d. Satisfiers and Contra-satisfiers

Satisfiers and Contra-satisfiers

In the 1990’s, to address some of the limitations of Maslow’s theory, the Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef and his colleagues developed an alternative way of categorising human needs. Details can be found in their 1995 book “Human Scale Development”.

Max-Neef’s principal contribution, however, was the identification of “satisfiers”. These are external things which assuage our needs. Examples include physical things, such as rice and houses, or actions by others, such as medical treatment. Max-Neef explained that external things, such as food and shelter, should not be seen as needs, but rather as external satisfiers of an internal need for subsistence. On the micro-scale, satisfiers can be the goods and services that form the basis of economics. On the macro-scale, they can be the institutions that form the basis of politics. Satisfiers can, therefore, also be provided by organisations, by the way in which society is organised, or by its culture. For example, education is a satisfier of the need for understanding, and healthcare a satisfier of the need for protection.

As an economist, Max-Neef’s focus was mainly on physical and cultural satisfiers. However, there are also psychological satisfiers, such as the various belief systems on offer.

Max-Neef held that fundamental human needs are a constant, but that societies alter the satisfiers of those needs. Thus, satisfiers may differ from nation to nation, culture to culture, and time to time. He also held that there is not necessarily a single satisfier for any one need. Rather, several different things may satisfy it. Nor is a satisfier necessarily associated with a single need. Rather, it may assuage several needs. He cited the example of a mother breastfeeding her baby and argued that this can satisfy the baby’s need for subsistence, protection, affection, and identity all at the same time.

Although anything can be a satisfier, not everything is a satisfier. Max-Neef used the following classification:

  1. “Synergic Satisfiers”* satisfy a given need, whilst simultaneously contributing to the satisfaction of other needs. They are generally those chosen by the individuals concerned as best satisfying their complex of needs, rather than those chosen by any external agency, particularly an authoritarian one, whose motives often differ. (*Note that this term is given as a quote because, if taken literally, it would mean several satisfiers working together to satisfy a need rather than the definition given.)
  2. Singular Satisfiers satisfy only one need and are neutral in respect of other needs. They are often a consequence of well-meaning, but remotely planned interventions by voluntary, private sector, or government organisations. Examples include food and housing programmes.
  3. Inhibiting Satisfiers over-satisfy a particular need. They can become addictive, and so, prevent a person from satisfying other, higher needs. Max-Neef and his colleagues believe that inhibiting satisfiers originate in deep rooted customs, habits, and rituals. An example is the addictive pursuit of wealth among those who already have sufficient to meet their needs. This can lead to a failure to move on to other needs such as raising a family. Another example is drug addiction which becomes an artificial existence need and prevents an individual from adequately addressing higher needs.
  4. Pseudo Satisfiers claim to be satisfying a need, but really provide little or no satisfaction. They are often associated with advertising. Products may, for example, be marketed as glamour or lifestyle accessories, with the implication that they will improve the purchaser’s self-esteem.
  5. Violators are things which, although they are claimed to satisfy a need, actually make it more difficult to do so. Max-Neef used the example of a drink advertised as being thirst quenching but which, due to its ingredients, causes dehydration. By their nature, violators are also often associated with the consumer economy and marketing.

Satisfiers can, of course, satisfy some needs or the needs of some whilst reducing the satisfaction of other needs or the needs of others. Overall, the reaction of any individual to a satisfier depends on the extent to which it satisfies their needs, the needs of those close to them, and the extent to which it acts as a contra-satisfier. The reaction may also be determined by collective needs which apply to us as a species and also to those which apply to the natural environment.

Contra-satisfiers were not identified by Max-Neef but are those things which cause the contra-needs we wish to avoid. For example, crime and war can lead to insecurity, injury, and death.

In my next post, I will describe some of the ways in which the priorities we give to our needs can change with generation and age group.

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