What Maslow Misses

For many years, any discussion of what people want has been shaped by Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. His pyramid is perhaps one of the few tenets of psychology that could be referenced by any educated man or woman on the street (click for larger image on all charts).

Maslow jpeg

In reality, the 1943 paper that launched the pyramid, “A Theory of Human Motivation” now looks dated. The pyramid doesn’t recognise homo sapiens as being–if nothing else–social animals. Accordingly, the motivation for what we do is not so much to reach our own personal fulfilment but more to secure the appreciation of those around us–and thus reach our own personal fulfilment at one remove.

Of course, any evolutionary psychologist would emphasise that such acts may ultimately be selfish in terms of securing our genetic inheritance, but we still need others to get where we want to go. We don’t buy a BMW for the driving experience but rather as a signal to those around us of our wealth. Restated, to get what we need–whether sex, friends, family support or status– we must enlist the support of others. The psychologist Pamela Rutledge puts it this way in an article titled “Social Networks: What Maslow Misses“:

But here’s the problem with Maslow’s hierarchy. None of these needs — starting with basic survival on up — are possible without social connection and collaboration.

According to Rutledge, Maslows’ needs exist but there is no hierarchy. Rather, we strive for a variety of goals within a social setting.

Modern Maslow jpeg

I am now creating a connection with Aristotle and UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s conception of ‘the good life’ that I blogged on here.

In the speech introducing the Conservative Party manifesto, Cameron took a hunter gatherer approach to our needs. In this view, we occupy a very narrow circle of society composed of an inner circle of family and friends. Our needs are fulfilled by getting stuff for ourselves and our kids.

This vision is very different from the 2010 Conservative Party manifesto within which the Big Society loomed large. This was a wider view under which Maslow’s self-actualization was achieved through conservative communitarianism and a vibrant civil society.

The evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller would perhaps be a lukewarm supporter of the Big Society but he certainly would agree that the emerging fields of evolutionary psychology and sociology are opening up new approaches to politics. To Miller, both the left and right have either co-opted naive views of Darwinism or wrongly rejected Darwinism all together. Consequently, we are landed with such simplistic formulations as these:

For the right:

Human nature + free markets = consumerist capitalism

For the left:

The blank slate + oppressive institutions + invidious ideologies = consumerist capitalism

Miller’s book “Must Have: The Hidden Instincts Behind Everything We Buy” (which also goes under the title “Spent: Sex, Evolution and the Secrets of Consumerism“) sets out the social side of “wantability”. We don’t buy for us, we buy for the perception by others of us.

It’s a simple observation but has massive implications for society. In short, a self-aware society is able to take a far more objective view of our need to signal. We may laugh at the rich kid teenager who buys a Hummer, yet we all frantically signal just the same with anything and everything we do–from the university degrees we obtain, to the food we eat, the music we listen to, and the clothes we wear.

Overall, there appears a quiet revolution taking place in academia which is just percolating into the wider world. On the one hand, scholars of happiness and well-being are demonstrating that what we want is not necessarily what makes us happy. On the other hand, evolutionary psychologists tell us that we are spending vast quantities of time and money signalling to secure the favourable judgement of totally irrelevant others.

Such knowledge is very powerful. Unlike our primate cousins, our large social brains have given us an extraordinary ability for self reflection. Once we know that what we want doesn’t necessarily make us happy, we have the ability to override our automatic yearnings. This may require a bit more effort than practising contraception–which is also an override of our evolutionary drives–but it is not impossible.

Likewise, once we understand the game of evolutionary signalling, we can come to realize that so many of our signals are an utter waste of time. Do we really have to signal fitness, status and wealth to people we are not going to mate with, socialize with or even interact with in any meaningful way?

 

 

 

Should Climate Change Override Every Environmental Concern?

One of America’s greatest living authors Jonathan Franzen has a provocative article in The New Yorker arguing that the environmental movement’s infatuation with climate change has been detrimental to local environmental initiatives. I am a huge fan of Franzen: “The Corrections” and “Freedom” are two of my favourites books. Yet I find his analysis muddled. In fact, I disagree with almost everything he says.

