David McClelland

David McClelland

David Clarence McClelland (May 20, 1917 – March 27, 1998) was an American social psychologist. He is known for his work in the field of motivation and especially his theory of people's "need for achievement." Rejecting IQs and personality tests as valuable measures of a person's potential success at a task or career, he developed innovative ways of measuring psychological characteristics. McClelland recognized competence and motivation to achieve as the characteristics best able to predict success on tasks. Together with John Atkinson, he developed the scoring system for the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) which is used in achievement motivation research.


McClelland's model of motivation is based on three needs: Achievement, affiliation, and power. Although all needs are present in all, for most people one is dominant. He applied his understanding of the relationship between these different motivations and success to management, co-founding a consulting firm, McBer Consulting Company. Their work has assisted numerous companies to improve their methods of evaluating employees and training managers. McClelland provided an alternative to the standard personality and intelligence assessments used for evaluation and promotion, helping companies to hire more effectively and also helping individuals to find a career and level of responsibility that best suits them and through which they can best contribute to the larger society.


David McClelland was born on May 20, 1917, in Mt. Vernon, New York. He graduated from Jacksonville High School in Illinois in 1933, and then spent a year as a special student in languages at MacMurray College, Jacksonville.

McClelland then attended Wesleyan University, where he studied with John McGeoch. McClelland earned his B.A. in 1938, and married Mary Sharpless on June 25 of that year. He obtained an M.A. in psychology in 1939, from the University of Missouri, followed by his Ph.D. in experimental psychology at Yale University in 1941.

McClelland's first position was as an instructor at Connecticut College, for one year. He then became an instructor at Wesleyan in 1941, in addition taking a part-time lecturer position at Bryn Mawr College 1944-1945, before being appointed chairman of the psychology department at Wesleyan in 1946. Over the next ten years of his time at Wesleyan he also traveled, lecturing in social psychology in Saltzburg, Austria, at the Saltzburg Seminar in American Studies, and at Harvard University 1949-1950. In 1956, he left Wesleyan to become a professor of psychology at Harvard. He remained there for the rest of his academic career, retiring to become professor emeritus in 1986, at which time he was also appointed Distinguished research professor at Boston University.

In 1963, McClelland and his associate Berlew co-founded McBer Consulting Company, which had the goal of helping managers train and assess their employees. Their firm specialized in mapping the competencies of entrepreneurs and managers across the world, for which they developed the Behavior Event Interviewing (BEI) methodology. McClelland traveled extensively to Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Europe as a Peace Corps consultant and as part of the U.S. Information Service.

He published a series of influential books on motivation, including Studies in Motivation (1955), The Achieving Society (1961), and The Roots of Consciousness (1964). In 1973, McClelland wrote an influential article in The American Psychologist in which he stated that IQ tests and personality tests commonly used in hiring were were poor predictors of competence. Instead of using such standardized tests as the SAT, he suggested that companies should hire based on competency in appropriate fields. He continued to publish books on achievement, including Power: The Inner Experience (1975) and Human Motivation (1988). His once radical ideas have become standard instruments in many corporation. For his accomplishments, he received a number of honorary degrees and awards, including the award for Distinguished Scientific contribution from the American Psychological Association (APA). He was also a fellow of the American Academy of Sciences.

In December 1980, his wife Mary died. On October 10, 1981, he remarried, to Marian Adams.

David McClelland died on March 27, 1998. He was posthumously awarded the Henry A. Murray Award from Division 8 of the APA.


David McClelland proposed a content theory of motivation based on Henry Murray's (1938) theory of personality, which sets out a comprehensive model of human needs and motivational processes. In McClelland's book, The Achieving Society (1961), he asserted that human motivation comprises three dominant needs: The need for achievement (N-Ach), the need for power (N-Pow) and the need for affiliation (N-Affil). The subjective importance of each need varies from individual to individual and depends also on an individual's cultural background. He also claimed that this motivational complex is an important factor in the social change and evolution of societies. His legacy includes the scoring system which he co-developed with John William Atkinson for the Thematic Apperception Test. The TAT is used for personality assessment and in achievement motivation research, and described in McClelland, Atkinson, Clark, & Lowell's book The Achievement Motive (1953).

Thematic Apperception Test

Working with John William Atkinson, who completed his undergraduate psychology degree at Wesleyan University while McClelland taught there, they researched the arousal of human needs and behavior with the financial support of the Office of Naval Research. Convinced that motivation was a more powerful predictor of achievement than intelligence they used the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) to measure motivation.

