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There are four core human drives that shape how people think and behave. Understanding these core drives helps us understand what people want, as well as find ways to help others fulfill them - the central function of business. The more drives your offer appeals to, the more appealing it will be to your potential customers.
Paul R. Lawrence is the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Organizational Behavior, Emeritus at Harvard Business School. Nitin Nohria is now the dean of Harvard Business School.
Here are 10 big ideas from Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices.
We’re in the business of helping our customers. Our customers are human beings, with wants, desires, and needs of their own. If you want to succeed in business, you must have a clear idea of what people want and need - what they’re driven to seek for themselves.
Lawrence and Nohria’s four drive theory helps to explain what humans want, as well as why they want those things. On the whole, humans love to:
The four drive theory can serve as a starting point for discovering what people want enough to pay for. Whenever a person believes (either consciously or subconsciously) they don’t have “enough" of one of these core drives, they’ll do what they can to get more.
Understanding these drives helps you understand human behavior. As we discussed in Making Sense of Behavior, humans act when a perception is outside of a certain range. These drives help explain what people are actually controlling for on a high level.
When enough people feel a need in one of these areas, a market forms - a group of people who are willing to try something new and potentially pay for a solution.
Here’s an exercise for you: go through the list of current Fortune 500 companies - the largest businesses in the world. All of them meet a need related to one (or more) of these four drives. Wal-Mart and Target are acquiring businesses. Boeing and Raytheon are defending businesses, etc.
The four drives are universal - they transcend age, status, and culture. The drives describe the human experience, and we all want all of them all of the time. As a result, these drives are useful when examining how people are currently behaving, as well as predicting how they’re likely to behave in the future.
When it comes to making good decisions, emotions are essential. It’s common to think of rationality as being Spock-like - unemotional and coldly logical. That’s not an accurate picture of the role of emotion in decision-making.
Emotions are an important part of rationality. The universal drives are felt at an emotional level, and help us use our minds to get what we want. These built-in control systems help ensure that our minds are focused on high-priority issues: matters that will improve our odds of biological and reproductive success vs. more trivial matters.
It’s important to understand that these drives help us stay alive and in the good graces of other people. Without them, we’d make decisions that wouldn’t serve us biologically. We’d do things that jeopardized our survival, threatened our place in society, and reduced our chances of finding a suitable mate.
Any particular individual may have a greater or lesser developed need for one of these drives, but the drive is always there on some level. A “minimalist" may seek to reduce the number of items they acquire, but they still must acquire enough to live.
Humans have the need to acquire things. Some of these items are necessary for survival, like food and shelter. Some of these items are more directly tied to social status - things that influence how other people perceive us, like luxury items, large homes, and expensive cars.
Businesses that cater to the drive to acquire include retail stores, vehicle manufacturers, and groceries.
Humans have the need to bond with other people. We need to feel connected to others - so much so that prolonged solitary confinement is torture. Businesses that cater to the drive to bond include telecommunications, conferences, restaurants, and dating services.
Consider websites like Twitter and Facebook: they primarily fill a bonding need, with a subtext of acquiring new “friends" or “followers." A major part of the rapid adoption of these tools came from a felt need - that it was difficult to keep in touch with far-flung friends and associates, and using these services help people feel less alone.
Humans have the need to learn new things. Curiosity is a part of the human condition, and without consistently learning and trying new things, people quickly become restless and bored.
Businesses that cater to the drive to learn include publishers, seminars, and self-improvement offerings.
Humans have the need to defend themselves and their domains. Whenever we feel threatened in some way - physically or socially - we spring into defensive mode. We start to think of ways that we can defend ourselves, our property, and our clan against danger.
Defending also applies to the specter of potential loss - losses that haven’t happened yet, but might happen in the future. For example, the survivalist community has been preparing for “The End of the World as We Know It" for decades, even though major losses haven’t happened. (But they might - in the mind of a “prepper," better safe than sorry.)
Businesses that cater to the drive to defend include martial arts studios, weapon manufacturers, and home security systems.
Drives combine multiplicatively - the more drives an opportunity or action engages, the more intensely we’ll feel motivated to act.
Consider social games like World of Warcraft. The game has been specifically engineered to appeal to all four core drives. The major progression element of the game is tied to getting better gear, and better gear leads to higher social status - acquisition. The only way to advance to the highest levels is to join and advance in a guild - bonding. Doing these things requires exploring new dungeons and constantly developing tactics to defeat the enemy - learning. Failing to do these things results in the death of your character and possible eviction from your guild - defending.
Is it any wonder World of Warcraft is such an addicting game? The more drives your offer appeals to, the more compelling your offer becomes.
I believe Lawrence and Nohria missed (or left out) a major drive: the drive to feel. Human beings have the need to be emotionally engaged on a daily basis - too little sensory stimulation (beyond that of curiosity or bonding) creates a drive to seek it.
Consider going to the movies. You’re not acquiring anything. Any bonding that happens with others happens before or after the movie. You very rarely learn something new. Seeing the movie doesn’t remove any threat.
The major effect of a good movie is to provoke your emotions - to guide you to feel something. The movies that get the best reviews, and do the best in the box office, are the movies that provoke our emotions the most.
Never underestimate the power of appealing to your customers on an emotional level.