David McClelland’s Theory of Needs

Over the years behavioral scientists have observed that some people have an intense need to achieve; others, perhaps the majority, do not seem to be as concerned about achievement.

This phenomenon has fascinated David C. McClelland. For over twenty years he and his associates in Harvard University studied this urge to achieve.

McClelland’s research led him to believe that the need for achievement is a distinct human motive that can be distinguished from other needs. More important, the achievement motive can be isolated and assessed in any group.

Also, he developed an Achievement Motivation Theory consisting of the following set of needs:

  • Achievement
  • Affiliation
  • Power

The Need for Achievement

This need is the extent to which a person wants to perform difficult, challenging, but attainable tasks in a high level. Persons with this need have the following characteristics:

  • They want to have success and need to receive positive feedback often
  • They seek to stretch themselves and thus tend to avoid low-risk and high-risk situations. They avoid low-risk situations because the easily attained success is not a genuine achievement. In high-risk projects, achievers see the outcome as one of chance rather than a result of their own effort.
  • They like to work alone or with other high achievers
  • McClelland believes that these people make the best leaders, although there can be a tendency to demand too much of their staff in the belief that they are also highly results-driven.

McClelland illustrates some of these characteristics in describing a laboratory experiment. He asserted via this experiment that while most people do not possess a strong achievement-based motivation, those who do, display a consistent behavior in setting goals.

Participants were asked to throw rings over a peg from any distance they chose. Most people tended to throw at random- sometimes close, sometimes far away; but individuals with a high need for achievement seemed carefully to measure where they were most likely to get a sense of mastery—not too close to make the task ridiculously easy or too far away to make it impossible.

They set moderately difficult but potentially achievable goals. In biology, this is known as the overload principle.

In weight lifting, for example, strength cannot be increased by tasks that can be performed easily or that cannot be performed without injury to the organism. Strength can be increased by lifting weights that are difficult but realistic enough to stretch the muscles.

McClelland firmly believed that achievement-motivated people are generally the ones who make this happen and get results, and that this extends to getting results through the organization of other people and resources, although they often demand too much of their staff because the prioritize achieving the goal above the many varied interests and needs of their people.

McClelland also suggested other characteristics and attitudes of achievement-motivated people, and these are as follows:

Achievement is more important than material or financial reward.

  • Achieving the aim or task gives greater personal satisfaction than receiving praise or recognition.
  • Financial reward is regarded as a measurement of success, not an end in itself.
  • Security is not prime motivator, nor is status.
  • Feedback is essential because it enables measurement of success, not for reasons of praise or recognition
  • They, achievement-motivated people, constantly seek improvements and ways of doing things better.
  • They will logically favor jobs and responsibilities that naturally satisfy their needs.

Achievement-motivated people are not gamblers. They prefer to work on a problem rather than leave the outcome to chance.

With managers, setting moderately difficult but potentially achievable goals may be translated into an attitude toward risks. Many people tend to be extreme in their attitude toward risks, either favoring wild speculative gambling or minimizing their exposure to losses.

  • Gamblers seem to choose the big risk because the outcome is beyond their power and, therefore, they can easily rationalize away their personal responsibility if they lose.
  • The conservative individual chooses tiny risks where the gain is small but secure, perhaps because there is little danger of anything going wrong for which that person might be blamed.
  • Achievement-motivated people take the middle ground, preferring a moderate degree of risk because they feel their efforts and abilities will probably influence the outcome. In business, this aggressive realism is the mark of the successful entrepreneur.


Another characteristic of achievement-motivated people is that they seem to be more concerned with personal achievement than with the rewards of success. They do not reject rewards, but the rewards are not as essential as the accomplishment itself.

They get a bigger “kick” out of winning or solving a difficult problem than they get from any money or praise they receive.

Money, to achievement-motivated people, is valuable primarily as a measurement of their performance. It provides them with a means of assessing their progress and comparing their achievements with those of other people.

They normally do not seek money for status or economic security.


A desire by people with a high need for achievement to seek situations in which they get concrete feedback on how well they are doing is closely related to this concern for personal accomplishment. Consequently, achievement-motivated people are often found in sales job or as owners and managers of their own businesses.

In addition to concrete feedback, the nature of the feedback is important to achievement-motivated people. They respond favorably to information about their work.

