Rethinking Maslow

For a long time we’ve been using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to explain various types of consuption patterns. And they’re obvious. We buy houses for shelter, go to the supermarket for food, buy cars and watches for status, and sports shoes to self-actualise. But sas Maslow hierarchy right? And will it enable us to continue to predict the future of consumption?

I believe that Maslow was only partially right. In the physical being there is only one fundamental drive – the continuity of its genes, even stronger than the instinct to survive. which is why male spiders will let themselves be eaten by the female. And there is one fundamental tool – intelligent awareness.

However to procreate this the physical being will have to survive long enough to procreate and ensure the survival of its kin to adulthood. And importantly it may have to beat any competition through successful differentiation. To further the chances of offspring survival one more strategy is introduced co-operation. These are our fundamental physical drives: procreation, survival, differentiation, cooperation. These last two create a powerful tension that demands one more thing from the physical being: intelligence.

Consumption at this point is all about achieving one of these four ends. Smoking a cigar for example may be a status symbol, or it maybe a sublimation of the sexual act.

Intelligence now drives the spiral. It is the point on which the ohers rotate or grow. And from which some interesting things emerge. Intelligence also inceases the capacity for awareness. When this is applied to the urge to differentiate within a community the entity becomes self-aware. “I am that.”

This significantly steps up the drive to aquire. Now that the entity has acquired a sense of self, along with the other types of consumption he pursues that self through consumption as a means to expression. Ultimately finding what he or she thinks of as more improved ways to differentiate. But the more different the entity becomes the more isolated. In order to deal with this the sense of community changes. The community of birth may be abandoned in search of like minds. However, also the mind begins to occupy itself with values and he or she moulds him or herself around a set of values. The “that” becomes a lot more subtle.

And now consumption also becomes about community. But because the individual has become highly differentiated, community is difficult. This is a very modern phenomenon. Blogs are an indication of the search for community at this stage.

Yet this identification with values doesn’t come all at once. First is the realisation that this must happen and there are attempts to achieve this. The person will read different material, they may go on courses, perhaps seek out religion. But other drives are more pressing in the beginning. And empty time may be painful, so the indiviual will seek to escape back into cosumption that reflects the quest. And the need for distraction will also drive consumption.

The other thing that will happen here is that many purchases will become values based. A person may refuse certain brands because of what they represent. Nike and Macdonalds are two salient examples. Also, in the world of business the drive for profit is the equivalent of an animals need to procreate. Indeed what we are seeing is that many businesses are becoming values based which is in turn being driven by their employees.

But if you can mould yourself around values then they too are an expression of something else. The next big shift is that consumption fails the differentiated self and he or she turns the search for self-relection to pure self without object. Eventually, or maybe suddenly, the intelligent awareness drops everything and realises that all aware beings are identical. And consumption comes to an end.

It is the individual who is still searching that occupies us now. Initially, there is an awareness of wholenees, but an inability or a lack of will to pursue it. Because in this individual the pattern of consumption is beginning to change. Yes, there will be residual activity. But he or she is now looking to drop, to simplify. To paraphrase Sigmund Freud: “A cigar is becoming a cigar.” But, paradoxically, the urge to simplify will bring about its own purchases and generally more expensive.

It is not that Maslow was “wrong”, but maybe that there is a more explanatory model.

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