We Need More Than Bread and Butter

President Woodrow Wilson was quoted as saying, “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”

We seem to have forgotten not just the errand, but its importance in the human heart and mind. We tend to reduce human motivation to its most base level, seeing people as driven by biologically — based survival needs and gratifications. Needs for meaning and purpose, for connectedness to others, for care, recognition, and empathy, and for the experience of agency and self-determination are too often deemed to be “soft” needs whose satisfaction has to wait in line behind the harder and more fundamental needs for bread, butter, and physical comfort and pleasure. The body and its satisfactions always seem to come before the demands of the mind and heart.

Such a hierarchy and rank ordering of motivations has skewed our understanding of everything from drug abuse to social change. It’s scientifically false and leads to public policies that are inherently irrational and political visions that are doomed to fall on deaf ears.

Our beliefs about drug addiction are a case in point. The fact that it is often a scourge on the human spirit and a blight on our social landscape doesn’t mitigate the fact that our “war” against it fundamentally misunderstands its causes and, therefore, its possible remedies. We — most of us, including most policymakers — tend to think that certain substances like alcohol, speed, heroin and other opiates pose an intrinsic threat based on their pharmacology and our neurobiology; that, in other word, the substances themselves, by creating such intense physical pleasure, tolerance, dependency, and withdrawal, that abstinence is automatically made almost impossible. It follows, then, that if we can just restrict access to these substances, or punish those who indulge in them, we will be at least fighting the good fight, if not going a long way toward solving the problem. If the cost of using is higher than the pleasure-seeking driving its use, the addict might then potentially stop.

As journalist Johann Hari definitively shows in his brilliant and thoroughly researched book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, these common sense beliefs are nothing but common nonsense. They’re wrong and have led to policies and attitudes that have created many more problems than they’ve solved.

Drugs don’t cause addictions. Drugs become the solution to problems that are caused by rejection, loneliness, spiritual emptiness, social isolation and dislocation, and emotional trauma. Feelings cause addiction, not simple bodily cravings.

Take the classic experiment used by The Partnership for a Drug-Free America in the 1980s to depict addiction. A rat is put in a cage and has two sources of water, one normal and the other laced with cocaine or heroin. The rat compulsively seeks out the drug infused water, ignores all of its other needs, and drinks it until it dies. Voila! The drug is so physically compelling in its addictive power that a rat will consume it at the expense of anything and everything else, even its very survival. Replace that rat with a crack addict and you have our current view of addition in a nutshell. The physiology of the drug and its effects on the addict’s brain explains the outcome.

Unfortunately for our belief system, but fortunately for the rat, this depiction of drug — crazed rats was, as Hari describes, devastatingly undermined by Professor Bruce Alexander at Simon Fraser University in Canada. Alexander noticed that in the original experiment, the rat was alone in a cage. So he wondered what would happen if he improved the rat’s social environment. He built what he came to call “Rat Park,” and it was a rat’s dream — wheels, colored balls, great rat food, and other rats to hang out and have sex with. He still gave the rats a choice between regular water and the cocaine-variety. When they lived with other rats and had other things to do, Alexander’s rats used the drug-infused water only a small fraction of the amount used by rats living alone. This experiment was replicated with opiates and other stimulants with the same outcomes.

It wasn’t the drug that compelled use, but the loneliness and deprivation of the environment. It wasn’t the nature of the drug but of the cage. As Hari so beautifully puts it, “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety but connection.”

But because we don’t understand what really makes people tick — feelings and psychic needs, not physical cravings — many would view Alexander’s conclusions as “touchy-feely” and unrealistic. It seems that we continually default to simplistic views of motivation that view some desires –physical, survival-driven interests — as foundational and other needs as more ethereal, insubstantial, and optional. Survival needs and physical self-interest are hard motivations. Needs for community, purpose, care, and agency are soft. Hard motivations are more powerful and have to be met before any other longings can be addressed.

The most influential proponent of this bias was the psychologist Abraham Maslow with his famous “hierarchy of needs,” in which survival needs lay at the bottom of a pyramid and, he argued, had to be addressed first before self-esteem, social, and ethical needs could be met.

Hari shows that the physically addictive power of certain substances, the pharmacologic equivalent of Maslow’s “survival needs” is not necessarily the root cause of addiction, because addiction is a syndrome that can only be understood in the context of psychological experiences of isolation, low self-esteem, and pre-existing emotional trauma. The so-called higher order “softer” feelings are right there at the root of the problem, as foundational and basic as drug-induced physical compulsions.

