For many years, and in various presentations by others, I have heard reference to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It is a reasonably sound, but certainly high-level descriptor of the underlying drivers which may influence human decisions and behaviour at any given point in time. In particular, it is built on a premise that if the most fundamental human needs of an individual are satisfied, that person will tend towards trying to satisfy more intellectually stimulating needs. Some will seek a sense of belonging (either to a family unit or group), and others may seek selfless altruism. In any case, there are a multitude of emotional and egotistical reasons driving human actions.


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs may be sufficient for describing behaviour in a general sense, and at a moment in time, however there are some interesting considerations when looking at the online behaviour of humans in the context of health and wellness.

Firstly, let me also introduce you to some thinking that Creation Healthcare previously undertook in developing a high-level model which may describe some of the reasons behind why people participate in social media.  During the development of an engagement strategy for a pharmaceutical client, several years ago, Daniel Ghinn and I arrived at several ‘Cs’ which we believe underlie behaviour in social media:

Some of the reasons why people engage in social media

For some individuals, the value of participating in a community, or any kind of social media, stems from a need to rally behind a ‘cause’. This activism can be particularly efficient in an online world. For instance, a person can easily click their mouse to show support for something they believe in or are inspired by, rather than necessarily investing great amounts of time or effort in more traditional activism such as going to a street rally or knocking on doors looking for people to sign a petition. Yet it says something about the person, and can usually be worn as a badge of honour in any online profile pages. Many people have seen the ‘Like’ button in Facebook, and the way that it can show the interests of an individual. When you ‘Like’ something, do you also think about how this will be perceived by those in your social circles?

Some people really like to solve problems. There are also some problems which are not easily solved by a single person. Consider the engineering required to build a ship, or the architecture behind a great building. It requires many intelligent minds, working on many problems to solve a larger problem – how to make something which was an idea, become a reality. When a group of people come together in a virtual environment such as the Internet, this can produce a crowd-source of thousands or millions, harnessing the power of many minds. For some, it is a great reward to collaborate – in some cases more rewarding than financial incentives. Consider Wikipedia, or the development of open-source software such as WordPress and Firefox. Many of the key minds, who solve problems in the evolution of these platforms, do not get paid.  Have you ever joined in on an online conversation or community because you felt you had a valid or useful piece of information to contribute?

Some people simply enjoy being a part of a community. It could be a community of real-life friends, family, extended family, or it could be a group of people that the person has never met in real-life but have shared interests or passions. Humankind has always had the support of a tribe, of varying sizes and for varying reasons. Ironically, in our populous real-world cities and countries, some people feel isolated and alone – but find that their need for community is met in the world of online chat rooms, forums, or even virtual worlds such as SecondLife. In this day and age, it is getting harder to find people that don’t have some form of ‘electronic’ community – whether through their mobile phone, their Outlook address book, or a social networking community. What online communities are you a part of?

For as long as humankind has had games, and peers, we have had competition. An ancient proverb says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another”. Through competition, individuals rise beyond their own expectations to perform and create their very best work. They want to win, to be seen to win, and to receive the prize. Winning a competition means receiving something of value, whether the spoils of war, or the sheer knowledge that you are better than many, in some cases the best of the best. Have you ever entered a competition? Have you entered an online competition that was based on something more than luck?

Some are born to write, born to create, born to contribute; Not for competition but to accurately provide information. Some are curators, some are authors, some are songwriters, some photographers or videographers. For them, ‘Content is King’. They just keep shipping work after work, from their blog or photo gallery. How much original content do you contribute online?

Then there are those that just like to talk. The storytellers. The audience. The switch from role to role. Captivated by communication, no topic is too trivial or too complex. It is all up for discussion, and it doesn’t even have be great in weight or meaning. Rather, it is the act of conversing which brings fulfilment. Gossip, rumour, the weather – a sense of self-worth can be found in merely sharing backwards and forwards. Do you find things that you share online?

There are certainly those who value their reputation, and see participation in social media as a way to establish credibility. Perhaps it is for their careers, or to find a mate, or to substantiate the claims that are made in real-life. Do you care how many people follow you? Do you search for your own name to see what your ranking is? Do you value the scores provided by services such as or PeerIndex?

Motivation in the context of health

Are there more C’s that you can think of? More reasons why people are using social media? Whatever the case, when it comes to health social media it appears that the standard Hierarchy of Needs seems to become much less discrete.

The bottom two fundamental needs are ‘physiological’ and ‘safety’. Yet when we think about the theme of health, it is intrinsically intertwined with both the physiological needs and safety.

Here now is my personal point of interest on this topic:

In health social media behaviour, the motivations for participation are a combination of many concurrent aspects of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Consider the following diagram of C’s. If we colour code them based on the primary ‘Need’ which is being satisfied, we can also see how the driver is underpinned by several other ‘Needs’ – not least of which is health itself.

Health needs span across many levels

The rise of the Internet has also produced the ‘e-Patient’. There are many reasons for a person to use the Internet and social media for health. It is therefore no surprise that after ‘technology’, health is the topic with the most search activity.

To understand the opportunity for pharmaceutical companies in an age of social media, click through the slides in the following presentation

Paul Grant is Head of Strategy Implementation with Creation Healthcare, a consultancy advising healthcare and pharmaceutical organizations about effective engagement in a changing world. Contact Paul Grant if you would like to know more about Creation Healthcare’s work or the content in this article.