The Man Behind Isaac Asimov’s Psychohistory in The Foundation Series

David McClelland was an American behavioral and social psychologist who developed the Motivational Needs Theory during the latter half of the 20th century.  He was also involved in quantitative history, a field of research referred to as psychohistory and popularized by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.  McClelland believed that, using vast amounts of economic and demographic data across various civilizations, one could determine specific behavior patterns pertaining to the growth and decline of society.  These scientific patterns could then be used to predict the future.

McClelland attained his Master’s from the University of Missouri.  He later attended Yale and spent over 30 years teaching at Harvard University.  The following list reflects a few of his published works regarding Motivational Needs Theory:

The Achievement Motive (1953)

The Achieving Society (1961)

Power Is The Great Motivator (1976)

Human Motivation (1987)

Overview of Motivational Needs Theory

There are two types of theories related to motivation:  process and content.  Content theories focus on what motivates an individual.  David McClelland’s Motivational Needs Theory is a content theory focused on three main identifier needs that drive work performance.  All goals and objectives are established through these needs:  Affiliation, Power, and Achievement.

Affiliation is the need for interpersonal relationships and loyalty to others.  Power is the need to control others.  Achievement is the need to overcome obstacles and accomplish goals.  Achievement is characterized by a need for feedback and some risk.

Of the three, McClelland praised individuals that exhibited a higher level of Achievement need.  He believed that the degree of societal economic growth is positively related to the degree of individual achievers in that society.  Put simply, the greater number of entrepreneurs and inventors a society holds, the greater its wealth.

McClelland derived these three needs from the work of Murray’s Theory of Psychogenic Needs from 1938.  McClelland’s theory was also influenced by the Hawthorne Studies conducted in the 1920s by Elton Mayo at Western Electric Company in Chicago.

Researchers discovered through a series of observations of 6 female employees under various altered work conditions, that peer group observation improved their performance.  This proved to McClelland that humans are motivated by more than financial incentives, unlike popular economic theory of that time period.

To determine what type of motivational need a person has, McClelland would administer the TAT. This was a series of photographs related to a story that were given to a subject along with a set of questions. The subject’s immediate answers to these questions would determine his or her motivational need: affiliation, achievement, or power.

One very significant study done in psychohistory is the following one shown below. This study proved a positive correlation between generations of children who were read books that focused on achievement and later industrialization of their country and the advancement of entrepreneurial and invention-type progress.

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