In my last post, I mentioned an interesting email correspondence with Paula Muller of Net-Scale Technologies. At one point in that dialog, I associated mobile telephony with the third and fourth levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It's a thought I've mentioned in talks (as far back as 1997) and writings, but never investigated critically. Paula’s response caused me to revisit the subject and realize I’ve been tying legitimate observations about mobile telephony to a discredited theory of psychology.
Here's what I wrote:
Speaking of human priorities, you may have run into Maslow's hierarchy of needs?? I didn't take psychology in college so I only ran into it years later... Maslow claimed people don't worry about higher needs until they have lower level needs under control. At the most basic, you need safety and sustenence, then you can think about community or belonging, and then you can think about your identity and self esteem. Only when all those are under control, can you rise to "self actualization." I don't know about self actualization, but I understand community and identity. I equate community and belonging with mobile phone adoption! :-) Then once you can call your family and friends, you need to establish your identity (achive self esteem) which you do by acquiring ringtones and ringback tones. :-)
In reply, Paula points out the appeals of mobile telephony are much broader than just community and identity (Maslow’s belonging and esteem):
With respect to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, it's quite interesting. I didn't know directly about him, but it's expected that this hierarchy exists. Interesting from the articles that I found, mobile phones give the perception to their users of affecting more fundamental needs than the 3rd level (family and affection). People have the perception that they feel safer - second level (safety needs) and even it affects the first level (with improving their work options to get food and transportation to get to work). I think this is a fascinating aspect that I wasn't aware of, but it makes sense.
That got me thinking. As Paula comments, mobile phone usage cuts across several layers of Maslow’s hierarchy. And as studies like this, this and this, show, a significant number of extremely poor people list telephony as the last thing they would give up. Does Maslow’s hierarchy even make sense?
An interesting phenomenon related to Maslow's work is that in spite of a lack of evidence to support his hierarchy, it enjoys wide acceptance (Wahba & Bridgewell, 1976; Soper, Milford & Rosenthal, 1995).
That may be acceptable in college psych courses, but as an engineer, I'll drop the Maslow analogies from here on out.
* Wahba, A., & Bridgewell, L. (1976). Maslow reconsidered: A review of research on the need hierarchy theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 15, 212-240.