Franzen presents the ‘wicked problem’ of climate change as almost insurmountable.

Climate change shares many attributes of the economic system that’s accelerating it. Like capitalism, it is transnational, unpredictably disruptive, self-compounding, and inescapable. It defies individual resistance, creates big winners and big losers, and tends toward global monoculture—the extinction of difference at the species level, a monoculture of agenda at the institutional level. It also meshes nicely with the tech industry, by fostering the idea that only tech, whether through the efficiencies of Uber or some masterstroke of geoengineering, can solve the problem of greenhouse-gas emissions. As a narrative, climate change is almost as simple as “Markets are efficient.” The story can be told in fewer than a hundred and forty characters: We’re taking carbon that used to be sequestered and putting it in the atmosphere, and unless we stop we’re fucked.

Against this background, Franzen believes that the concerned citizen is being bounced into caring about only one true environmental ill.

The question is whether everyone who cares about the environment is obliged to make climate the overriding priority. Does it make any practical or moral sense, when the lives and the livelihoods of millions of people are at risk, to care about a few thousand warblers colliding with a stadium?

And this is a planetary ill they can do nothing about.

To answer the question, it’s important to acknowledge that drastic planetary overheating is a done deal. Even in the nations most threatened by flooding or drought, even in the countries most virtuously committed to alternative energy sources, no head of state has ever made a commitment to leaving any carbon in the ground. Without such a commitment, “alternative” merely means “additional”—postponement of human catastrophe, not prevention. The Earth as we now know it resembles a patient whose terminal cancer we can choose to treat either with disfiguring aggression or with palliation and sympathy. We can dam every river and blight every landscape with biofuel agriculture, solar farms, and wind turbines, to buy some extra years of moderated warming. Or we can settle for a shorter life of higher quality, protecting the areas where wild animals and plants are hanging on, at the cost of slightly hastening the human catastrophe.

Indeed, I think his answer over how much emphasis we should place on climate change is wrong on many levels. First, I don’t see a trade-off. Humanity doesn’t have a finite budget of morality. If I am a good father, does that mean I have no choice but to beat my wife? In reality, those individuals campaigning against climate change are also likely to be the ones doing grass roots environmental activity. Continue reading

What Does ‘a Good Life’ Mean?

The main British political parties are in the midst of publishing their policy manifestos ahead of the May 7 general election: The Labour, Green and Conservative party manifestos are already out, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP ones are yet to come.

I will focus on the Conservative Party manifesto in this blog post since it could quite easily form the policy platform of the next government. Moreover, in rolling out the manifesto, Prime Minister David Cameron chose to frame the policy prescription in terms of helping people to achieve “a good life”.

As a politics, philosophy and economics (PPE) graduate from Oxford, I am sure the PM is well aware that the term ‘the good life’ carries with it considerable philosophical baggage. Does he give a nod to Aristotle’s definition of “the good life” or has he reduced the concept to mere materialism? Let’s take a look by first pulling out each reference to “a good life”in the speech Cameron gave introducing the new manifesto:

The next five years are about turning the good news in our economy into a good life for you and your family.

Realising the potential of Britain…

…not as a debt-addicted, welfare-burdened, steadily-declining, once-great nation – which is what we found…

…but a country where a good life is there for everyone willing to work for it…

We can be the country that not only lives within its means and pays its way…

…but that offers a good life to those who work hard and do the right thing.

That’s what I mean by a good life – families secure, the peace of mind that comes with a proper job and a career, the security of knowing your children are getting a great education.

…to make this a country where those who work hard and do the right thing can enjoy a good life.

Part of having a good life is having a home of your own.

A good life should mean that raising your family feels like an incredible and joyful and – yes – sometimes exhausting journey…

It’s hard having a good life without a good job.

With five more years we can turn the good news in our economy into a good life for you and your family.

We offer a good life for those willing to try – because we are the party of working people.

