When the coronavirus reshuffles the maps of our priorities...

In the unstable context of the beginning of the year 2020, Covid-19 appears as a remarkable inflection point which reshuffles the maps of the hierarchy of needs. Remarkable because it concerns the entire world population, without distinction of social level, consumption tastes, age or gender.

In 1943, the very serious American magazine Psychological Review published a post proposing a theory whose author, Abraham Maslow, was to become world famous thanks to a pyramid. Indeed, the iconic Maslow pyramid - or pyramid of needs - is so well known that when one has fun typing "pyramid" in the Google search engine, it arrives in the top trio of suggestions, long before Giza!

However, the tool's notoriety does not stem so much from its propensity to explain human behaviour, particularly consumption behaviour, as from the criticisms it has received since its creation. Maslow, however, developed her model until her death in 1970. Despite these efforts, the famous pyramid, pictured below, continues to reveal its limitations rather than its contributions. But before explaining the reasons for this, let's briefly present it.

The hierarchy of needs proposed by Maslow in the 1940s.

WhenAbraham Maslowan American psychologist considered the father of the humanistic approach alongside Carl Rogers, James Bugental, and Rollo May, proposed his model, he started from the principle that human needs are organized into five categories. Where the problem arises is when the author argues that human beings only commit themselves to fulfill a type of need when the previous one has been satisfied.

Theoretically, therefore, no one should create a love relationship without first having found something to eat physically, nor belong to a social group without first having made sure that they are safe. Except that in reality, this sequencing doesn't work.

An obsolete model?

In the early 1980s, the Foote-Cone-Belding "(FCB) has, among other things, challenged Maslow's theory. This matrix distinguishes between intellectual (thoughtful) and emotional (impulse) buying behavior, all according to a degree of consumer involvement linked to the budget, product life span, the value placed on the purchase, etc. The FCB model is based on a matrix of the consumer's behavioral patterns.

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The authors point out that if Maslow's model were verified, we would almost never buy luxury goods and impulse purchases would be non-existent until we had lunch, which is not the case. Consumers easily skip a meal to go to a sale, call a loved one or buy something non-vital but urgently needed by the body, such as a pack of cigarettes.

In the same way, one can seek love in order to feel secure in social standards (level 3 then 2) or have the ambition of self-fulfillment before finding love, a home, or even something to eat properly by working for hours at a time without sleep or reasonable calorie intake (level 5 then takes precedence over all the others).

Despite the relevance of the needs it identifies, the sequencing of Maslow's pyramid does not work. Except that this conclusion takes place in a politically and psychologically stable context.

Covid-19 shuffles the cards

In the unstable context of the beginning of the year 2020, Covid-19 appears as a remarkable inflection point which reshuffles the maps of the hierarchy of needs. Remarkable because it concerns the entire world population, without distinction of social level, consumption tastes, age or gender. But above all, it rehabilitates Maslow's pyramid by placing safety at the base of the hierarchy of needs, at level 2, after physiological needs.

The need to belong, to be valued or to achieve (levels 3, 4 and 5) therefore comes later, as illustrated by the observable consequences of the spread of the coronavirus.

In China, containment and fear of contamination have considerably reduced all activity, as illustrated by the drastic drop in pollution levels in the geographical area around Wuhan.

Satellite image of the fall of pollution in Wuhan, China. NASA
Airborne nitrogen dioxide is falling in China. NASA

Similarly, players are forced to rethink their business: long routes are getting shorter, luxury brands, which are reassuring in terms of value, are losing little on the stock market, and brands such as Veolia (water treatment), Carrefour (food) and Engie (energy is a fundamental need) are doing well.

This shift can also be observed at the behavioural level. The ultimate inflection point is that we will no longer greet each other with a kiss or a handshake, which is likely to become part of Western customs if the health danger persists.

From now on, nothing else matters but survival: food has once again become the priority (level 1 of the pyramid) in order to be able to remain confined at home, safe (level 2) and not be contaminated. The need to belong reinforces one's place at level 3: once survival and safety are assured, one needs to keep in touch with one's loved ones, especially if they are travelling, in a critical zone or, worse, in quarantine. As for recognition and self-actualization (levels 4 and 5), this will come in due course.

Thus, just as the rise in the price of gold sends a signal of mistrust to the financial markets, the fact that the original sequencing of Maslow's pyramid is working indicates that the planet is going badly. Its rehabilitation should therefore really make us think about our priorities, obviously in times of crisis or conflict, but especially when the skies are blue.

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Philippe MouillotHDR Senior Lecturer in Management Sciences, IAE of Poitiers

This article is republished from The Conversation editorial partner of UP' Magazine. Read theoriginal paper.

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