The Spring 2013 issue of The Journal of Military Operations contained an article by Dr Anna Maria Brudenell on the use of influence in war. She proposed in particular the use of a method named Axiological Engagement, which employs an adapted form of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to determine what is important to the enemy commander. Tom Wein & Gaby van den Berg respond.

In general, Dr. Brudenell’s article is a welcome contribution to the debate. We second her assertions that influence is vital, and that when it is considered at all, it is often done poorly. We agree that the effective use of influence would allow us to win our wars “more quickly, cheaper and with less loss of life.” We further agree on the need for a whole-of-government approach. Perhaps most of all, we applaud her focus on changing the enemy commander’s behaviour, not merely his attitudes; a distinction which is all too often lost on current influence practitioners.

However, we sharply differ in our conclusions about how to go about it.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a useful starting point, but psychology has moved on significantly. Maslow himself expanded his hierarchy in later work, from the original five categories to eight.[1] Perhaps particularly relevant is the work of Tang et al, which revealed significant changes in how people evaluated their needs during wartime.[2] It has also been repeatedly demonstrated that the relative importance of different needs differs widely across cultures.[3]

What is needed therefore is a more comprehensive approach. In their article ‘In Pursuit of a Contextual Diagnostic Approach to Behavior Change Interventions’, Lee Rowland and Gaby van den Berg suggest such an approach.[4] Their model draws on a review of 65 such models, employing a range of research parameters, organized in the following categories: Physical Context; Social Context; Informational Context; Motivation; Capability; and Behaviour. Different parameters will prove more relevant (‘more diagnostic’) for different target audiences, and there will always be limitations of resources and information in war, but in a field as complex as influence, analysts must aim for a holistic approach based on valid, culturally attuned field research, conducted by social scientists specialised in large scale behavior change and influence.

The attempt to create a simplified model of influence is a laudable one; we sympathize with under-pressure commanders grappling with new terminology and complex models. Unfortunately, this model over-simplifies, and thereby sacrifices its effectiveness. It should be viewed as part of a succession of models – including the Theory of Reasoned Action and the Fogg Behavior Model – which look at one aspect of influence, without providing a rigorous theoretical basis for excluding others. Meta-models which draw together many aspects have far more potential.

As a final note, we also believe that axiological targeting is less universally applicable than the author claims. At one point Brudenell asks, rhetorically “why would one not focus on the man in charge?” The rejoinder must come that there are many types of enemies, of varying degrees of centralization, and no leader exists outside of a social structure made up of influencers, enablers, and disablers. It might well have proved effective to focus on the psychology of Slobodan Milosevic (indeed, Kosovo is an oft-cited case study in the development of the theory), but there is no single leader of the Taliban who might be studied and convinced.

Our militaries should certainly make better use of influence. Yet axiological engagement is not the means to do so. It adds little to current military approaches such as the UK 15 PSYOPS planning process, and ultimately falls short of what can be achieved. At the same time its theoretical foundations are not as solid as might be hoped and its applicability is limited. There are far better approaches out there.

[1] Maslow, A. H. (1970). Religions, values, and peak experiences. New York: Penguin.

[2] Tang, T. L., Ibrahim, A. H., & West, W. B. (2002). Effects of war-related stress on the satisfaction of human needs: The United States and the Middle East. International Journal of Management Theory and Practices, 3(1), 35–53.

[3] Cianci, R. & Gambrel, P. A. (2003). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Does it apply in a collectivist culture. Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship, 8(2), 143–161.

[4] Rowland, L.A. & van den Berg, G. (2012). In Pursuit of a Contextual Diagnostic Approach to Behavioural Change Interventions. Behavioural Dynamics Institute.

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