Alex Johnson at Zoot blog offers an interesting perspective on the well-reported shift in consumer behavior since 2008, in which borrowers have been paying their credit card bills ahead of their mortgages.

Johnson suggests that this change be viewed through the prism of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This psychological theory proposes that certain needs will motivate humans before others. The most basic physiological needs (food, water, breathing, sleep, sex, and, uhm, excretion) are the first in line; abstract things that fall under the category of “self-actualization” come last.

“In times of economic uncertainty, when basic necessities (like having a job and an income) are threatened, people tend to focus on securing those fundamental needs above their higher-level needs like achievement,” Johnson writes. Hence, it makes sense that Americans would start paying their credit card issuer first, their car lender second and their mortgages, if they had enough left over, only third. “A car is a higher priority than a house because in the words of one banker … ‘you can sleep in your car, but you can’t drive your house to work.’ A credit card is more valuable than a car or a house because it can be used for transportation (e.g. buying a subway pass), shelter (e.g. rent for an apartment), and other basic necessities.”

Johnson ends his post by suggesting that bankers can engender long-term loyalty “by demonstrating to their customers that they understand their needs and empathize with their situations.” For example, they can take the perhaps counterintuitive step of issuing credit cards (with low credit ceilings) to borrowers who are delinquent on the mortgage.

This much is clear: don’t accept “self-esteem” or “creativity” as collateral.