IN AN inspired attempt to explain human motivation, US psychologist Abraham Maslow came up with a theory in the 1940s which suggests that people are driven to meet certain needs in a particular order. This came to be known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
This theory says that at the bottom of the five-stage hierarchy we fulfil our most basic needs, such as obtaining water and food. Then come our needs for safety, love and esteem. Right at the top comes the need for self-actualisation.
Despite much criticism, Maslow’s theory offered quite a plausible explanation of what makes us tick. For many years, it was at the forefront of attempts to provide a holistic theory of human behaviour.
But recent events in South Africa once again point to serious deficiencies. For the past two decades, we have been hopelessly stuck in the same place on level four, fixated on the need to achieve the respect of others.
And we go to the most extraordinary lengths to meet this need.
Take Durban couple S’bu and Shauwn Mpisane, who were in the news this week. They appear to have all the basics sorted out: they are in a loving relationship (they celebrated their 20th year together with a stylish do at Zimbali resort in 2011) and each runs a super-successful business.
Yet, instead of moving to the next level, they chose to remain on the same spot in Maslow’s hierarchy by splashing out on dozens of luxury cars, including two Rolls-Royces, two Lamborghinis, two Porsches, two BMWs and two Hummers (presumably one for each of them). They also own a Ferrari, Maserati, Chrysler 300C, Range Rover and Dodge Ram.
Maslow’s theory is unable to explain such acquisitive behaviour (never mind their allegedly questionable business practices). All that this repeated splurging on luxury cars does is satisfy the same need – over and over again.
This phenomenon is not peculiar to the Mpisane couple. President Jacob Zuma’s nephew, Khulubuse (incidentally, a guest at their 2011 anniversary), displays similar behaviour.
At one point, Zuma jr owned 19 cars, including a R2.5 million Mercedes-Benz SLS 63 AMG. He even gave a girlfriend a Maserati as a present one Christmas.
In a further attempt to win more respect, he handed over the gift at the swanky five-star Oyster Box Hotel in Umhlanga.
There is a long list of other examples in South Africa of behaviour at odds with Maslow’s explanation of human behaviour.
An obsession with extravagant modes of transport is by no means the only evidence that contradicts his theory.
Who can forget Kenny Kunene’s acquired habit of eating sushi from the bodies of semi-clad women, or the free-flowing French Champagne at Julius Malema’s house-warming party in Sandton, or even the Louboutin shoes of Communications Minister Dina Pule, with their distinctive red soles?
Such behaviour suggests that we will still be stuck on the fourth rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for a long time to come.
This doesn’t bode well for South Africa’s future. But, then again, maybe there isn’t really anything wrong with such ostentatious displays of comfort and well-being.
Maybe the real problem does indeed lie with Maslow’s theory, and the time has come to abandon it altogether.
After all, that would be far easier than trying to change our behaviour.