They are not interested in comments about their personal characteristics, such as how cooperative or helpful they are.

  • Affiliation-motivated people might want social or attitudinal feedback.
  • Achievement-motivated people might want job-relevant feedback. They want to know the score.

People who have high achievement needs are different from others in the following ways:

  • They seek personal responsibility for finding solutions to problems. This means they take the initiative to find results, sometimes even when it isn’t their problem.
  • They need rapid feedback on their performance. They are usually very frustrated by not receiving feedback and the quicker the better.
  • They are normally not gamblers, but instead set appropriately challenging goals. High achievers like to control their own success.
  • The want to stretch themselves, so they set goals that are challenging but ones that they perceive they have at least a better chance of attaining it.

The Need for Affiliation

This means that people seek good interpersonal relations to a personal interaction. This motivational need is also similar to Maslow’s belongingness and love need, where people relate to others on a social basis. Persons with this need have the following characteristics:

  • They want to be liked and accepted by others, and attach importance to a personal interaction.
  • They tend to conform to the norms of their workgroup.
  • They strive to make and keep relationships with a high amount of trust and mutual understanding.
  • They prefer cooperation over competition.
  • They perform well in customer service and client interaction situations.

McClelland believed that a strong Need for Affiliation undermines the objectivity and decision-making capability of managers. He also believed that people who have a high need for affiliation have the said characteristics.

These people are social in nature. They try to affiliate themselves with individuals or groups. They are driven by love and faith. They like to build a friendly environment around themselves. Social recognition and affiliation with others provides them motivation.

The Need for Power

This need is typical for people who like to be in charge. This motivation is the need to control others and make a difference in the outcome of a given situation.

  • They can be group into two types: personal and institutional power.
    • People with a high need for personal power want to direct and influence others.
    • A high need for institutional power means that people like to organize the efforts of others to achieve the goals of the organization.
  • High power people enjoy competition and status-oriented positions.
  • While these people are attracted to leadership roles, they may not possess the required flexibility and people-centered skills.
  • Managers with a high need for institutional power tend to be more effective than those with a high need for personal power.

People who have a high need for power are not power-mongers. Instead, they understand the use of power and that it enables people to get things done and make a difference in a positive way.

These people have the following characteristics:

  • They like to be “in charge.” Part of this is because they know their own strengths and weaknesses and know they can trust their own judgment and skills. They are often uncertain about the abilities of others, so they want to be in charge.
  • Since they know they can be effective, they strive for influence over others.
  • High power people enjoy competition and status-oriented positions.
  • They do enjoy prestige and sometimes this gets in the way of their effectiveness on the actual job.

Basically, people who have a high need for power are inclined towards influence and control. They like to be at the center and are good orators. They are demanding in nature, forceful manners and ambitious in life. They can be motivated to perform if they are given key positions or power positions.

The Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)

Assessing the needs of McClelland, The Thematic Apperception Test is an example of a projective test. This is where an individual writes a descriptive analysis of their individual reactions from unstructured pictures.

Historically, the Thematic Apperception Test or TAT has been amongst the most widely used, researched, and taught projective psychological tests. Its adherents claim that it taps a subject’s unconscious to reveal repressed aspects of personality, motives and needs for achievement, power and intimacy, and problem-solving abilities.


The TAT is popularly known as the picture interpretation technique because it uses a standard series of 30 provocative yet ambiguous pictures about which the subject must tell a story. It can help a person to find out which type of job would be preferable according to his dominant need. In the case of adults and adolescents of average intelligence, a subject is asked to tell as dramatic a story as they can for each picture, including:

  • what has led up to the event shown
  • what is happening at the moment
  • what the characters are feeling and thinking, and
  • what the outcome of the story was.

For children or individuals of limited cognitive abilities, instructions ask that the subject tell a story including what happened before and what is happening now, what the people are feeling and thinking and how it will come out.

The 30 cards are meant to be divided into two “series” of 15 pictures each, with the pictures of the second series being purposely more unusual, dramatic, and bizarre than those of the first. Suggested administration involves one full hour being devoted to a series, with the two sessions being separated by a day or more.

Several cards in the test are present in order to ensure that the subject is able to be provided with cards picturing individuals of the same gender. Eleven cards (including the blank card) have been found suitable for both sexes, by portraying no human figures, an individual of each sex, or an individual of each sex, or an individual of ambiguous gender.