So the good life includes 1) employment, 2) home ownership and 3) a great education for your children. It’s pretty pedestrian stuff and certainly a world away from Aristotle’s idea of the good life. Continue reading

Charts du Jour, 10 April 2015: The IMF Grows Cautious on Growth

The potential for secular stagnation has been a consistent theme of this blog; in other words, we should entertain the idea of slow (or even zero growth) as a possible norm–and plan our lives so that we fully recognise this risk. Meanwhile, the discussion of permanently slower growth has migrated from ‘crankdom’ to mainstream in five short years, and now even the IMF is humming the same tune.

This week, the IMF pre-released a chapter from its flagship World Economic Outlook publication. The chapter is titled “Where Are We Headed? Perspectives on Potential Output“. It starts off by pointing out that in advanced economies growth was coming off even before the Great Recession hit in 2008 (on all charts, click for larger image):

Determinants of Potential Output Growth jpegAs the above chart shows, potential output growth can be divided into three components: 1) employment growth (more people or longer hours), 2) capital growth (more machines and computers) or 3) total factor productivity (better educated people plus innovation). The big decline was in the last category, which flies in the face of all the breathless cornucopian stories we here: tales of technology abolishing every human ill or want.

Furthermore, the IMF now increasingly recognises two stark realities. First, ageing societies will act as an increasing drag on growth in not only advanced but also emerging market economies and, second, total factor productivity gains are slowing in emerging economies as these countries get closer and closer to the innovation frontier of the advanced economies (moving from catch-up to caught-up). Continue reading

Chart du Jour, 8 April 2015: The Problem with Productivity

The UK is in the midst of a productivity panic. The country has exhibited a solid economic recovery measured in terms of GDP, but not one in terms of being able to do more with less. In short, the country is pumping out a larger amount of stuff and services because a) more people are working and b) those who are working are putting in longer hours.

Likewise, the US faces a similar productivity conundrum (if not quite so pronounced). Take this chart from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta (here, click for larger image):

Labour Productivity jpeg.

The US appears to be productivity-challenged as well. And productivity is the thing that is supposed to make us rich (sort of). What is going on? Well, we could surmise that we are suffering from the early symptoms of diminishing returns to technology, an idea advanced by the growth economist Robert Gordon (see here).

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Charts du Jour, 6 April 2015: US Natural Gas Production

The US government agency The Energy Information Administration reported natural gas production numbers for January 2015 on 31 March (numbers are reported with a two month lag).

US dry gas production was up 8.9% year on year in January, and the 12-month moving average was 6.1% higher year on year, the highest growth since October 2012 (click for large image; source: here).

US Dry Gas Production Jan 2015 jpeg

Meanwhile, natural gas prices have continued to trend down and are now reaching around $2.5 per million British thermal units (Btu). This is not far off their 2012 lows (source: here).

Henry Hub Prices Mar 15 jpeg

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Eight Progressive UK Coalition Government Actions to Applaud

The one and only public debate between the leaders of seven UK political parties took place tonight ahead of the UK election May 7. Key topics were 1) austerity, the budget deficit and debt, 2) the NHS, 3) immigration and 4) education and intergenerational inequality. These are all big issues but hardly new.

Forgotten in the general election campaign to date are a series of ground-breaking initiatives taken by the coalition government over the past five years. These are examples of genuinely fresh thinking and should be applauded regardless of your politics. In no particular order:

1. Establishment of The Behavioural Insights Team

Dubbed the ‘nudge unit’ in a hat tip to the book by Thaler and Sunstein, this team has taken the idea of choice architecture into the heart of government. As a result, we have seen such policies as pension provision where your choice is to opt out rather than opt in–so the lazy amongst us create pension savings by default.

The nudge unit comes about from the explicit recognition the humans are not rationale calculating machines as they are portrayed in post-war economics and that frequently ‘wantability’ is different from decision-making that maximizes our well-being (see my post here).

2. Introduction of Well-Being Metrics

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) introduced its Measuring National Well-being (MNW) programme in 2010. We now have four questions included in the well-being survey that broadly relate to the three main ideas of happiness–life satisfaction, leading a meaningful life and feelings. As this data set builds, it will give policy-makers a far better idea as to whether what they do makes people happier (click for larger image on the chart below).

How do we evaluate our lives copy

Continue reading