No one psychological theory explains why people do what they do. People are too complex for one theory to account for everything, and all sorts of factors impact what we do. That said, though, there are some really interesting ways of looking at the choices humans make, and putting them into perspective.
One of those theories is Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s theory was that some of our needs are more important than others, and that we will meet those basic, lower-level needs before trying to meet higher-level needs. In the world of education, for instance, it implies that students aren’t going to be able to concentrate on learning if they haven’t eaten or if they’re being abused. Students from stable, loving homes, where they don’t have to worry about physical safety or being unloved, will be better able to concentrate on higher-level needs like cognitive development.
We see this hierarchy all through crime fiction, too. And although it certainly doesn’t explain everything characters do, I think it adds an interesting perspective. And it can help readers understand why a character might behave in a certain way.
The most basic needs we have, according to Maslow, are our ‘survival’ needs, like food, water, and shelter. They have to be met first, if a person is to meet other needs. In Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar, for instance, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney works to clear the name of her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. When his partner, Nou, is killed, the police settle on Didi as the murderer. Later, he himself is killed in what police say was the tragic consequence of resisting arrest and threatening the officers who’d come to arrest him. Keeney doesn’t believe that explanation and goes in search of the truth. The truth about the murders has to do with the business of child trafficking and the sex trade, and Savage makes it clear that there are no easy answers to this problem. For many desperately poor rural families, this trade represents food in their stomachs and a place to live. Simply telling them how wrong it is to send their children to be trafficked isn’t going to feed them.
We also see this in one plot thread of Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective. Two young girls, Preeti and Basanti, join India’s sex trade in exchange for money given to their families. The idea is that they’ll work in the trade for a few years, sending money back to their families, and then return to their villages. For those families, this represents a way to put food on the table, take care of sick children and so on. For the young girls, it’s even a sort of source of pride, since they are helping to feed their families. But things go horribly wrong when they are taken to Scotland and sold to some very dangerous people. When Basanti manages to escape the people holding her, she goes in search of Preeti, only to discover that her friend has disappeared and may be dead. So she asks for help from oceanographer Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill, who just may have the skills needed to find Preeti.
Timothy Hallinan addresses similar issues in his Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty novels. Rafferty is an ex-pat American who now lives in Bangkok with his wife, Rose and their adopted daughter, Miaow. Rose is a former bar girl who’s set up her own apartment-cleaning company; Miaow is a former street child. Both know all too well about being desperate for food and shelter. In fact, in The Queen of Patpong, we learn something about Rose’s personal history. At one point, there’s an interaction between her teacher, Teacher Suttikul, and her father. The teacher is trying to convince Rose’s father to let her stay in school, rather than leave school and get work:
‘‘You know, you have a very smart daughter.’
‘So what?’ her father says… ‘She’s a girl.’
‘There are lots of good jobs for girls these days. She’ll earn plenty of money if she stays in school.’
‘What good does that do anybody? If she makes any money, it’ll go to her husband’s parents, not us.’
… ‘She’ll always take care of you. And I know she can get a good job. Someday she – ’
‘Someday,’ her father says heavily, as though the words are in a foreign language. ‘Someday. My children need food now. The roof needs to be fixed before the next rain comes. We need money now.’’
That drive to meet the most important, basic needs leads those who have nothing to make choices that those of us with plenty can’t always understand.
Maslow believed that once those very basic needs are met, we move on to meeting our needs for safety and security. And we certainly see that in crime fiction! I’m sure I don’t have to list the many novels in which characters won’t talk to the police, for fear of what will happen if they do. And then there are characters who know about terrible crimes, even murder, but turn a blind eye. It’s not that they like the idea of murder, but they fear for their own safety and that of their families.
We see that need for safety come out in other ways, too. For example, Jassy Mackenzie’s Random Violence takes place in Johannesburg, where many people are concerned for their own physical safety. In that atmosphere, Superintendent David Patel of the Johannesburg Police investigates the murder of Annette Botha, whose death looks like a carjacking gone horribly wrong. But soon, little bits of evidence suggest that her murder might have been deliberate. Then, private investigator Dean Grobbelar is murdered. Then there’s a third murder. Now Patel has the task of linking these crimes to see who is responsible. In the meantime, PI Jade de Jong, the daughter of Patel’s former mentor, has returned to Johannesburg after a ten-year absence. Patel is glad for her help as the investigation gets both wider and deeper, but she has an agenda of her own. Throughout this novel, there’s a pervasive sense of fear, as ordinary people take extraordinary security measures:
‘Jade turned on all the lights and checked the cottage thoroughly. The front door was secure. The alarm was armed. The battery box that fed the electric fence was beeping quietly, its green light flashing.’
People hire personal bodyguards, live in tightly gated communities, and so on. There’s a real sense that everyone’s safety is at risk.
There’s also Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace, which introduces Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman. She’s dealing with the loss of her beloved husband Stefan, so although she’s functioning, she’s not exactly functional. Still, she’s making some progress. Then, she gets a letter that makes it clear that she’s being stalked. As if that’s not enough, someone seems to have gotten access to her private client information. Then, the body of one of those clients, Sara Matteus, is found in the water in Bergman’s property. There’s a suicide note that blames Bergman for the victim’s decision to kill herself. When the death is proved to be a murder, Berman is suspected, briefly, until it’s proven she is innocent. But having her name cleared isn’t enough to keep her safe. Bergman will have to find out who’s responsible for targeting her if she’s to stay alive. And it’s interesting to see how her focus changes from the higher-level need to succeed professionally and help her clients to the basic need to stay safe as the story goes on.
If Maslow was right (and I’ve not read any credible evidence that he wasn’t), then our needs are hierarchical. We have to satisfy our basic needs before we move on to higher-level needs like the need to be loved and to belong. And those needs drive quite a bit of what we do.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Claude Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Lovely Ladies.