iPhone Versus Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

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After buying an iPhone, I have begun to wonder where consumer purchases fit into Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. In 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed a system of human needs in his paper, A Theory of Human Motivation. At the base level, Maslow suggested that humans have physiological needs -- to maintain homeostasis, breathe, and so on. Once those needs are met, the (sane) human seeks safety, then love and belonging, then esteem, then at the top level: self-actualization -- this is where creativity, morality, and general awesomeness reside.

Maslow's hierarchy makes a lot of sense to me -- it's certainly true that when a base need (for example, "It's awful darn cold in this room") isn't being met, satisfying that need becomes the primary motivator in my life, pushing aside the exciting work of self-actualization. But where I think it gets interesting is examining the effects of advertising and consumer culture on your personal hierarchy of needs. Apple managed to convince me that I Needed an iPhone a few weeks back, to the point that I put all my other needs on hold and stood in a line for several hours (in the hot sun and the rain), just to plunk down $600 and take home a phone. (Granted, a really neat phone that I enjoy, but still, not something that was a need before Apple told me it was.)

It seems to me that effective advertising creates an alternate, commercialized version of Maslow's pyramid -- where instead of attending to the real needs of yourself as a human being (everything from homeostasis to self-actualization), you buy into the desire to attain some new gizmo, eat a certain kind of food, in general meeting your needs by buying more stuff (and particular stuff -- this or that brand of cereal, for instance). In this alternate world, your needs are suggested to you by advertising, often at a specific time and place -- new Harry Potter book coming soon! -- and your experience of fulfilling those needs involves buying stuff and shifting priorities in your life in order to enable purchases.

Somewhere at the top of this commercial need pyramid (for me, anyway) is the iPhone, a device that effectively promised to simplify my life by reducing the number of gadgets I carried (all of which were previous commercial items I decided to buy). Before the iPhone, I already had a phone, an iPod, a laptop, and good internet access -- after it, I still have those things, but I also have an iPhone. Hmm. I was clearly in the target market because I'd already bought all the other gizmos, so now my need was to buy uber- or meta-gizmos to simplify. Ouch.

This experience of buying into a commercial need diverts the buyer into an experience where "must buy iPhone" is the primary need of the moment. The most amazing (and perhaps horrifying) part is, buying the iPhone actually felt like a form of self-actualization. It felt similar to being creative, and I was validated by all the other nerds buying theirs. I've heard stories of those who shopped at Apple Stores where lines of employees would high-five new iPhone buyers on their way out of the store. What's up with that?

I also wonder -- is it all that bad if buying something makes you feel good? It's certainly scary, but is it a valid option for being happy? To some extent, if paying $600 for an iPhone bought me $600 worth of happiness, that's actually pretty neat. I think where this gets hard to hold onto is when you compare my $600 of happiness to putting $600 in the bank (probably making me happier someday in the future), or giving it to someone who really needs it (to maintain homeostasis, for example), or what have you. But I suppose everything is relative -- if I stuck with that line of reasoning I'd probably live in a yurt. And who knows, maybe I'd be happier for it.

So what sits atop your hierarchy of needs? Is it some commercial need masquerading as self-actualization? Is it something personal, creative, or...other?

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July 17, 2007 - 3:35am
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