David McClelland Biography – Contributions To Psychology

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Given the far-reaching impact of his work, David McClelland is regarded as one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century.

David McClelland

Who Is David McClelland?

David McClelland was an eminent American psychologist and professor best known for his work on human motivation. He was the creator of achievement motivation theory, which has proven to be particularly influential in the areas of management and economic development. 

McClelland also pioneered the use of competency-based assessment, which has become standard practice in many organizations. 

David's Early Life

David Clarence McClelland was born on May 20,1917, in Mount Vernon, New York. He spent most of his childhood in Jacksonville, Illinois. He was the third of five children born to Clarence P. McClelland and Mary E. McClelland (nee Adams). He had an older brother and sister and two younger sisters.

McClelland’s father was a Methodist minister and served as the president of a Methodist women’s college. He led many stimulating discussions around the family dinner table and was a skilled debater, capable of arguing from virtually any point of view. These lively family discussions helped to stimulate McClelland’s intellectual curiosity, as well as his interest in science. McClelland attended Jacksonville High School and graduated in 1933.

Educational Background and Career

McClelland initially planned on becoming a language teacher and spent a year studying foreign languages at MacMurray College in Jacksonville. As part of his studies, he wrote a play in Latin and translated poems written by Emily Dickinson into German. He later earned a bachelor's degree from Wesleyan University in 1938 and a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Missouri in 1939. He graduated from Yale University with a Ph.D. in experimental psychology in 1941.

After a year spent teaching psychology at Connecticut College, McClelland became a professor at Wesleyan University, where he remained from 1942 to 1956. He was appointed chair of the psychology department in 1946. During his time at Wesleyan, McClelland traveled and taught at other locations as well. For example, from 1944 to 1945, he worked as a part-time psychology lecturer at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, and spent a summer giving lectures on social psychology at the Saltzburg Seminar in American Studies in Saltzburg, Austria. McClelland also spent a one-year sabbatical at Harvard University’s Department of Social Relations and another as Deputy Director of the Behavioral Sciences Division of the Ford Foundation.

During the second world war, while still at Wesleyan, McClelland served as assistant personnel secretary of the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia. The Committee did extensive work with refugees and conscientious objectors to military service.

Harvard University 

In 1956, he joined the faculty at Harvard University as a full-time Professor of Psychology, a post which he held for 30 years.

At Harvard, McClelland served as director of the clinical psychology doctoral program and as Chair of the Department of Social Relations from 1962 to 1967. He retired from Harvard in 1986 and became an Emeritus Professor. In 1987, he joined the faculty at Boston University where he was appointed as Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology.

McClelland’s professional work was not restricted to the realm of academia. In 1963, he co-founded McBer and Company, a successful consulting firm which assisted managers in evaluating and training employees. He served as chairman of the board for several years. He also traveled to various locations in Europe, East Africa, and Southeast Asia as a Peace Corps consultant and as a member of the United States Information Service.

Theory of Human Motivation

Building on the work of Henry Murray, McClelland proposed that human motivation arises from three distinct needs: the Need for Achievement (N-Ach), the Need for Affiliation (N-Aff), and the Need for Power (N-Pow). McClelland believed that all three needs (or motives) are learned and that all individuals possess a measure of each. In the model he proposed, needs are arranged in a hierarchy based on their potential for influencing behavior. The relative importance of each need in directing behaviour varies from one individual to the next and from one culture to another.

Need For Achievement 

From the late 1940s to the 1960s, McClelland focused primarily on the Need for Achievement. This is essentially a drive to do better or compete against one’s own standards for success. People with a strong need for achievement tend to set goals for themselves and constantly assess their progress toward reaching their goals. They are willing to take moderate risks and enjoy completing tasks that are challenging but doable in order to gain a sense of accomplishment. They prefer individualistic activities and take personal responsibility for performing a task. They are drawn to recreational activities for which they can obtain a score and are often found in occupations that provide concrete feedback about their performance (eg., sales positions).

Need For Power

The Need for Power is a striving to have an impact on others. People who are motivated primarily by this need tend to seek out leadership positions and occupations that allow them to help, direct, or otherwise influence others (eg., managerial positions). They are usually assertive, enjoy competitive recreational activities, and may engage in aggressive acts. They are motivated to compete, not against internal standards, but against others, in order to beat or dominate them.

Need for Affiliation

People who have a dominant Need for Affiliation are driven primarily by a desire for close, affectionate relationships with others. They enjoy socializing with close friends, prefer collaborative activities, and seek out occupations that allow them to interact closely with others (eg., elementary school teachers). In the workplace, they tend to be concerned about others liking and accepting them, and will seek approval even at the expense of efficiency.

The Need for Avoidance

In his later work, McClelland proposed a fourth motive - the need for avoidance - which he described as a drive to avoid people or situations with which an individual has had, or expects to have, unpleasant experiences. The avoidance motive includes fear of rejection, fear of failure, and generalized anxiety.

