For many years, any discussion of what people want has been shaped by Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. His pyramid is perhaps one of the few tenets of psychology that could be referenced by any educated man or woman on the street (click for larger image on all charts).
In reality, the 1943 paper that launched the pyramid, “A Theory of Human Motivation” now looks dated. The pyramid doesn’t recognise homo sapiens as being–if nothing else–social animals. Accordingly, the motivation for what we do is not so much to reach our own personal fulfilment but more to secure the appreciation of those around us–and thus reach our own personal fulfilment at one remove.
Of course, any evolutionary psychologist would emphasise that such acts may ultimately be selfish in terms of securing our genetic inheritance, but we still need others to get where we want to go. We don’t buy a BMW for the driving experience but rather as a signal to those around us of our wealth. Restated, to get what we need–whether sex, friends, family support or status– we must enlist the support of others. The psychologist Pamela Rutledge puts it this way in an article titled “Social Networks: What Maslow Misses“:
But here’s the problem with Maslow’s hierarchy. None of these needs — starting with basic survival on up — are possible without social connection and collaboration.
According to Rutledge, Maslows’ needs exist but there is no hierarchy. Rather, we strive for a variety of goals within a social setting.
I am now creating a connection with Aristotle and UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s conception of ‘the good life’ that I blogged on here.
In the speech introducing the Conservative Party manifesto, Cameron took a hunter gatherer approach to our needs. In this view, we occupy a very narrow circle of society composed of an inner circle of family and friends. Our needs are fulfilled by getting stuff for ourselves and our kids.
This vision is very different from the 2010 Conservative Party manifesto within which the Big Society loomed large. This was a wider view under which Maslow’s self-actualization was achieved through conservative communitarianism and a vibrant civil society.
The evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller would perhaps be a lukewarm supporter of the Big Society but he certainly would agree that the emerging fields of evolutionary psychology and sociology are opening up new approaches to politics. To Miller, both the left and right have either co-opted naive views of Darwinism or wrongly rejected Darwinism all together. Consequently, we are landed with such simplistic formulations as these:
For the right:
Human nature + free markets = consumerist capitalism
For the left:
The blank slate + oppressive institutions + invidious ideologies = consumerist capitalism
Miller’s book “Must Have: The Hidden Instincts Behind Everything We Buy” (which also goes under the title “Spent: Sex, Evolution and the Secrets of Consumerism“) sets out the social side of “wantability”. We don’t buy for us, we buy for the perception by others of us.
It’s a simple observation but has massive implications for society. In short, a self-aware society is able to take a far more objective view of our need to signal. We may laugh at the rich kid teenager who buys a Hummer, yet we all frantically signal just the same with anything and everything we do–from the university degrees we obtain, to the food we eat, the music we listen to, and the clothes we wear.
Overall, there appears a quiet revolution taking place in academia which is just percolating into the wider world. On the one hand, scholars of happiness and well-being are demonstrating that what we want is not necessarily what makes us happy. On the other hand, evolutionary psychologists tell us that we are spending vast quantities of time and money signalling to secure the favourable judgement of totally irrelevant others.
Such knowledge is very powerful. Unlike our primate cousins, our large social brains have given us an extraordinary ability for self reflection. Once we know that what we want doesn’t necessarily make us happy, we have the ability to override our automatic yearnings. This may require a bit more effort than practising contraception–which is also an override of our evolutionary drives–but it is not impossible.
Likewise, once we understand the game of evolutionary signalling, we can come to realize that so many of our signals are an utter waste of time. Do we really have to signal fitness, status and wealth to people we are not going to mate with, socialize with or even interact with in any meaningful way?