Sunday, November 18, 2012

What do People Want: Things, Truth, Safety, Esteem and Power?

Gary Berg-Cross

Bill O'Reilly, had a public lament over the recent election night.  Part of it was a rationalization about what people want which was rolled up in the idea that the higher values driving the " white establishment (who) is no longer the majority" These largely unstated values are being lost it is implied. That growing non-white traditional population rolled into the  50+ percent of the public voting  for Obama and  they, declared O'Reilly, have a different motivation. What motivates them  What are their needs? They:

“want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President

This seems such a naïve, boiled down theory of people and their motivation that it seems an unlikely argument even in politics.  But there it is embedded in many conservative Pols claims:

  • "You either get free stuff or you get freedom. You cannot have both," Sarah Palin September 2012.
  • "Offering Americans a check is a more fruitful political strategy than offering them the opportunity to take control of and responsibility for their own lives," wrote National Review's Kevin Williamson after the election.
  • "You have two generations now who believe that the government owes them something," said conservative columnist Cal Thomas.
  • "If you're looking for free stuff you don't have to pay for, vote for the other guy," said Mitt Romney simply during the campaign. Followed by his infamous on taped comment about those 47% of people who think they are "entitled" to government benefits.
Campaigns simplify things down to sound bites.  But freeze drying a political philosophy into these types of motivational theories seems a dangerous mixture for a modern society. It is perhaps less surprising, but still disappointing from a secular or freethinking perspective. There seems little truth in such claims which can be quickly challenged by facts, scientific understanding of human motivation etc.

I think that a quick look this way will suggest that the groups that conservative politicians and thinkers point to have more complex needs than some stuff or entitlement. In additon the supports of politically conservatives,including wealthy backers, have their own "stuff" needs. As Chris Mooney points out conservatives and liberal have different psychological needs on average.  Conservative have more of a psychological need for closure, or said another way, given some evidence conservatives such as O'Reilly have a need to be more definite about that  belief and need to  feel certain.  This is in the cognitive need category which is a "higher" need and appeals to many of the listeners of conservative media.  But let's understand this need in the context of still more basic ones.

A starting point for a better understanding of the dynamic complexities of human motivation is  Maslow's hierarchy of needs is often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid as shown in the above Figure.  At its base are the large set, of the most fundamental levels of needs which start life in infancy and childhood motivations. Maslow called then "deficiency needs" and include Biological and Physiological needs - air, food, drink, but also the security from elements. We need shelter, warmth, sleep, order (provided in part by law), known limits, stability, etc.

OK money can buy some of these basic needs and a society that does not help provide such an ordered base is lacking in humanity.  These are not gift benefits to buy votes.  You can ask people on the NY and NJ coast if the aid they are receiving are gifts or the result of some understood social process needed by healthy societies discussed under such general ideas and implied values as maintaining order, hope and the pursuit of happiness.

In Maslow’s formulation, one satisfies lower level and more basic needs before progressing on to meet higher level growth needs. And supporting this striving for constant betterment is what we want in society and support with society.  We want a floor to meet people’s basic needs so they can move on to handle the need for belongingness, love along with the built in need for sex, group & family friendship along with affection, and meaningful relationships.

When these are met we move on to esteem needs, such as self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility, etc.
One doesn’t have to accept Maslow’s list or the idea that we have to satisfy all elements of a lower motivation to move to a higher one.  But the list is more of a 3D version of people and when we compare it to a summary philosophy on a large block of voters being at the “wanting thing level” it is stunning to see how thin some pols are in their view of people. Well some people.  Why assume such base needs driving the mass of people? To think of them so denies them personal worth, which we all need.

Such simplified view of human nature abound in religious cultures and serve, among other things, to define what is claimed as a positive group identity. Others have very base needs and want low level “things”, while we are the group that has higher needs and understands the truth is some way others do not. It’s a bit of “I’m Ok, You’re not OK.”

To challenge the truth of such claims based on science, facts, ethical grounds, history etc. is to challenge group identify and supporting feelings of loyalty and honor among true believers.  It also challenges an ideological perspective on the world but also their sense of self and group worth. The belief is, "We are a better group and to have votes against our group values has to be explained in some way. " Beliefs about others,despite what the data might says, is that have to be operating from “lower” in needs than "us".   Don’t even look at the data that says that red states are getting more “things’ from the federal government than blue states. Chris Mooney, the WASH MDC speaker this Dec. 1 at Wheaton Library( see WASH Events for more)  has written on conservative biases and how they often engage in motivated reasoning very strongly.
He cites for example:

 "denying the science of climate change (to preserve their belief in “individualism”), in believing that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (to preserve their belief in George W. Bush), in believing that President Obama was not born in the United States (for reasons that you can guess about) and so on."

There seems to be other needs at play here too - esteem and the desire for power.  The idea here is that the majority “white society” has achieved good self-esteem and the recognition of others. Here it might be useful to leverage ideas from Fred Hirsch’s  1976 book Social Limits to Growth.  Hirsch looked at  what some  people do when they have their basic needs satisfied in a consumer society.  Based on cultural values they start engaging in comparative consumption/ownership of things like cars, homes, travel - what he called positional goods. Why buy/consume a sporty car with wealth?  Well it is something I can do and others can’t.  I’m better in comparison with them. So a Honda is probably adequate for most needs but a Mercedes or Audi gives me status. I have some esteem needs satisfied above and beyond the need to drive to work. It’s a status symbol.

Going along with this is a confidence in abilities such as leadership. A desire for power if often at the center mixed in with other concepts like independence, acceptance, order, safety, and honor. Power, especially esteemed power allows us to mitigate necessity and control events around us as part of a group effort. And that status car, well that shows that I  should have the esteem that goes along with power.

With power and an esteemed leader  the group is safer when exploring possibilities and policies, which in turn affect the other needs and how society deals with them.   But in a zero sum situation, loss of leadership and/or group power cedes it to another group with different values and different polices. Worse yet is the transfer of esteem to the new group. As a group loses status it starts on a downward spiral into dishonor with possible losses of order, group safety etc.  Those “things” that showed one leader is better, or at least not worse off than one’s neighbor,  well they may be lost now too. A dreadful group prospect and something that seems perculating in the back of people’s minds despite the current, simplified sound bites about others affinity to  "gifts" and "entitlements". Society functions are  never as simple as the bumper sticker slogan one sees and it is  important to look under the labels thrown about to understand what is really motivating groups and their leaders.

Higher taxes on the wealthy doesn’t drive the ruling class to lose the ability to feed and cloth themselves.  But buying that vacation house and the esteem it brings may be a concern.  Maybe esteemed ownership of such things and their place in society is being called into question. Hirsch argues that most goods (things) consumed in advanced economies have, at least partly, the character of positional/esteem enhancing goods.  So who is it in society that wants things and what needs do they satisfy?  Can esteem be earned in other ways? If we are to satisfy human needs, which we all have, let’s start with the basics and give more of us a chance for the higher needs on a sustainable basis.

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