Scoring Systems

The TAT is a projective test in that, like the Rorschach test, its assessment of the subject is based on what he or she projects onto the ambiguous images. Therefore, to complete the assessment each story created by a subject must be carefully analyzed to uncover underlying needs, attitudes, and patterns of reactions. Several formal scoring systems that have been developed for analyzing TAT stories systematically and consistently. Two common methods that are currently used in research are the:

  • Defense Mechanisms Manual DMM. This assesses three defense mechanisms: denial (least mature), projection (intermediate), and identification (most mature).
  • Social Cognition and Object Relations SCOR scale. This assesses four different dimensions of object relations: Complexity of Representations of People, Affect-Tone of Relationship Paradigms, and Capacity for Emotional Investment in Relationships and Moral Standards, and Understanding of Social Causality.


TAT was developed by the American psychologists Henry A. Murray and Christian D. Morgan at Harvard during the 1930’s to explore the underlying dynamics of personality, such as internal conflicts, dominant drives, interests, and motives.

After World War II, the TAT was adopted more broadly by psychoanalysts and clinicians to evaluate emotionally distributed patients.

Later, in the 1970’s, the Human Potential Movement encourages psychologist to use the TAT to help their clients understand themselves better and stimulate personal growth.


Declining adherence to the Freudian principle of repression on which the test is based has caused the TAT to be criticized as false or outdated by many professional psychologists. Their criticisms are that the TAT is unscientific because it cannot be proved to be valid (i.e. that it actually measures what it claims to measure), or reliable, (i.e. that gives consistent results over time, due to the challenge of standardizing interpretations of the stories produced by subjects).

These criticisms are, indeed, justified, as far as earlier approaches are concerned; however, the two most recent approaches distinguish themselves in being based on norms, i.e. tests with different age groups and of none-patients as compared to patients. For this reason, it is now possible to determine e.g. what the common level of social cognition of 8-year-olds is, and thus whether a specific child aged 8 adheres to the norm or not.

Contemporary Applications of TAT

Nevertheless, the TAT remains widely used as a tool for research around areas of psychology such as dreams, fantasies, mate selection and what motivates people to choose their occupation. Sometimes it is used in a psychiatric context to assess disordered thinking, in forensic examinations to evaluate crime suspects, or to screen candidates for high-stress occupations.

TAT is widely used in France and Argentina following the “French School” concepts.

  • There is also a British and a Roman School.
  • The Israeli army uses the test for evaluating potential officers.
  • It is also used by Service Selection Board, India

TAT in Popular Culture

  • Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon includes a scene where the brilliant fiction psychiatrist and serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter is required to take a TAT test.
  • Michael Crichton included the TAT in the battery of test given to the disturbed patient and main character Harry Benson in his The Terminal Man novel.
  • In the MTV cartoon “Daria”, Daria and her sister Quinn are given a test that appears to be the TAT by the school psychologist on their first day at their new school. Daria and Quinn are shown a picture of two people. Quinn makes up a story about the two people having a discussion about popularity and dating. Daria states that she sees “a herd of beautiful wild ponies running free across the plains. “ That’s a different test, dear. In this test, they’re people and you tell me what they’re discussing.” To which Daria characteristically replies, “Oh… I see. All right, then. It’s a guy and a girl and they’re discussing… a herd of beautiful wild ponies running free across the plains.”


Generally, all three needs are present in each individual. They are shaped and acquired over time by the cultural background of the individual and his life experience. Training can be used to modify a need profile. Nevertheless, one of the needs is the dominant one, depending on a person’s personality.

Unlike Maslow, McClelland did not differentiate between any certain transitions among the needs. He indicates that some people have higher levels of one need than others.

These needs are found to varying degrees in all workers and managers, and this mix of motivational needs characterizes a person’s or a manager’s style and behavior, both in terms of being motivated, and in the management and motivation of others.

McClelland observed that with the advancement in the hierarchy the need for power and achievement increased rather than affiliation. He also observed that people who were at the top, later ceased to be motivated by these drives.

The importance of the different needs at work depends upon the position occupies. The need for achievement and the need for power are typical for middle and top managers.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: