What would Maslow say about apps?

By Nick Holzherr on September 4th, 2012

Abraham Maslow, the twentieth-century psychologist and motivation theorist gave us much to think about how and why we are motivated to do things. But what motivates the hordes of smart phone users to download and spend time with apps?

Are we motivated to because fiddling with shiny toys fulfils a particular need? Apps and online platforms are a new component of our social development and they are a large part of our lives. But what psychological function are they performing?

In 1943, Maslow proposed in his paper A Theory of Human Motivation a theory of psychology that has come to be known as “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs”. It describes a series of stages of satisfaction in humans and posits a relationship between human needs.

According to Maslow, basic human needs – generally physiological ones – must be achieved before a person can achieve “higher” needs such as safety, love, belongingness, self-esteem and finally self-actualisation. Maslow’s hierarchy is still widely used and highly regarded.

Technologically, a lot has happened since 1943. What would Maslow think of the internet, and specifically apps? Most of us would struggle without access to our phones, which connect us to our emails, our online social life, the apps we use, our calendars and our contacts. It’s a need – and an obsession.

But which need are we fulfilling by checking Facebook every twenty minutes?

Facebook allows you to connect with people and firmly, so it seems logical that it might sit within the “sense of belonging” in Maslow’s hierarchy. You can join groups, connect with people, share photos, share music – it’s an online community, providing a sense of belonging.

Twitter seems to perform many of the same functions. It’s a different sort of community, differently architected, but it still connects you with other people and enables you to share your ideas with other human beings. Nurturing your social graph is analogous to maintaining real-world relationships, in that both provide the comfort and stability of that “sense of belonging”.

Social apps take this reassuring psychological function and marry it to some of the more basic physiological needs. The result can be powerful: not only do I get a warm glow of social recognition and the hit of dopamine from my friends liking my activities, but I might also be simultaneously in the process of seeking out food or drink.

And then there’s sex. Apps such as Grindr, Scruff, Manhunt and more recently Hornet demonstrate how powerful the alliance of belonging with physiological need can be. They’re not up my street personally, but their user growth speaks for itself.

It’s more difficult to work out what’s going on with the apps we most often hear described as “addictive”, though. Take Angry Birds as an example. These apps tend not to map neatly on to Maslow’s set of needs, instead providing “just” entertainment, albeit, furiously A/B tested entertainment that has been engineered to keep people playing as long as possible.

Games don’t fulfil a physiological need. They don’t give you a feeling of safety or a sense of belonging. Nor do they contribute to levels of esteem or self-actualisation. Angry Birds won’t help you discover more about yourself.

But what games like this do allow is escapism, ever more necessary in a bustling modern world in which software, people and devices vie every more frenetically and constantly for our attention.

Perhaps the peace and quiet these isolated little universes provide taps into a need Maslow didn’t foresee in 1943: the need, in an ever more social world, to occasionally be alone.