Interestingly, the false notion that certain needs are more “basic” than others and have to be addressed first pervades liberal politics and has done so at least since the New Deal. In this incarnation, it was well-captured by James Carville, Bill Clinton’s campaign manager in 1992, with Carville famously told his staff, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Carville was echoing Maslow’s hierarchy by presuming that voters were mostly concerned about the economic slowdown under George H.W. Bush. Everything else was secondary, Carville believed. Liberals have followed this line to the present moment, assuming that people are driven primarily by economic self-interest and, therefore, will respond especially well to messaging about economic injustice and inequality. Survival needs have to be addressed first, progressives believe. One organizer told me that if they could only put enough people “on the doors,” explaining to voters how they were being screwed by big banks and the billionaires, these voters would break through their apathy and want to be involved in a social change movement.

Such an assumption ignores a mountain of data that demonstrates that, while people may not like economic inequality, their awareness of it and its negative effects, is not enough to bring people out of their cynical passivity and be inspired to become active in politics. The reason is that people have other needs that liberals are not addressing, needs for connection, meaning, recognition, and agency, all of which are every bit as important as the need for material security. Just as drug addicts will give up drugs if hey have meaningful work, or if they become part of he welcoming and caring communities created by 12-step groups, citizens will become inspired and engaged if someone speaks to their need to be connected to something greater than the individual self, if they are invited to be part of something that benefits others, if they are given some real responsibility and control over their lives.

The United States, unfortunately, has the longest way to go in this regard among advanced industrialized countries. We are a country mired in cultural practices and ideologies that promote individualism, isolation, and loneliness. Two well-researched studies of this phenomenon — Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, and University of Chicago Social Neuroscientist, John Cacioppo’s book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need For Social Connection — leave little doubt that Albert Schweitzer was right when we said, “ We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.”

However, there are many counter-examples of people becoming healthier and happier when their “soft” needs are being met, regardless of their material well-being.

1) One of the cardinal axioms of the approach of Narcotics Anonymous is that “the therapeutic value of one addict helping another is without parallel.” Most people who attend 12-step meetings report growing up feeling like outsiders, not fitting in, being “other.” The offer of unconditional acceptance, fellowship, and love in AA and NA and other 12-step groups is like giving water to someone wilting in the desert.

2) The institutional base of the Civil Rights Movement, the black church, was shaped to address its congregants’ needs for spiritual transcendence, for sure, but also for community and mutual aid, and cultural and artistic expression. The four little girls killed in the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama were on their way to give a public performance sponsored by the Church. In Malcolm Gladwell’s study of Rick Warren’s Saddleback mega-church in Orange County, California, he is repeatedly drawn to emphasize the myriad ways that the Church engages people in multiple ways, from giving them meaningful work, pathways to learning, and by encouraging small groups or “cells” to form the relational base of the congregation. Multiple needs are addressed and the result has been skyrocketing membership.

3) Most labor leaders will acknowledge that during times of high-intensity conflict, e.g. a strike, the level of excitement, passion, and organizational and political engagement of members is at an all time high. Cesar Chavez observed, “The picket line is the best place to train organizers. One day on the picket line is where a man makes his commitment…The picket line is a beautiful thing because it make s man more human.”

4) The Tea Party, the NRA, evangelical mega-churches, and other conservative organizations encourage a sense of community not only by fostering the development of local and neighborhood leaders, but by creating a sense that there is a “we” imperiled by a “them.” One can fill in the “we” with “white males” or “gun owners” and “them” with any out-group — gays, people of color, feminists, liberals, Muslims, etc. The result is the same — a sense that one is part of something greater than the self, a something based, unfortunately, on scapegoating and demeaning some Other. We can see the odious side of this need for community and for a connection to something greater than the self in the emergence of racist and nationalistic parties and groups through the US and other countryes that stoke the passions of their constituents with narratives of “those people” coming into “our” communities and taking away “our” jobs and privileges. Everyone wants to be part of an “us.” This need isn’t a soft one, but a powerful engine behind large –scale political movements.

A movement for social change has to speak to all of the primary psychological and emotional needs of people in order to engage their passions. Liberals talk, for example, all the time about the vital importance of getting access to medical care for the uninsured. But most people have medical insurance. What they don’t have is often a caring medical system in which they can form a meaningful relationship with their providers who take the time and have the curiosity and desire to treat them as whole people. It’s possible that progressives would engage more people in their movement if they were to emphase the care in health care. Access is a matter of economics and counts as a survival need. The need for attention and care might be higher on Maslow’s hierarchy and harder to write into law, but it is every bit as powerful a need and one that is systematically frustrated in our current system.

We need to alter our view of what makes people tick and start considering the mind and heart’s needs for meaningful work and purpose, relatedness and mutuality with others, and creativity and agency in all areas of life, as every bit as important as the body’s needs for food and water.

Michael Bader

Psychologist and psychoanalyst in San Francisco, author of Beyond Bread and Butter: A Psychologist Speaks to Progressives About What People Really Need in Order to Win and Change the World and dozens of articles about psychology and politics. See www.michaelbader.com