Formula for Motivational Change 

McClelland believed a person’s motive hierarchy can be altered by changing the way that person thinks and acts. His formula for motivational change is fairly simple:

  • Give individuals feedback regarding their current motives (i.e. thought patterns) and behavior.
  • Educate them about the relationship between motives and performance.
  • Encourage them to set goals and plan ways of experimenting with new thought patterns and behaviors.
  • Assist them in creating a support network.
  • Encourage them to periodically evaluate progress toward their goals

Use of Operant Tests

McClelland was a passionate advocate of operant methods of collecting data. Operant tests require individuals to generate thoughts or actions, in contrast to respondent tests which simply require that the individual provide a rating, ranking, or true/false response. McClelland argued that operant measures provide richer data than respondent tests, including deeper insights into a person’s thoughts, emotions, and behavior.

In his research, McClelland provided substantial evidence that operant methods: 1) have greater criterion validity, 2) are better able to detect subtle changes in human thought and behavior, 3) offer greater cross-cultural validity, and 4) have greater utility as it relates to practical applications to individual and organizational development.

Despite their numerous advantages, operant measures have traditionally been overlooked by psychologists due to their relatively low reliability ratings. McClelland sought to overcome this limitation by developing more reliable, standardized methods of coding the data obtained from these measures. For example, along with one of his colleagues, he developed a structured scoring system for the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)—a popular projective test in which the respondent looks at a series of ambiguous pictures and tells a spontaneous story about what is happening. The assumption is that the individual will project his or her needs, desires, and feelings into the story, which facilitates the extraction of underlying themes.

The TAT is often used in research and occupational selection and was the method of choice used by McClelland to assess the needs of individuals. The scoring system he developed assigns the individual a score for each of the three needs mentioned in his theory, and allows the administrator to obtain a motivational profile for the respondent.

Competency-based assessment

In 1973, McClelland published a seminal article in The American Psychologist in which he argued that the academic exams, IQ tests, and personality assessments that have traditionally been used in hiring are poor predictors of how well an individual will perform at a job. Instead of relying on standardized test scores, he proposed that hiring decisions be made based on competency in relevant fields. In his own words: “If you are hiring a ditch digger, it doesn’t matter if his IQ is 90 or 110—what matters is if he can use a shovel.”

In McClelland’s theory, a competency is defined as an underlying characteristic of an individual that is linked to superior job performance. Competencies are viewed as stable, enduring aspects of an individual’s personality and can take the form of a skill, a trait, a motive, an aspect of one’s self-image, or a body of knowledge to which one has access. Competence is situation specific in that a characteristic that is deemed a competence for one job might not predict successful performance in another.

Case Studies 

To highlight the relevance of competency-based assessments, McClelland once cited the case of a petrol pump attendant. He noted that it is possible to go to a technical high school and learn the skills needed to perform the job (eg. unscrewing the cap, filling the tank, etc.). An individual who scores well on an academic exam that assesses these skills would likely be able to carry out the required functions of the role. However, as McClelland further explained, that was not the most important factor in determining how often a customer stops at the station. More important, he argued, was how often the attendant smiled (or growled!) at the customer. This type of behavior is linked to a competency which McClelland labeled ‘customer service orientation’ and covers various aspects of being nice to customers.

Competency Research 

McClelland and his associates spent many years researching and developing competency models for various occupations and organizations. A competency model is simply a written description of the group of competencies required for successful performance in a job category. The method they used involved interviewing employees who were outstanding in a particular field, as well as those who were average (or poor) performers, and then comparing the characteristics of both groups. Each separate characteristic or ‘behavioral indicator’ was noted and then grouped together into competencies which distinguished one group from the other.

The interviews conducted by McClelland and his team [known as behavioral event interviews (BEI)] were quite extensive, and sometimes lasted up to three hours. Respondents were asked to describe in depth the way they usually go about their work, while making reference to occasions in the past when they felt effective in their job and when they performed poorly. The interviewer would walk the individual through each episode, and probe for specific details such as where and when the event occurred, who else was present, what was said and done, and so on. The interviews would then be transcribed and evaluated to identify specific competencies.

In the late 1980’s to early 1990’s, McClelland’s colleagues at McBer developed a dictionary of several competencies that were found to be most common across nearly 300 competency models. Each competency was broken down into its behavioral indicators. McClelland’s hope was that the competency models he and his team developed would be used as the basis for designing other types of tests that could be used to screen large numbers of job applicants. Unfortunately, his push for well-researched competency tests was not met with widespread acceptance and very few tests of this nature have been created. Nevertheless, the interviewing technique he used to develop his competency models is still being used by several organizations today.

Applications of David McClelland's Work

Using his formula for motivational change, McClelland and his colleagues have trained business owners in achievement thinking and behavior in order to stimulate economic growth in their companies. These training programs have been conducted both within and outside of the United States and have been shown to enhance entrepreneurial activity for several years after the training is completed.

