Clark L. Hull’s Deductive Behaviorism

Several major learning theories were proposed in the twentieth century. Clark L. Hull proposed one of the most detailed, based on the power of habit.
The Deductive Behaviorism of Clark L. Hull

Clark L. Hull (1884-1952) proposed a new way of understanding behavior. Hull wanted to establish the basic principles of behavioral science to explain the behavior of different animal species and individual and social behavior. His theory is known as deductive behaviorism.

Hull’s theory was the most detailed and complex of the learning theories of the 20th century. For Hull, the power of habit was the most basic concept. He believed that exercise strengthened certain habits.

Hull described habits as stimulus-response connections based on rewards. According to Hull, it is reactions, not perceptions or expectations, that help shape habits. The process is gradual and a reward is essential.

Hull .’s Deductive Behaviorism

Clark L. Hull proposed a new way of understanding behaviorism that grew out of the logical positivism that prevailed in his day.

Like other leading theorists, Hull believed that human behavior could be explained by conditioning and reinforcement. Reducing impulses acts as a reinforcement of behavior.

This reinforcement increases the likelihood that the same behavior will occur again when the same need arises in the future. Therefore, in order to survive in its environment, an organism must behave in a way that satisfies these survival needs.

Thus, in a stimulus-response relationship, where the stimulus and the response are followed by a reduction in need, the probability that the same stimulus will “produce” the same response in the future increases.

Black dog with tongue out of his mouth

Hull wanted to establish the basic principles of a behavioral science to explain animal behavior as well as individual and social behavior. His theory of deductive behaviorism proposes habit as a central concept. The strength of the habit depends on whether the stimulus-response sequence is followed by a reinforcement.

The degree of amplification, in turn, depends on the reduction of the impulse associated with a biological need.

Hull first presented his learning theories in the Mathematico-Deductive Theory of Rote Learning (1940), which he formed in collaboration with several colleagues. In this theory he formulated his findings in both mathematical and verbal expressions.

Hull developed these ideas in Principles of Behavior (1943), in which he suggested that the stimulus-response connection depends on both the type and degree of reinforcement.

Hull .’s learning theory

Hull was one of the first theorists to try to create a theory designed to explain all behavior. This learning theory, which he developed in 1943, is known as the drive reduction theory. Hull based his theory on the concept of homeostasis, the idea that the body actively works to maintain a certain state of equilibrium.

A motive, such as thirst, hunger or cold, creates an unpleasant state or a tension. To reduce this state of tension, people and animals look for ways to meet these biological needs (drink, eat, find shelter). In this sense, Hull suggested that humans and animals repeat any behavior that diminishes these impulses.

Hull based his theory on the idea that people learn secondary drives through conditioning. This is in contrast to primary motivators, which are biological needs such as the desire for socialization, thirst and hunger.

Secondary drives also indirectly satisfy primary drives, such as the desire for money, because it is necessary to pay for shelter or food.

These secondary drives arise when someone has more than one need. The goal is to correct the imbalance (homeostasis), which causes discomfort. Certain behaviors are learned and conditioned if, and only if, a person fulfills a primary motivation.

Woman drinks glass of water

Mathematical way of expressing his theory

Hull also developed a way to mathematically express his learning theory:

sEr = V x D x K x J x sHr – sIr – Ir – sOr – sLr

The characters in this formula stand for:

  • sEr: Exciting potential, or the probability that an organism will produce a response (r) to a stimulus(s)
  • sHr: The power of habit, determined by the number of previous conditionings
  • D: The drive, determined by the amount of biological deprivation
  • K: Incentive motivation, or the size or scope of the goal
  • J: The delay before the organism is allowed to seek reinforcement
  • lr: Reactive inhibition or fatigue
  • slr: Conditioned inhibition, caused by previous lack of reinforcement
  • sLr: Response Threshold, the smallest amount of reinforcement that learning will produce
  • sOr: Random error

According to Hull , the main decrease in the drive-reduction theory corresponds to the elimination and reduction of impulses.

Because these impulses can hinder productivity, Hull’s theory implies an increase in potential productivity that can be developed in a work environment. By meeting all the needs, you can improve your work performance and thus be more successful.


Critics believed that Hull’s deductive behaviorism was too complex or that it could not explain human motivation because it was unable to generalize.

One of the biggest problems with Hull’s motivator reduction theory is that it doesn’t take into account how secondary reinforcements reduce motivators. Unlike primary motivators, such as hunger and thirst, secondary reinforcements do nothing to directly reduce physiological and biological needs.

Another important criticism of this theory is that it does not explain why people exhibit behaviors that do not diminish the urges.

Yet this approach had a lot of influence on later theories and explanations. Indeed, many of the theories of motivation that emerged during the 1950s and 1960s were based on Hull’s original theory or aimed at offering alternatives to his theory.

A great example is the famous pyramid of Abraham Maslow, which emerged as an alternative to Hull’s approach.

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