lack of evidence

Or, Marketing’s Need to Hear Simple Stories.

If there’s one theory of motivation that everyone has heard of, it’s good old Maslow and his pyramidal Hierarchy of Needs.  It’s the basis of many other theories, including the simpler concept that motivations can be divided into the essentials (hygiene factors) and motivators to action (motivators).

I came across Maslow yesterday while reading a report on public consultation approaches, by someone who is using a Maslow-based system to segment the general UK population according to their values.   These  segments, it is argued, make it easier to predict how people will react in certain kinds of debate.   The approach is apparently popular amongst advertisers.  It’s a proprietary system, so I can’t comment on the detail, and there is no information provided about the reliability and validity of the test questionnaire.    I don’t particularly want to chase after the organisations concerned, because it is quite likely that studies like this one have been  created, sold and reported entirely in good faith.  And that is bloody depressing.

What really concerns me is that marketers and buyers are so damned credulous.   Two minutes of literature searching would yield the uncomfortable fact that while Maslow is hugely popular amongst the self-actualising types, there’s really no evidence for his hierarchy.  Yes, it’s a useful sketch of motivation, and a very pretty pyramid, but there is no evidence that you can account for real people’s behaviour by invoking any part of it apart from the part about people requiring food and water.

It’s an incredibly powerful, deeply meaningless story. We love it. We quote it vaguely.  Then you go and read the Wikipedia entry (which is pretty fair) and think wait, what?

And if you’re a bit cross with me, just think: how would you go about testing it?  What aspects of behaviour do you think create problems for this theory? Do you think that this theory has any political overtones, and does that matter?

Maslow’s theory meets our thirst for very simple ideas.