Achievement training has also been applied to children in educational settings in an attempt to improve academic performance. Extensive resource materials have been published to assist teachers of achievement motivation courses, and hundreds of students across the United States have taken part in these courses. Results indicate that this type of training can have positive effects on school performance when administered properly and may even increase involvement in achievement-related activities outside of school.

Power Motivate Training

There have also been attempts to train individuals in the power motive. For example, McClelland and one of his colleagues used power motivation training to help alcoholics maintain sobriety, regain employment, and improve social functioning. 

McClelland is often credited with starting the competency movement in the United States and his work has prompted the growth of a substantial consulting industry. An increasing number of consulting firms have adopted BEIs in order to assess competencies related to specific positions. The results of these assessments have been used in several ways in the workplace. For example, they have been applied to performance appraisals and have informed decisions on hiring, training, and job promotion. Many of these organizations make use of the McBer dictionary in order to identify behavioral indicators associated with relevant competencies.

McClelland’s competency theory has also been applied to vocational guidance in order to help individuals decide on a career that best suits their unique characteristics and strengths. It has also been utilized in other practical ways in the areas of education, mental health, behavioral medicine, and economic development at the national level.


McClelland’s theories and methods, though influential, have several limitations. For example, as insightful as BEIs are, they are quite lengthy and expensive to administer and analyze. Organizations interested in competency based assessments tend to avoid them in favor of less time-consuming, more cost-effective methods (eg., they may choose to use expert panels to brainstorm the competencies needed for a particular job).

BEIs are also open to issues of bias and subjectivity since the interpretation of responses is wholly dependent on the judgment of the interviewer. Bias may also be introduced in the selection of average and outstanding performers to be interviewed. Additionally, BEIs are said to have a historical focus since individuals are asked to talk about their past experiences. Some argue that the models developed based on these interviews would include competencies that were associated with successful performance in the past, and may not necessarily be applicable to present circumstances.

Other critics contend that the definition of competence on which the theory is based is too broad. They argue that the definition includes a diverse set of variables (skills, motives, traits, knowledge, etc.) but fails to distinguish what is common to all of them. Still other critics claim that McClelland was misguided in discounting the effectiveness of cognitive and academic tests in predicting job performance. They note that a large body of empirical evidence attests to the predictive power of such measures as well.

McClelland’s reliance on a projective test—the TAT—for measuring individual needs is considered a major flaw in his work. Critics raise questions about the reliability and validity of the test and have pointed to low inter-rater reliability and low correlations between scores on the TAT and self-report tests measuring the same motive.

David McClelland's Books, Awards, and Accomplishments

McClelland authored, co-authored and edited several books, along with more than 180 papers and book chapters over the course of his career. Perhaps his most influential work is his 1961 book, The Achieving Society, in which he outlined his model of human motivation and analyzed the role of achievement motivation in economic growth. Among his other books are:

  • Personality, 1951
  • Studies in Motivation, 1955
  • The Roots of Consciousness, 1964
  • Power: The Inner Experience, 1975
  • Human Motivation, 1988

McClelland was a founding member or director of more than fourteen consulting companies, the most notable being McBer and Company (now part of the Hay/McBer Group). In recognition of his many accomplishments, he received several honorary degrees and awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (1958), the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (1987), the Bruno Klopfer Award from the Society for Personality Assessment (1988), the Baldwin Medal from Wesleyan, and the Wilbur Cross Medal from Yale. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Sciences and was posthumously awarded the Henry A. Murray Award from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. In 2002, he was ranked 15th on a list of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century.

Personal Life

​David McClelland Spouse 

On June 25, 1938, McClelland married Mary Warner Sharpless, a talented artist and art teacher. They had five children together: Catherine (b. 1943), identical twin boys Duncan and Nicholas (b.1945), Sarah (b. 1953), and Jabez (b. 1954). The couple enjoyed travelling together to foreign countries and went on a world tour during each of McClelland’s sabbatical leaves. During the 1960s and 70s, the McClellands had a very active household, taking in foreign exchange students to live with them in return for completing chores.

Through his wife Mary, McClelland became involved with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and was an active member of the Cambridge Friends Meeting and a board member of the Cambridge Friends School. True to his Quaker beliefs, he often provided psychological support for his students and colleagues, and at times, even financial help. He meditated daily and remained a committed pacifist throughout his adult life. Those who knew him personally regarded him as a calm, gentle, generous, and open-minded individual.

McClelland and Mary spent 42 happy years together. Their marriage ended with Mary’s death in December 1980 from gastric cancer. On October 10, 1981 McClelland remarried. He had two additional children, Mira and Usha, with his second wife, Marian Adams.

Is David McClelland Still Alive? 

McClelland died of heart failure on March 27, 1998, at his home in Lexington, Massachusetts. He was 80 years old at the time of his death.


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Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2021, March). David McClelland Biography - Contributions To Psychology. Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/david-mcclelland/.

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