Since the 1960s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been a staple in marketing. It suggests that there’s a linear progression from our basic physiological through to self-actualisation needs. It’s simple and intuitive, but it doesn’t capture the messy reality of human behaviour. Luckily, evolutionary psychology points us towards a more accurate model: the seven fundamental motives*.

Because we often don’t know the real reason for our behaviour, we give a ‘proximate’ reason which reasonably explains our motives. This has always been a central challenge for marketers: people are poor witnesses to their own motivations. The fundamental motives model sheds light on this, outlining seven core drivers deeply rooted in our psychology: status, affiliation, mate acquisition, mate retention, kin care, disease avoidance and self-protection.

This model recognises that there is no linear progression through layers of needs.  Rather, we move in and out of needs at any given moment. And we have different psychological systems for dealing with different needs, so, for example, someone coughing nearby might tip us momentarily into disease-avoidance mode.

When we understand the mode people are likely to be in, whether briefly (e.g. watching a scary film) or longer term (e.g. the pandemic lockdown), we – and our brands – are better positioned to offer them what they need. The seven fundamental motives help us understand what’s really at play. It’s a critical model for anyone with an interest in human behaviour.

* Proposed by Vladas Griskevicius and Douglas Kenrick in 2013