Little Things Mean A Lot

In reading my morning Joplin Globe my eye was caught by two seemingly unrelated articles, subjects I later realized had a certain aspect of human nature in common.

Boone County Fire Protection District in Joplin

Boone County Fire Protection District in Joplin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most readers will recall that Joplin Missouri was hit by a record-breaking EF-5 tornado last Spring, killing 162 people and laying waste to some 6 miles of destruction through the center of the town. Now, nearly a year later we are rebuilding and the repercussions are still reverberating through the community. A great deal of aid has flowed in, state, local and charitable, and among the many donations was $50,000 from the Red Cross to the city of Joplin. The City Manager organized a citizen’s panel which came up with the idea of buying pre-set weather radios to be distributed free to Joplin residents before the onset of this years’ tornado season.

As the radios were being given out, one woman from the neighboring village of Duquesne became upset when she found out that she would not be getting one. The organizers of the giveaway had printed notices beforehand that the money had been given only to residents living within the city limits. However, Ms. Boone had also suffered damage from the same storm, shopped in Joplin and paid some (but not all) the same taxes as residents and became, to use her own words, “livid” at being denied one of the free radios (valued at about $30). A short version of the Globe article was published online.

The second article, this one by the AP, related how,

“Albuquerque police officers involved in a rash of fatal shootings over the past two years were paid up to $500 under a union program that some have likened to a bounty system in a department with a culture that critics have long contended promotes brutality.”

The item further explains,

“Clure (the president of the police union) said his union gives officers who fire their guns in the line of duty a $25 dinner card and a few movie tickets. On rare occasions, the union will give as much as $500 for a hotel room and travel for an officer who is having an especially difficult time after a shooting.”

The article compares this to an Idaho police union that avoids cash gifts in such situations but rather selects “something specific such as a weekend ski trip or dinner with their spouse.”

Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Resized, renamed,...

In each of these cases we have relatively small amounts of cash or things of value which are causing concern apparently well out of proportion to their monetary values. Why should this be? On reflection I have come to the conclusion that it is an aspect of human nature that was explained quite well a half century ago by a Jewish psychologist, Abraham Maslow. He called his concept “the hierarchy of needs” which, limned simply, is that certain categories of “needs” can explain why normal people act like they do. Important to his concept is that people seek to fulfill their more basic needs first, and that once those lower-order needs such as food, clothing and shelter have been filled, and this is important, they no longer figure prominently in motivating the person.  When a level of needs has been fulfilled, people then move to a higher level of needs such as “safety”, things like a better job, moral concerns, health, savings and so on. Level 3 is “love/belonging”, level 4 is “esteem”, and at the pinnacle of the hierarchy is “self-actualization”.

How does Maslow’s theory relate to the two news stories I mentioned? I submit that the answer is found in the key to Maslow’s theory: in both cases people are powerfully motivated not by what they already take for granted but by what is extra. One’s salary is dependable – it doesn’t change. What motivates us is the incremental addition, the potential that is not guaranteed.

I believe this explains many human behaviors such as why small bribes might entice officials to endanger careers worth tens or hundreds of times more than the value of the bribes, not to mention a lifetime’s earning potential destroyed. And now that I think of it, this might also be at the core of gambling’s appeal: the lure of an incremental success not otherwise ensured.

My take on this is that little things mean a lot. Bonuses, perks, gifts, incentives and the like have potential all out of proportion to their monetary value.  Society would do well to have very stringent rules about such things. Are you listening, Congress? (No, I didn’t think so.)

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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6 Responses to Little Things Mean A Lot

  1. PiedType says:

    Ask any office worker about how much the little things mean. Having the cubicle 10 feet closer to the door, or the boss, or the corner. A 10-minute break instead of 5. Free coffee (or not). A parking space one row closer to the building. Watch them circle like sharks to pick clean the office of a fired colleague. Everybody’s job may be secure but they’ll fight like dogs for those little things.


  2. Jim,

    I knew a couple of people in my 30 years in the Postal Service who would risk losing a $50,000+ job in order to pilfer samples (like small tubes of toothpaste or ink pens) from the mail. I also knew a guy who got fired for opening porn advertisements, and I knew another who was canned for taking a small amount of cash from birthday cards. It doesn’t make sense, rationally, and it doesn’t even make much sense in light of your essay here, but it is sad nonetheless.



  3. Jim Wheeler says:

    @ PT & Duane,

    Thanks for contributing real-life examples. This aspect of human nature, sad, as Duane says, highlights the difficulties of governance, doesn’t it? Little wonder then that government works best when the public is distracted from their olio of personal concerns by an external threat like Nazi’s?


  4. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    I read the Globe article about the “livid” woman and was repulsed. In her view, I suppose, her NEED for a radio (that costs less than a carton of cigarettes) was elevated to a RIGHT. She was “livid” over a perceived violation of her “rights” is my guess.

    I am sure she would also say her treatment was not “fari”, or she had as much “right” to a free radio as someone else, etc.

    Along the same lines of “reasoning” check out Gwen Hunt’s column in Sunday’s Globe all about women’s rights. I chose to respond privately to Gwen by email rather than make a public “fuss” over her column.

    I wonder if some day a new Maslov might construct a “hierarchy of rights” instead of just needs?
    I wonder also if free radios will be included in such a hierarchy?



  5. Rewarding police officers for firing their weapons in the line of duty seems like a troubling policy, to me. Why encourage officers to use force, when often just the voice of authority, or even the voice of reason, is all that might be needed. Toning down the energy of anger in a potentially volatile situation is surely a higher level skill and one that could lead to peaceful resolutions, better for all when the situation allows it.


  6. ansonburlingame says:


    I tend to agree. See my own blog on “dispute resolution” which was entitled STAND YOUR GROUND LAW. That law seems to me to escalate the potential use of deadly force to resolve disputes, rather than expecting a reduction in such use simply because “everyone might be armed”

    My goal of course is a reduction in volience to resolve disputes. But I must admit that waiting for four years for justice to be rendered in the recent Joplin Collins case, makes one wonder why it took so long..

    But as well, I can understand a group of officers, unionized or not, “standing behind” a beleaguered officer going through “hell” in such investigations. Based on what Jim wrote above, I see such efforts being supportive after the fact, not an encouragement to use excessive violence.



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