Alastair Meeks looks at the theory of referendum motivation

February 14th, 2016


At the height of the Second World War, Abraham Maslow unveiled an important new theory of psychology.  Synthesising physical and higher needs, he arranged the drivers of human behaviour in the form of a pyramid.  At the bottom, he placed physiological needs – the physical impulses that drive every animal.  Above that he placed safety and security needs.  Rising further up the pyramid, he placed love and belongingness needs, the personal emotional connections.  Near the top of the pyramid, he placed self-esteem needs.  At the apex, he placed self-actualisation, the personal fulfilment of potential.

Until a man was fully satisfied on a particular tier of needs, he would not be driven by needs on a higher tier.  So a starving man would not think beyond his belly.  A homeless man would not think beyond where he is going to sleep that night.  Higher concerns can wait.  An unemployed man is going to be focussed on getting a job to the exclusion of more abstract matters.  And so on.

Psychologists can and do argue about the soundness of the hierarchy pyramid as a concept and in the detail.  It has, however, a brilliant simplicity for lay readers to understand and has been one of the most enduring products of this much-maligned branch of science.

Politicians have long drawn on it, implicitly at least.  “It’s the economy, stupid” makes sense if you see economic concerns as addressing safety and security needs.  If a politician can persuade the public that (a) she is a safe pair of hands for the economy and (b) her opponent would put the nation’s economic security in jeopardy, she is most of the way to being elected.  This is capable of being trumped only by physiological needs, which outside times of war or natural catastrophe is not going to be a runner.  It is not going to work at times when the populace are generally confident about the economy, which perhaps explains why the Conservatives lost so crushingly in 1997 despite having a lead on economic competence.  Since the public are innately downbeat about economic prospects, however, such elections will be rare.

Security also sits in a very low tier.  Small wonder then that David Cameron is seeking to make every aspect of government policy a choice for security.

So what of the EU referendum?  When I pointed out last week that the EU has consistently ranked relatively low on what the public rated for Ipsos-MORI on the list of most important issues facing Britain, I received a fair amount of consumer resistance.  How could such a screamingly-vital topic not be of intense import to Joe Public?

Let’s look at this month’s list of most important issues:


Where do these rank on the hierarchy of needs?  I suggest the following (numbering Maslow’s tiers from the bottom up):

Immigration – security (tier 2)

NHS – health (tier 2)

Economy – security (tier 2)

Defence – security (tier 2)

Poverty – security (tier 2)/self-esteem (tier 4), depending on context

Housing – property (tier 2)

Education – tier 2, 3 or 4, depending on context

EU – self-esteem (tier 4)

Unemployment – security (tier 2)/self-esteem (tier 4), depending on context

Low pay/fair wages – security (tier 2)/self-esteem (tier 4), depending on context

Where the EU stands out on this list is being exclusively a higher tier concern.  Membership of a supra-national body is far too abstract by itself to sit lower on the pyramid. Those citizens with only unfulfilled higher tier needs are obsessing about it.  Those citizens with more pressing daily concerns are not naming it.   A section of the political elite are prioritising their rarefied concerns over much more pressing matters for the majority.  Maslow’s hierarchy is the Westminster bubble in pyramid form.

The referendum therefore needs to be fought not on theoretical abstractions but on the impact on day-to-day concerns.  Whether this happens, I suppose, depends on how readily our comfortable political classes will look beyond their own psychological needs to deal with the much more pressing problems the bulk of the populace face.

Alastair Meeks