The TAT was developed by the American psychologists Henry Murray and Christiana D. Morgan at Harvard during the 1930s to explore the underlying dynamics of personality, such as internal conflicts, dominant drives, interests, and motives. It is a projective test that presents the subject with a series of ambiguous pictures, and the subject is asked to develop a spontaneous story for each picture. The assumption is that the subject will project his or her own needs into the story and these will reflect certain underlying themes.

The scoring system developed by McClelland and Atkinson measures an individual's score for each of the needs of achievement, affiliation, and power. This score can be used to suggest the types of jobs for which the person might be well suited. While some believe other psychometric questionnaires that offer better reliability and validity, the properly administered TAT meets 0.85 reliability standards, and is the only tool that has been found to measure implicit motivation with any degree of validity.

Theory of needs

The acquired-needs theory developed by David McClelland, called "McCelland's Theory of Needs" (sometimes as the "Three Need Theory" or the "Learned Needs Theory"), draws on Henry Murray's model of personality. McClelland proposed that an individual's specific needs are acquired over time and are shaped by one's early life experiences. According to McClelland, most of human needs and/or motives can be classified as achievement, affiliation, and power. He found that a person's motivation and effectiveness in certain job functions are influenced by these three needs. Thus, the importance of a particular need depends upon the position.

McClelland's theory of needs is outlined in his 1961 publication, The Achieving Society.


The need for achievement (N-Ach) is the extent to which an individual desires to perform difficult and challenging tasks successfully. People with a high need for achievement:

  • Desire success and positive feedback that is related to their performance on tasks
  • Seek to excel and thus tend to avoid both low-risk and high-risk situations
  • Like to work alone or with other high achievers.

Predominantly achievement-motivated individuals avoid low-risk situations because they find easily attained success is not genuine achievement; rather they attribute it to the ease of the task not their own effort. Similarly, they avoid high-risk projects, regarding success as the result of chance not their competence. Thus, individuals with high need for achievement are not gamblers, nor are they afraid to take risks. Rather, they calculate the degree of risk and select moderate risk options. McClelland suggested that people with high achievement need make good leaders, although they tend to expect those that they work with also to be result driven and may expect too much from them. Their aggressive realism makes them successful entrepreneurs.


The need for affiliation (N-Affil) is the desire for harmonious relationships with other people. People with high need for affiliation:

  • Want to be liked and feel accepted by other people
  • Tend to conform to the norms of their work group
  • Prefer cooperation over competition
  • Enjoy being part of a group.

High affiliation need individuals prefer work that provides significant personal interaction, and depends on successful relationships with others, such as customer service. They are concerned with whether people like them more than whether they are doing a good job. McClelland regarded a strong need for affiliation as undermining the objectivity and decision-making ability needed in management.


The need for power (N-Pow) is a desire for authority, to be in charge. It takes two forms—personal and institutional.

  • Those who desire personal power want to direct others; this need often is perceived as undesirable
  • Those who desire institutional power (also known as social power) want to organize the efforts of others to further larger goals, such as those of an organization

In management, while the job requires directing others, those with a high need for personal power may become dysfunctional as their focus is on the directing of others rather than on the achievement of the company's goals. Managers with a high need for institutional power tend to be more effective than those with a high need for personal power, since they channel their need into accomplishing goals set by the organization. Those whom they direct are more likely to respond positively when they are being directed toward the larger goal.

McClelland noted that people generally have all three needs; one need, however, tends to be dominant. This depends both on their internal make-up, their personality, and also is learned through experience. Unlike Abraham Maslow who developed a hierarchy of needs, McClelland did not discuss these three needs as stages or with transitions among them.

In his later work, McClelland (1988) added a fourth need, avoidance which functions to motivate people to avoid situations and people with which they have, or expect to have, unpleasant experiences. These avoidance motives include fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of success, and generalized anxiety. In this work he also stressed that there are both conscious and unconscious intents that affect a person's motivation.


McClelland was not only an academician, interested in theories of what motivates people, he also applied his ideas to management in the corporate world. Forming McBer Consulting Company, in 1963, gave him opportunities to put his ideas into practice as well as a wealth of practical experience and data from which to further develop and refine his theories.

Disturbed by what he saw as the unjustified use of intelligence (IQ) tests for job selection, McClelland introduced the idea of competencies. A competency is defined as any characteristic of a person that differentiates performance in a specific job, role, culture, or organization. As he put it, "if you are hiring a ditchdigger, it doesn't matter if his IQ is 90 or 110—what matters is if he can use a shovel." After his first paper on this topic in 1973, this approach spread throughout industry and is now a generally accepted approach to measuring job requirements and evaluating job candidates, as it has been consistently shown to be the least biased form of job selection.

