Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the impact of digital inequality

maslowFigure 1: Maslow theory of needs. ©University of Reading

In our work with Get Digital, we are constantly seeing a number of key themes which impact on an individual’s engagement with the internet, but the two which are of particular interest for the purpose of this discussion are motivation and competing priorities. What both people experiencing homelessness and those supporting them express is that digital is simply not a priority and that there are other, far more pressing issues to contend with such as finding shelter, food and warmth, for instance.

At a recent participatory action research engagement, one staff member raised the issue of Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs, a guiding psychological/philosophical model used by many staff engaged in work on social inequality, and based on the premise that much human behaviour is goal directed. At the most basic level are needs related to the survival instinct (need for food, shelter, clothing, etc.); then comes the need for safety and security, followed by social needs such as family and other social support systems, and then, when a significant percentage of these needs are met, an individual might then aspire to meet what Maslow and others describe as self-actualization needs, i.e., achieving full potential as a person and thus satisfying self-esteem.

The staff member, understandably, highlighted the fact that digital, as she and many of those she supported, understood it, did not meet the most basic physiological and safety  needs, and might only reasonably be included as part of ‘self actualization’, at the peak of the pyramid, which only those individuals having significant elements of the baser layers met, might reach. Engagement with the internet doesn’t feel relevant, or necessary, to someone without somewhere safe to stay.

In the days before digital, this logic would undoubtedly hold fast. Finding accommodation, and support was a facilitated process based on human-facing communications. Digital, however, is a wildcard here, a new domain and, one might argue, a new key to unlock each of these layers. It does not sit as an aside, nor as an aspiration at the top of the pyramid alongside self-actualization, but rather is a dome, arching over Maslow’s pyramid.

The digital by default agenda, felt by many as an example of systemic inequality, with far-reaching examples such as Universal Credit means that, without essential digital skills, an individual is ‘locked out’ of meeting their basic needs. Digital is the means by which, in 2019, we now ‘unlock’ food, shelter, health information, personal safety, employment- and indeed, maintaining social contacts and developing our sense of connection. We claim benefits online, apply for housing and employment opportunities, pay bills, order prescriptions. Just fifteen years ago- no such digital systems existed.

While Maslow’s model has its critics, mostly objecting to the lack of empirical data informing this model, it nevertheless offers a helpful insight into individual motivation and engagement. People do indeed have essential basic needs, and the most vulnerable people in society, for instance, those people experiencing homelessness, are clearly not having those needs met. It is therefore absolutely unsurprising that it is incredibly challenging to engage people with digital, an activity which may be perceived by many to be ‘aspirational’ or an element unrelated to meeting urgent and desperate need.

But internet access and the use of essential digital skills now form the starting point for meeting basic needs, either through assisted digital (with a support worker, carer or friend engaging with online systems) or by the individual themselves engaging.

Digital is no longer an aspirational element on the path to self-actualization, but an increasingly necessary tool for basic survival in the modern world.

Maslow EDS


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