trials, the strength of this habit was increased until it became a single stimulus-response connection in this setting.


  1. Drive is essential in order for responses to occur (i.e., the student must want to learn).
  2. Stimuli and responses must be detected by the organism in order for conditioning to occur ( i.e., the student must be attentive).
  3. Response must be made in order for conditioning to occur (i.e., the student must be active).
  4. Conditioning only occurs if the reinforcement satisfied a need (i.e, the learning must satisfy the learner's wants).


Hull, C. (1933). Hypnosis and Suggestability: An Experimental Approach. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
[see discussion of this work at]

Hull, C. (1943). Principles of Behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Hull, C. et al. (1940). Mathematico-Deductive Theory of Rote Learning. New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press.

Miller, N. & Dollard, J. (1941). Social Learning and Imitation. New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press.

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