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ERG Theory

Existence, Relatedness, and Growth

Technical Details

Name(s): ERG Theory (Existence, Relatedness, and Growth)
Author: Dr. Clayton Alderfer
Classification: Growth or Actualization Motivation Theories
Year: 1969 "ScienceDirect - Organizational Behavior and Human Performance?: An empirical test of a new theory of human needs"


  • All three needs have valid and reliable measures for both the levels of desire and satisfaction.
  • Scholars and practitioners all agree that the fulfillment of human needs has an important role in human motivation.


  • Alderfer's ERG Theory is problematic to use as it tends to approach a set of experimental generalities.
  • The theory is difficult to test with our current tools and research methods.
  • Doesn't provide a motivational value for each motivator.


In an attempt to line up Maslow's Theory of Needs with empirical studies, Alderfer's ERG Theory elicits three core requirements: Existence, Relatedness, and Growth. This categorization reduction is the result of earlier research on Maslow Hierarchy of Needs that indicates some overlap within the middle levels. According to Alderfer, the needs aren't in any order and any desire to fulfil a need can be activated at any point in time [1]. This results in the the lower level needs not requiring to be satisfied in order to satisfy a higher level need. Alderfer's ERG Theory can actually be utilized as a frustration-regression principle where an already satisfied lower level need can be "re-activated" when confronted with the impossibility of satisfying a higher level one.

  • Existence: Relates to a person's physical needs such as food, clothing, and shelter.

  • Relatedness: Relates to a person's interpersonal needs within his personal as well as professional settings.

  • Growth: Relates to a person's needs of personal development.
Maslow's Needs Alderfer's ERG Theory
Self-Actualization Growth
Self-Esteem Relatedness
Social Needs
Safety Needs Existence
Physiological Needs


Originally, the ERG Theory proposed seven basic need relations. Generally, the propositions were tested with various samples that included managers, non-managers, students and professionals. Even though the research provided mixed results, most of the proposition still yielded enough support to maintain their viability. Proposition 3 and 5 however didn't get enough empirical support.

In cases where the research provided inconsistent results, Alderfer identified the factors that could explain the discrepancies, resulting in a revision of proposition 2, 4, 6 and 7. Thus the final basic propositions are as follow [2]:

  1. The less existence needs are satisfied, the more they will be desired.
  2. When both existence and relatedness needs are relatively dissatisfied, then the less relatedness needs are satisfied, the more existence needs will be desired.
  3. The more existence needs are satisfied, the more relatedness needs will be.
  4. When relatedness needs are relatively dissatisfied, then the less relatedness needs are satisfied, the more they will be desired; when relatedness needs are relatively satisfied, then the more relatedness needs are satisfied, the more they will be desired.
  5. The less growth needs are satisfied; the more relatedness needs will be desired.
  6. The more relatedness needs are satisfied; the more growth needs will be desired.
  7. When growth needs are relatively dissatisfied, then the less growth needs are satisfied, the more they will be desired; when growth needs are relatively satisfied, then the more growth needs are satisfied, the more they will be desired.

In 1974, the revised proposition 4 has been validated in a controlled laboratory study using active managers, by Alderfer, Robert Kaplan, and Ken Smith.

Going beyond the issues that were of concern to Maslow, Alderfer set forth a number of propositions that dealt with the effect of desires on satisfactions [3]:

  1. When existence materials are scarce, then the higher chronic existence desires are and the less existence satisfaction.
  2. When existence materials are not scarce, then there will be no differential existence satisfaction as a function of chronic existence desire.
  3. In highly satisfying relationships there is no differential relatedness satisfaction as a function of chronic relatedness desires.
  4. In normal relationships, persons very high and very low on chronic relatedness desires tend to obtain lower satisfaction than do persons with moderate desires.
  5. In highly dissatisfying relationships, then the higher chronic relatedness desires are, the more relatedness satisfaction there is.
  6. In challenging discretionary settings, then the higher chronic growth desires are, the more growth satisfaction there is.
  7. In nonchallenging, nondiscretionary settings, there will be no differential growth satisfaction as a function of chronic growth desires.


There are some critics, not only for the Alderfer's ERG theory but for all need theories that are based on the numbers of human needs and the relationship between them. However, there is a consensus for the general concept proposed by the need theorists, where human behaviors are motivated by the desire to fulfill a human need.

As mentioned by John B. Miner: "Research has not supported the need hierarchy line of theorizing to a significant extent, and interest in following this approach further has clearly waned. It would take a major theoretical, or research, breakthrough to revive it."

Future of theory

Perhaps, neuropsychology is the breakthrough that will render Mr. Miner's comment irrelevant. However as it stands today, Alderfer's ERG theory which hasn't made any progress or development is at the mercy of evolution. Thus, the simple fact that we cannot prove or disprove a theory does not demean its validity, nor is it indicative of a lack of a practical application. Individual human needs, there interrelations\ and motivational power might be better appreciated with future research in neural sciences, more specifically as neural imaging techniques evolve and scientists define an accurate functional map of the brain.

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