Consumption begins with the recognition of a need. Each need motivates us as individulas towards attaining a goal with varying degrees of importance, beginning with the very basic human needs for survival and stretching to the desire to be all that we can, to find our place in life and be comfortable there. Abraham Maslow perhaps best illustrates this in the form of a hierarchy of need and it is this model that will be used as a guide in the discussion as to what motivates individuals to consume.
Abraham Maslow first published his hierarchy of needs during 1943 in the Psychological Review (Maslow 1943: p370-396) in which he explains that each level of need must be tackled in order, as once satisfied we instinctively look to the next goal for motivation and progression. It is possible however to slip down the pyramid skipping levels on the way, but according to Maslow we cannot bypass any of its stages on the way to the top.
At the base of Maslow’s hierarchical pyramid of needs there is the primary motivation for fulfilling our basic physiological needs. In western civilization most of those basic needs are met without much conscious consideration as to how or why. We rarely have to think about whether or not we can find water to quench our thirst, instead we might wonder whether to use the tap water, bottled water or water cooler? We make these choices based on our ‘wants’. By the time we ‘want’ we have already been motivated by a need.
Green divides motivation into three stages; in the first we define our goal and aspire to it secondly we make our choice as to what course of action we will take to attain that goal and lastly we carry out that action. (Green 1995). According to the psychoanalysts like Freud and Dichter our ID recognizes a need unconsciously and would seek instant gratification were it not for the Ego. The Ego being our decision-making facility ensures that our consumption is appropriate, deferred gratification. The Ego is not following morals; it is concerned for the consequences dealt by the Super Ego for instant or deferred gratification.
The Super Ego is able to reward the Ego for good behaviour and punish the bad by means of pride or guilt and it is the Super Ego that houses the morality, following Freud’s theory Herschi and Gottfredson suggested “Human behaviour is motivated by self interested pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain” (Slapper & Tombs 1995:) It could be said that in the UK we are rarely motivated by ‘real’ hunger. It would be fair to assume that contents of our shopping trolley are likely to be influenced by external forces.
For example special offers and bargains, during his 1994-5 research Daniel Miller found that women consumers regardless of class or financial income actively sought value for money “When shoppers describe their shopping, the subject most dwelt upon is their skill and ability to save money by finding cheap goods” (Mackay 1997: p45). Perhaps this desire to save money could lead us directly onto the second step of Maslow’s pyramid. Safety and Security needs. In conserving financial resources for consumption at a later date we are providing ourselves with security.
We are making discretionary savings and whilst we build up our safety by means of the physical security in the four walls that surround us we also look to stability in our employment. Whilst fulfilling these needs we may also make non-discretionary savings like ISA’s or private pensions, having taken care of our immediate safety and security these extras would help secure our future security too. Once we have taken care of our physiological needs and have a certain amount of comfort in our safety and security we begin looking at the third phase during which we become motivated by our social desires.
We have taken care of our own basic needs and ensured that our ‘nest’ is comfortable and safe, now we feel the need to populate it. Though this is something more than the primal desire to find a mate and reproduce. At this point we have ‘biological selection’ which according to Webber is “the survival of hereditary characteristics” (Swedberg 1998: p151) embodying more than social Darwinism adopted from Herbert Spencer’s survival of the fittest, whereby societies fittest were those with the most wealth.
Reproduction fits not only at this stage of the pyramid but it is also basic physiological need, one which the human body can survive without, though the human race cannot. Richard Dawkins wrote ‘The selfish gene’ in 1976 in which he argues that our genes are “immortal” and that we are only here on this Earth to pass them on to the next generation (Dawkins 1976), it could be argued then that our need to consume sex is something more primitive than animal instinct.
It is important to note that our needs at this point in the hierarchy are more than just sexual; we need for companionship, love and to surround our selves with family and friends making our own social circle thus becoming a part of something more than just the self. By engaging in social practices we are possibly preparing ourselves for the next step in satisfying our needs. Anthony Giddens believes that in our social interaction we are following ‘formulated rules’ and that whilst engaging in day-to-day social activity we gain and use our learned knowledge. Such knowledge does not specify all the situations which an actor might meet with, nor could it do so; rather, it provides for the generalised capacity to respond to and influence an indeterminate range of social circumstances” (Giddens 2001: p22) According to Maslow the next step is to find our own self-esteem, he divides this area into two distinct parts, the lower of the two seeks the appreciation of others, a desire to be liked, to be popular or even to be thought of as superior.
The choices we make as to what we actually consume are our own, we all have personal goals on all the levels and whilst Maslow has standardised the levels of needs the individual goals and means of achievement vary. Alfred Adler of the individualist school of psychology believed that not fulfilling these esteem needs would lead to an inferiority complex, which according to his theories was the main cause of most psychological illnesses. Of striving for superiority or perfection Adler is quoted as saying “Probably, the greatest source of unhappiness is the failure to meet expectations”. Science web server 2002) The higher form of self-esteem is that of self-respect although perhaps it could be argued that there is very little to consume that directly results in self-respect it could be more a product of all that has been consumed before. That is not to say that self-respect is not important, as it will undoubtedly influence the choices we make in our everyday consumption. Having climbed this far up Maslow’s pyramid the motivation now is the need for self-actualisation.
This is the desire to be all that you can be, to reach your highest potential. The one continual desire that can never truly be achieved only strived for. Maslow suggested around 2% of the population ever arrive at self-actualisation. (Maslow 1943: p370-p396). He went so far as to name who he saw as self actualizers they included Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Ghandi to name but a few. Those few who reach the pinnacle of the pyramid evolve to a point where they no longer feel the need to conform to society.
Of course this was only what Maslow perceived as self-actualisation and only his opinion as to who was a self-actualiser. At this level we consume ideas, knowledge and experiences as opposed to the lower levels of needs where our consumption is more physical, feeding the body before we are able to feed the mind. Maslow has helped to explain what motivates our consumption. However, how and what we consume are determined by personal choice, that choice is still motivated by our needs although it is influenced by an infinite number of factors.
In conclusion motivation to consume comes from two main factors, nature and nurture. The primary sources of motivation are those of survival. The survival of the individual, our genetics and survival of the human species. Once these seemingly primal needs have been met we are then motivated to nurture and be nurtured, to grow both personally and socially, improving our social environment and ourselves. We need these goals in life whether we are conscious of them or not, they are what keep us striving forward, keep us motivated and ultimately keep us alive.