Personality Traits

Needs as Personality:

Henry Murray

Last updated:
27 Jul 2004

Needs as personality: Henry Murray

Henry Murray (1893 - 1988) was active in developing a theory of motivation throughout the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s. He believed that a need is a

potentiality or readiness to respond in a certain way under certain given circumstances… It is a noun which stands for the fact that a certain trend is apt to recur.
(Murray, et al. 1938, p. 124).

A major assumption of Murray’s theory was that behaviour is driven by an internal state of disequilibrium. In other words we have a LACK of something and this drives us. We are dissatisfied and we desire something.

Murray classified needs as being either:

  • Primary needs (which are biologically based): food, water, air, sex, avoidance of pain

  • Secondary needs (which either derive from our biological needs or are inherent in our psychological nature):

    • achievement, recognition, acquisition

    • dominance, aggression, autonomy

    • affiliation, rejection

    • nurturance, play, cognizance (asking questions of others)

Murray believed that stronger needs are expressed more often over time and lead to more intense behaviour.

The main contribution from Murray’s was that he understand personality as being driven by the secondary needs: Achievement, Dominance, Affiliation and Nurturance. The extent to which each of these needs was felt by an individual shaped their personality and behavior.

Since the 60s and 70s the main needs studies have examined Achievement, Power, Affiliation and Intimacy.

For example, the need for achievement (or Achievement Motivation) was studied extensively by
David McLelland in the 70s, and is the single most researched need.  Achievement motivation refers to the desire to do things well, overcome obstacles, to do things better.  A person high in achievement motivation tends to choose more difficult tasks than a person low in achievement motivation, because they want to find out more about their ability to achieve.

The need for power was studied intensely by David Winter in the 70s.  The need for power is the desire to have dominance, impact on others, prestige, position, and influence over others.  Those who have a need for power are often concerned about controlling the image of themselves that is portrayed to others.  If the need for power can be combined with taking on responsibility, then "acceptable" displays of power can be experienced.

The need for affiliation has been studied by McAdam in the 80s.  The need for affiliation refers to the desire to desire to spend time with other people.  It can be more useful to look at subcomponents such as social comparison, emotional support, positive stimulation, and attention from others.

The need for intimacy is the desire to experience warm, close, and communicative exchanges with
another person.  Ultimately, it is the desire to merge self with another.  The need for intimacy correlates .58 (medium correlation) with the need for affiliation, but focuses more on one to one interactions, particularly self-disclosure and listening.

Murray’s Needs theory is sometime studied as part of the trait perspective as “needs” are seen as akin to traits. But probably more often, you’ll see Needs’ theory studied within the psychoanalytic
perspective as it is seen as a DRIVE theory of personality. We’ll return to this when you look at the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) in the psychoanalytic section of the course.  The TAT was derived from Murray’s Needs theory.