What Is the Acquired Needs Theory?

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  • Written By: Karize Uy
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 15 November 2019
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Acquired Needs Theory is one theory that suggests that the needs of man constantly change as he encounters different experiences throughout the stages of his life. The main proponent of the theory was an American psychologist named David McClelland, who expounded on the theory in his 1961 book, “The Achieving Society.” The Acquired Needs Theory has been largely applied in the workplace and in situations related to motivation, management, and social relations. The theory is also known by other names such as the Learned Need Theory.

Another name for the Acquired Needs Theory is the “Three-Need Theory,” mainly because the theory focuses on three types of needs: achievement, affiliation, and power. These needs are said to somehow dictate a man’s behavior and how he makes his decisions. The theory states that all three needs are present in man, but there will always be one particular need that will affect him the most and one that he will respond to the strongest.


The category of achievement refers to man’s need to be excellent at what he does, and to clearly see an increasing improvement in his career. This need explains why some people are greatly motivated when they are given praise, feedback, a promotion, or other acts of recognition. People who have a need to achieve may avoid undertaking low-risk tasks, as they perceive success from these areas as expected and not from their actual accomplishments. Interestingly, they may also decide against high-risk assignments to avoid situations of failure, resulting in lack of motivation. As a result, achievers may just stick with achievable projects that they are confident of accomplishing with their own efforts.

When it comes to the need of power, Acquired Needs Theory categorizes a person as wanting personal or institutional power, both of which are similar in terms of feeling the need to be influential and to take charge. A man who needs personal power may want to take control of every action of the people surrounding him. A person with institutional needs, however, directs the action of the people in terms of accomplishing a common objective. People who see power as a need can make for good leaders as they are very determined, but they may end up being too dictatorial.

The third need, the need for affiliation, refers to the necessity to be in good terms with everyone and to feel a sense of belonging. A person who needs affiliation is said to be cooperative during group projects, but might not be a significant contributor to decision-making tasks since he tends to be a conformist and does not like to stand out. He can, however, be a good motivator to other peers, and works well with assignments that require social interaction.

The underlying principle in the Acquired Needs Theory is that everyone is different. Knowing a person’s preferred need will help the management or a company determine how to motivate their workers and achieve overall success. Workshops, trainings, and seminars can also be carried out to enhance an employee’s inclined personality and develop other positive behaviors.


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Post 3

@serenesurface-- Murray described a total of twenty needs that are universal to people. But McClelland felt that power, achievement and affiliation were the most important. People's decisions and actions can be explained to a large extent by looking at these three needs and how important these needs are to that individual.

Everyone has these needs, the needs do not apply only to certain individuals. Just the importance given to them vary from individual to individual. I know people who don't care much about power and don't try to advance in their careers. They still have those needs but to a lesser extent.

Post 2

@bluedolphin-- Those are good questions. I'm not really sure but I do know that McClelland, the founder of the acquired needs theory, was influenced by another psychologist, Henry Murray. Henry Murray also researched human needs and he determined a list of psychogenic needs that was composed of six needs. These needs were ambition, power, materialism, defense of status, affection and exchange of information. McClelland expanded on Murray's work and limited needs to only three.

I personally find Murray's list of needs more realistic but I'm not an expert on this topic. Do we have any psychologists here who can further explain the acquired needs theory?

Post 1

Is it possible for people to not have one or more of the three needs? Or can someone have an additional need that is not described by this theory?

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