David McClelland

David McClelland

Human Achievement and Motivation Research
David McClelland (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, 1997)
David McClelland (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, 1997)

An expert in human motivation, David McClelland joined the Harvard faculty in 1956, where he taught and conducted research for 30 years.  He was the Chair of the Department of Social Relations from 1962-1967.  McClelland’s research spanned more than five decades, yielding an influential body of testing instruments, data, and theoretical models of human motivation and achievement. 

McClelland also conducted research into personality and consciousness.  One of his most important legacies was the development of a widely used scoring system for the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), a projective test which had been created in the 1930’s by Harvard psychologists Henry Murray and Christiana Morgan. The TAT is still used today  for a variety of purposes, such as research investigating mate and occupation selection.

In 1961 McClelland published The Achieving Society, which articulated his model of human motivation. McClelland contended that three dominant needs –  for achievement, for power, and for affiliation – underpin human motivation. McClelland believed that the relative importance of each need varies among individuals and cultures.

Arguing that commonly used hiring tests using IQ and personality assessments were poor predictors of competency, McClelland proposed that companies should base hiring decisions on demonstrated competency in relevant fields, rather than on standardized test scores.  Iconoclastic in their time, McClelland’s ideas have become standard practice in many corporations. 

McClelland retired from Harvard in 1986, becoming an Emeritus Professor.  David McClelland is listed at number 15 on the American Psychological Association’s list of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century.


Eminent psychologists of the 20th century.  (July/August, 2002). Monitor on Psychology, 33(7), p.29.

Harvard University Library Online Archival Search Information System (2007, April 19). McClelland, David C. (David Clarence) Papers of David McClelland, 1900-1998 : an inventory.  Retrieved on November 28, 2007, from http://oasis.lib.harvard.edu/oasis/deliver/~hua04001.