Clark Hull – Biography, Behaviorism and Impulse Theory

Clark Hull was a psychologist known for his impulse theory and research on human motivation. Clark Hull also had an impact on other well-known and influential psychologists, including Kenneth Spence, Neal Miller, and Albert Bandura . In a ranking of some of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century in 2002, Hull was listed as the 21st most cited psychologist.

Learn more about his life, career and contributions to the field of psychology.

Source: Psych Space

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Clark Hull Biography

Best known for:

  • impulse reduction theory
  • behaviorism
  • Hypnosis Research

Birth and death:

  • Clark Hull was born on May 24, 1884, in Akron, New York.
  • He died on May 10, 1952 in New Haven, Connecticut.

Your childhood

Clark Leonard Hull’s early life was marked by episodes of illness. He was born in New York and grew up on a farm in Michigan. His primary education took place at a one-room schoolhouse  (something like “single-room school) , where he would also teach for a year after graduating, before continuing his studies at Alma Academy. After graduating from the academy, his education was delayed for a year due to a severe case of typhoid fever.

At the age of 24, he contracted polio and was permanently paralyzed in his left leg, leaving him dependent on a walking stick. He had originally planned to study engineering, but his struggles with illness led him to turn his interests towards psychology.

While his poor health and financial difficulties led to several disruptions in his education, he finally earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Michigan. In 1918, he was awarded a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Clark Hull’s Career and Theories

After completing his PhD, Clark Hull stayed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to teach.

During this time, he began researching fitness measurement and forecasting and published his book on Aptitude Testing  in 1928.

In 1929, he took up a position at Yale University, where he would continue to work for the rest of his career. He became one of the first psychologists to study hypnosis empirically. During this time, he also began to develop what would eventually become his theory of behavioral impulses . Clark Hull drew on the ideas and research of a number of thinkers, including Charles Darwin, Ivan Pavlov , John B. Watson and Edward L. Thorndike .

Like other behaviorists, Clark Hull believed that all behavior can be explained by conditioning principles. According to Clark Hull’s impulse reduction theory , biological deprivation creates needs. These needs activate impulses that motivate behavior. The resulting behavior is directed towards a goal, since reaching those goals helps the organism to survive.

Clark Hull was influenced by Darwin and believed that the evolutionary process had impacted these resulting impulses and behaviors. He suggested that learning occurs when reinforcing behaviors results in fulfilling some kind of need for survival.

For example, basic needs, such as hunger and thirst, make organisms seek satisfaction for those needs to eat and drink. These impulses or needs are then temporarily reduced. It is this reduction in impulses that serves as reinforcement for behavior. According to Clark Hull, behavior is the result of continuous and complex interaction between the organism and the environment.

What were Clark Hull’s contributions to psychology?

Clark Hull’s  theory of impulse reduction served as a general theory of learning that helped to inspire the continuation of work by other researchers. For example, Miller and Dollard applied Hull’s basic theory more widely to include social learning and imitation. However, they suggested that the stimuli they motivate need not necessarily be linked to an organism’s survival needs.

Clark Hull also influenced a number of other psychologists. He became one of the most cited psychologists during the 1940s and 1950s. Before the cognitive revolution of the 1960s, his theories had a dominant influence on American psychology.

He also advised a number of graduate students, who went on to make significant contributions to psychology, including Neal Miller, OH Mowrer, Carl I. Hovland, and Kenneth Spence. Although the specifics of his theories have fallen out of favor in psychology, his emphasis on experimental methods has set a high standard for future researchers.


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