The Buyearchy of Greeds?” — Why choosing your analogy is important.


thebuyerarchyofneedRecently a friend shared an image that tried to visu­al­ly high­light an eth­i­cal hier­ar­chy using the now famil­iar Maslow’s hier­ar­chy of needs. This usu­al pyra­mid high­lights the broad low­er lev­els of ‘use what you have’ and ‘bor­row,’ ascend­ing to nar­row­er upper lev­els cul­mi­nat­ing in ‘Buy’ and osten­si­bly implor­ing the view­er to buy less and eth­i­cal­ly source more. However, there is a sig­nif­i­cant prob­lem with this hier­ar­chy as it stands, and it stems from the source material.

Maslow’s hier­ar­chy is used to des­ig­nate the base lev­el requirements—the ‘needs’—of an indi­vid­ual to find ful­fil­ment, cul­mi­nat­ing in their per­son­al ’self-actu­al­i­sa­tion.’ Each low­er cat­e­go­ry in the hier­ar­chy is a pre-req­ui­site that needs to be ful­filled to achieve the next lay­er up.




Which is why the pletho­ra of mod­ern inter­pre­ta­tions that include ‘wifi’ as the base lev­el ( are so eas­i­ly able to be under­stood as indi­cat­ing that life can­not con­tin­ue with­out these basic pre-requisites.

The prob­lem for this ‘Buyerarchy of Needs’ is that by bas­ing their par­a­digm on that of Maslow hier­ar­chy they are imply­ing that the ‘Buy’ state rep­re­sents the goal of human needs, and that bor­row­ing and using what you have are only pre-req­ui­site steps on the way to buy­ing. Patently this is the inverse of what they are attempt­ing to com­mu­ni­cate, and they need to revise their metaphor. Because in this con­fig­u­ra­tion it com­mu­ni­cates far more of a ‘Buyerarchy of Greed’ than an eth­i­cal buy­ing guide.

I sus­pect that they have been con­fused with the oth­er com­mon hier­ar­chy, that of the food pyra­mid, that is com­mon­ly rep­re­sent­ed in the same fashion.


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In this par­a­digm the upper lev­els are small­er to con­vey that one should con­sume less of these items, and this finds great par­al­lels with the inten­tions of the eth­i­cal buy­ing pyramid.

Ultimately this points to the need of choos­ing our analo­gies care­ful­ly, as a sig­nif­i­cant amount of our mes­sage relies on our audience’s pri­or under­stand­ing of the ana­log­i­cal source. In this case the use of Maslow’s hier­ar­chy (like­ly because the author didn’t have a good grasp on Maslow) con­veys a mes­sage com­plete­ly oppo­site to the inten­tion of the image. Choosing the right anal­o­gy here is crit­i­cal as the wrong anal­o­gy will detract from the message—or under­mine it at worst. Ultimately if a point is so severe­ly under­mined by the ana­log­i­cal pre­sen­ta­tion then either choose anoth­er anal­o­gy or don’t make the point at all.

To end this on a pos­i­tive note, here is like­ly what they were intend­ing, with no apol­o­gy to Maslow required:


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