McClelland developed a method of measuring human needs through content analysis of imaginative thought. He researched extensively the role of the needs for achievement, power, and affiliation in occupational success, economic and political development, health, and personal adjustment. People with different needs are motivated differently. While all people have all the motives he described, they have them to different degrees. In practice, the majority of people have one motive to significantly higher degree, though a few have all equally high.

According to McClelland (1961), highly achievement-motivated people should be given challenging projects with reachable but challenging goals. They should be provided frequent feedback. While money is not an important motivator, it is an effective form of feedback if it is linked to clear measures of success. Employees with a high affiliation need perform best in a cooperative environment, where they can belong to something larger than themselves. Meanwhile, McClelland believed that management should provide people with strong need for power the opportunity to manage others.

His work with David Burnham, described in their article (Burnham and McClelland 1976), revealed that better managers tended to score high in their need for power, their need to influence other people, and that need outweighed their need to be liked. They also found that the most effective managers directed their desire for power toward the benefit of the organization as a whole.

McClelland's theory allows for the shaping of a person's needs, and training programs can be used to modify one's need profile. Further studies have indicated that motives cannot be decreased, but may be increased over significant time. A study by his associates Bradburn and Berlew (1961) supported McClelland's theory. They analyzed achievement motives in British school text books and showed a strong correlation between these themes, a generation later, with England's industrial growth.

McClelland's last paper, in 1998, was a study demonstrating that rigorous competency-based selection could predict performance in top executives in a multinational organization: His study found job performance (against business goals) could be predicted two years in advance with 75-85 percent accuracy—a validity coefficient estimated to be 0.81, and unmatched by any other tool. Since the technique is both labor-intensive and requires skilled assessors to execute at that level, it is often not used at entry-level through supervisory levels of organizations, though it is still effective.


David McClelland was both an insightful theorist and innovative in his application of his theories to the workplace. He was able to apply his theory of the importance of motivation and competency in the fields of management, economic and political development, individual health, personal adjustment, and occupational success. McClelland's recognition that competence, not intelligence, is key to job performance transformed the way employees are interviewed, hired, and promoted for all manner of positions and responsibilities. The training of competencies, identified for various tasks, has emerged as a major educational objective, complementing the goal of teaching knowledge, and understood as a trainable ability unlike intelligence.

The McBer Consulting Company, now a part of the Hay Institute, which McClelland founded has made great advances in aiding managers to train and evaluate employees, and continues to work in this area.

Major works

  • McClelland, D.C. 1955. Studies in Motivation. Appleton.
  • McClelland, D.C. 1961. The Achieving Society. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand. ISBN 978-0029205105.
  • McClelland, D.C. 1964. The Roots of Consciousness. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand. ISBN 978-1569247471.
  • McClelland, D.C. 1973. Testing for competence rather than intelligence. American Psychologist 28 (1).
  • McClelland, D.C. [1975] 1979. Power: The Inner Experience. New York: Halstead. ISBN 978-0829001013.
  • McClelland, D.C. 1988. Human Motivation. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521369510.
  • McClelland, D.C. 1998. Identifying competencies with behavioral-event interviews. Psychological Science. 9(5).
  • McClelland, D.C., and Burnham, D.H. [1976] 2008. Power Is the Great Motivator. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. ISBN 978-1422179727.
  • McClelland, D.C., J.W. Atkinson, R.A. Clark, and E.L. Lowell. 1953. The Achievement Motive. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand.
  • McClelland, D.C., R. Koestner, and J. Weinberger. 1989. How do self-attributed and implicit motives differ? Psychological Review. 96: 690-702


  • Atkinson, J.W. (ed.) 1958. Motives in Fantasy, Action, and Society. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand.
  • Bradburn, N.M., and D.G. Berlew. 1961. Need for achievement and English industrial growth. Economic Development and Cultural Change 10: 8-20.
  • Brennan, J.F. 1982. History and Systems of Psychology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. ISBN 978-0130481191.
  • Carver, Ch. S. and M.F. Scheier. 1992. Perspectives on Personality, 5th edition. Allyn & Bacon. ISBN 0205375766.
  • Chase, A. 2003. Harvard and the Unabomber: The Education of an American Terrorist. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393020029.
  • Leahey, Th. H. 1991. A History of Modern Psychology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. ISBN 0130175730.
  • Murray, H.A. 1938. Explorations in Personality. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195305067.
  • Murray, H.A. 1943. Thematic Apperception Test. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674877207.
  • Pettijohn, T.F. 1998. Psychology: A ConnecText, 4/e. McGraw Hill. ISBN 0072929049.
  • White, R.K. and R.O. Lippitt. [1960] 1972. Autocracy and Democracy. ISBN 0837157102.

External links

All links retrieved November 10, 2017.


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