Our thoughts and behaviors are strongly influenced by affective experiences known as drive states. These drive states motivate us to fulfill goals that are beneficial to our survival and reproduction. This module provides an overview of key drive states, including information about their neurobiology and their psychological effects.

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Learning Objectives

Identify the key properties of drive statesDescribe biological goals accomplished by drive statesGive examples of drive statesOutline the neurobiological basis of drive states such as hunger and arousalDiscuss the main moderators and determinants of drive states such as hunger and arousal
Figure 11.14 Hunger is among our most basic motivators. 

What is the longest you’ve ever gone without eating? A couple of hours? An entire day? How did it feel? Humans rely critically on food for nutrition and energy, and the absence of food can create drastic changes, not only in physical appearance, but in thoughts and behaviors. If you’ve ever fasted for a day, you probably noticed how hunger can take over your mind, directing your attention to foods you could be eating (a cheesy slice of pizza, or perhaps some sweet, cold ice cream), and motivating you to obtain and consume these foods. And once you have eaten and your hunger has been satisfied, your thoughts and behaviors return to normal.

Hunger is a drive state, an affective experience (something you feel, like the sensation of being tired or hungry) that motivates organisms to fulfill goals that are generally beneficial to their survival and reproduction. Like other drive states, such as thirst or sexual arousal, hunger has a profound impact on the functioning of the mind. It affects psychological processes, such as perception, attention, emotion, and motivation, and influences the behaviors that these processes generate.

Key Properties of Drive States

Drive states differ from other affective or emotional states in terms of the biological functions they accomplish. Whereas all affective states possess valence (i.e., they are positive or negative) and serve to motivate approach or avoidance behaviors (Zajonc, 1998), drive states are unique in that they generate behaviors that result in specific benefits for the body. For example, hunger directs individuals to eat foods that increase blood sugar levels in the body, while thirst causes individuals to drink fluids that increase water levels in the body.

Different drive states have different triggers. Most drive states respond to both internal and external cues, but the combinations of internal and external cues, and the specific types of cues, differ between drives. Hunger, for example, depends on internal, visceral signals as well as sensory signals, such as the sight or smell of tasty food. Different drive states also result in different cognitive and emotional states, and are associated with different behaviors. Yet despite these differences, there are a number of properties common to all drive states.


Figure 11.15 The body needs homeostasis and motivates us – through both pleasure and pain – to stay in balance. 

Humans, like all organisms, need to maintain a stable state in their various physiological systems. For example, the excessive loss of body water results in dehydration, a dangerous and potentially fatal state. However, too much water can be damaging as well. Thus, a moderate and stable level of body fluid is ideal. The tendency of an organism to maintain this stability across all the different physiological systems in the body is called homeostasis.

Homeostasis is maintained via two key factors. First, the state of the system being regulated must be monitored and compared to an ideal level, or a set point. Second, there need to be mechanisms for moving the system back to this set point—that is, to restore homeostasis when deviations from it are detected. To better understand this, think of the thermostat in your own home. It detects when the current temperature in the house is different than the temperature you have it set at (i.e., the set point). Once the thermostat recognizes the difference, the heating or air conditioning turns on to bring the overall temperature back to the designated level.

Many homeostatic mechanisms, such as blood circulation and immune responses, are automatic and nonconscious. Others, however, involve deliberate action. Most drive states motivate action to restore homeostasis using both “punishments” and “rewards.” Imagine that these homeostatic mechanisms are like molecular parents. When you behave poorly by departing from the set point (such as not eating or being somewhere too cold), they raise their voice at you. You experience this as the bad feelings, or “punishments,” of hunger, thirst, or feeling too cold or too hot. However, when you behave well (such as eating nutritious foods when hungry), these homeostatic parents reward you with the pleasure that comes from any activity that moves the system back toward the set point. For example, when body temperature declines below the set point, any activity that helps to restore homeostasis (such as putting one’s hand in warm water) feels pleasurable; and likewise, when body temperature rises above the set point, anything that cools it feels pleasurable.

The Narrowing of Attention

As drive states intensify, they direct attention toward elements, activities, and forms of consumption that satisfy the biological needs associated with the drive. Hunger, for example, draws attention toward food. Outcomes and objects that are not related to satisfying hunger lose their value (Easterbrook, 1959). For instance, has anyone ever invited you to do a fun activity while you were hungry? Likely your response was something like: “I’m not doing anything until I eat first.” Indeed, at a sufficient level of intensity, individuals will sacrifice almost any quantity of goods that do not address the needs signaled by the drive state. For example, cocaine addicts, according to Gawin (1991:1581), “report that virtually all thoughts are focused on cocaine during binges; nourishment, sleep, money, loved ones, responsibility, and survival lose all significance.”

Drive states also produce a second form of attention-narrowing: a collapsing of time-perspective toward the present. That is, they make us impatient. While this form of attention-narrowing is particularly pronounced for the outcomes and behaviors directly related to the biological function being served by the drive state at issue (e.g., “I need food now”), it applies to general concerns for the future as well. Ariely and Loewenstein (2006), for example, investigated the impact of sexual arousal on the thoughts and behaviors of a sample of male undergraduates. These undergraduates were lent laptop computers that they took to their private residences, where they answered a series of questions, both in normal states and in states of high sexual arousal. Ariely and Loewenstein found that being sexually aroused made people extremely impatient for both sexual outcomes and for outcomes in other domains, such as those involving money. In another study Giordano et al. (2002) found that heroin addicts were more impatient with respect to heroin when they were craving it than when they were not. More surprisingly, they were also more impatient toward money (they valued delayed money less) when they were actively craving heroin.

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Yet a third form of attention-narrowing involves thoughts and outcomes related to the self versus others. Intense drive states tend to narrow one’s focus inwardly and to undermine altruism—or the desire to do good for others. People who are hungry, in pain, or craving drugs tend to be selfish. Indeed, popular interrogation methods involve depriving individuals of sleep, food, or water, so as to trigger intense drive states leading the subject of the interrogation to divulge information that may betray comrades, friends, and family (Biderman, 1960).