Sunday, September 28, 2008

Are the world's poor motivated solely by survival needs?

The answer to this question might seem fairly obvious. If people are living on less that a dollar a day, or even on less that two dollars a day, everything they do is likely to be motivated by survival needs. Right?

Actually, a recent working paper by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo suggests that perception is not correct. The paper is based on household surveys conducted in 13 low-income countries (‘Economic lives of the poor’, MIT working paper 06-29).

Those in poverty typically spend between about half and three-quarters of their income on food. The food they buy is not always the lowest cost way of obtaining nutrition – for example, where millets represent best nutritional value for money they also spend significant amounts on rice, wheat and sugar. They also spend significant amounts on tobacco and alcohol. Most surprisingly, they spend a substantial proportion or their incomes on entertainment e.g. television, religious festivals and weddings, and on funerals.

Does this mean that the world’s poor are eating enough? Not according to standards relating to such things as calorie intake and body mass indexes. The poor frequently suffer from illness related to malnutrition and many say that they often feel so weak that it is difficult for them to carry out daily activities.

Are they happy? The proportions reporting that they are worried, tense or anxious are relatively high. In general, however, the world’s poor are apparently not extremely unhappy, except when they have to go without meals.

Why do they spend on entertainment instead of spending more on food? Banerjee and Duflo suggest that this cannot be attributed to lack of self control because much of the entertainment spending of the poor tends to involve planning and saving. The authors argue that spending on entertainment is a strongly felt need and possibly associated with a desire of the poor to keep up with their neighbours. Whatever the reason, it is clear that the world’s poor do not focus exclusively on satisfying their physiological and security needs.

Why did these results surprise me? It must have been because I had faulty preconceptions about what it means to be very poor. As an undergraduate I learned about Engel’s law that the proportion of income that people spend on food tends to decline as incomes rise. At various times of my life I have also been exposed to Maslow’s pyramid of needs, which implies that people need to satisfy their basic physiological needs and their needs for safety and security before they become motivated by belonging and love needs, esteem needs and self actualization needs. Although Engel’s law and Maslow’s pyramid are broadly consistent with reality, they do not help people to understand that, like the rest of humanity, the very poor are not motivated entirely by physiological needs.

I read the paper by Banerjee and Duflo some time ago, but it has come to mind again as I have been reading Michael Hall’s book, “Self-Actualization Psychology” (Neuro-Semantic Publications, 2008). Hall is respectful of Abraham Maslow’s theories, but suggests that Maslow did not fully appreciate the importance to motivation of the meaning that people give to their circumstances. For example, Maslow admitted that it was a great mystery to him why affluence releases some people for personal growth while others stay fixated at a strictly materialistic level. Hall comments:
“Today, we can answer that puzzle. The experience of affluence is just an event or experience. What it means to any given person determines how that person will regard and feel about affluence” (91).

Hall emphasizes the importance of “meaning” as follows:
“Meaning is the most critical factor in human nature. There’s nothing more essential or core to our nature and experiences. In the end, no experience and no event makes us feel anything. In itself, no experience means anything. Meaning is not inside events” (90).

That provides food for thought. It also seems to me to help explain why very poor people do not focus their efforts exclusively on survival. Even though they are malnourished, living means a lot more to them than just survival.

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