Many aspects of the values and frames research – and the agenda for action derived from it – can provoke a fair deal of skepticism and questioning. Below we try to tackle some of the most common questions we have heard raised in response. You can comment on each of these entries if something is still bothering you, or if you feel the answer doesn’t do justice to the question. In addition, if there is an area you feel we haven’t covered, feel free to submit a question of your own using the form below.
What about speaking to those who are generally motivated by extrinsic concerns?
Everyone holds all of the values on the circumplex, but to differing degrees. Even if a person strongly values power, status or wealth, they will still also hold intrinsic and self-transcendence values. It is therefore possible to engage these values in more extrinsically-oriented people.
Appealing to people with messages highly incongruent with their dominant values can of course sometimes provoke feelings of threat – or simply disinterest – and be dismissed. But sensitivity and creative thinking – particularly in our choices about when, where and how we engage with others – will help us to surmount these barriers.
Do we have the time to shift values?
Some of the issues we face – climate change the prime example – are so urgent that many of us have resorted to ever more desperate short-termist campaigning to spur change. But there is no evidence that these techniques will ‘work’ at all – let alone in time – since many ‘easy wins’ can help set back longer-term, more substantial change. For a fuller response to this question, which is often raised, see our blog post “Do we have time to shift values?“
What evidence is there that using extrinsic appeals, or mixing extrinsic and intrinsic appeals, is undermining our work?
Despite the body of evidence that shows that incentives can succeed in increasing participation, response rates, or productivity, there is an increasingly robust case that this only applies to particular contexts. Two strands of literature – from economics and social psychology – have independently reached the same conclusion: offering an extrinsic reward can actually discourage the desired response. The thought of extrinsic reward appears to erode intrinsic motivation, reflecting the see-saw relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic values.
The first academic discussion of this was in the 1970s, when it was suggested that offering monetary rewards decreased the incidence of blood donations. More recently, it was found that – rather than discouraging parents from picking up their children late from day-care – fining them actually increased the number of late arrivals. Studies into giving incentives for volunteering have found that although there is more volunteering when rewards are offered, the amount of time contributed by each volunteer significantly decreases. And schoolchildren given performance incentives collected fewer donations for charity than those not told they would be rewarded.
The conclusions of one of many such studies are illuminating. A referendum was to be held in Switzerland to decide where toxic waste sites should be located, and two researchers carried out a number of large surveys of whether people would be happy to have the waste sites near their own communities. The population was very well informed, and were aware of the risks involved. When the offer of compensation was suggested, 25% of people said yes; without the offer, 50% did. These striking results led the researchers to conclude that thinking about civic responsibility alone was a stronger incentive than thinking about civic responsibility plus money: two motivations which appeared to compete, rather than complement. The intrinsic motivation was clearly present, but the extrinsic focus suppressed it – an effect also known in the literature as ‘crowding-out’.
The values research further suggests that the continued encouragement of certain values strengthens them and suppresses or weakens their opposites. Similarly, the lack of opportunity for the expression of certain values will weaken them. This may mean that not only is there a temporary, self-concerned response after an extrinsic appeal, but that the continued use of such appeals will actually strengthen extrinsic values over time, and suppress concern for the wellbeing of others and the environment.
Can we have an impact on values? Do we really have the power to do so?
If values are as important as the evidence suggests, we cannot afford not to work to strengthen intrinsic values. Further, although no single group or organisation is likely to have the ability to make much of an impact on values on its own, collaboration within and across different sectors is likely to have a substantial effect.
Do we need to change values if we can just change behaviour?
Given the scale and importance of the issues we face, many of us have believed that the ends justify the means. Changing behaviours (or policies) is sometimes seen as key, whatever motivations or methods are harnessed to achieve this goal. The values research, however, suggests that continually compromising on the means risks ultimately placing the desired ends out of reach – by strengthening values that set back efforts towards more systemic change.
Behavioural and policy changes remain important, of course, and we will sometimes need to appeal to extrinsic values to bring them about. An understanding of values simply allows us to place these changes in a broader context – carefully considering the trade-offs we will inevitably face.
Are you saying we shouldn’t talk about things in economic terms?
This approach does not suggest that any and all talk of questions of cost (say) must be dispensed with. Rather, we must be careful not to allow these considerations to dominate our discussions of the advantages and disadvantages of different policies – as though investment opportunities or the loss to national GDP were the overriding concerns. Unfortunately this practice has become fairly common, as many groups have attempted to align their priorities with those of the mainstream media, of political and economic elites.
Should we try to change people’s values – is this ethical?
No campaign, communication, policy or institution is ever value-free. Recognising this – and the impact of values on behaviour – the question instead becomes which values do we want to endorse?
How strong is the evidence behind the circumplex?
Schwartz built on the research of a social psychologist called Milton Rokeach, who had been carrying out research into values since the 1960s. This body of literature is now well-established and robust. Schwartz’s model has been used in thousands of subsequent academic papers (the original article alone has been cited over 3,700 times). Hundreds of papers – amounting to literally 100,000s of participants – have also tested the relationships between the values, using different lab and field methodologies across over 80 countries and in 48 different languages, the vast majority of these papers confirming the relationships Schwartz outlines.
In addition to asking people what they valued, researchers have verified the relationships between values using peoples’ friends’, partners’ and families’ perceptions of their values;  and tests to see how easily a value-relevant word is recalled from memory. They have also tested the validity of the model using correlations between behaviours associated with the value sets, such as observing that prioritising tradition and conformity tend to result in similar behavioural tendencies, have some overlap with highly security-driven individuals, and very little overlap with highly stimulation-driven individuals.
The model is also the basis of the values component of the European Social Survey, the largest trans-European social survey, involving almost every national academic funding body in Europe, and collecting data from around 30 countries every two years. The World Values Survey, ‘the world’s most comprehensive investigation of political and sociocultural change’ also draws on the Schwartz model.
In short, it’s pretty robust. That’s not to say it is a complete theory of human motivation – rather, it’s an approximate but well-founded model of how human values relate to each other, with measurable impacts on our attitudes and behaviours.
Is this just about tweaking communications?
No. A values-based approach requires a ‘big picture’ perspective: looking at many more drivers of values and behaviour than simply communications, including policies, institutions and lived experience more broadly.
So everything has to be about intrinsic values?
Not necessarily always. The third, private and public sectors are brimming with expertise on engaging people and effecting change, and this knowledge must be built on. Values are simply another important element to consider. Techniques used to engage people in the first instance may be recognisably unhelpful for more sustained engagement in the longer term; and their impacts on people’s values should be carefully considered. But offering small rewards, such as appealing to people’s desire to look good or to get a free lunch, might be useful in ‘getting people in the door’ – while the overall, take-away experience could be centred more on community, creativity or other intrinsic values.
This sounds similar to the approaches of the 1970s – often perceived as ‘moral crusades’. Are you saying we should go back to this?
No. These insights from psychological research ought to provide us with new ways of working – a step forwards rather than backwards. Rather than only ever harping on certain topics, we need to find different ways to approach different groups. We should avoid tailoring what we do to appeal to the dominant values of different groups regardless of what these values are, though. Rather, we should find creative, sensitive, intelligent, ways – which may well vary across different groups – to engage the intrinsic values people already hold.
We have built up relationships with those in positions of power; and we still need to engage those with influence. Aren’t appeals to intrinsic values going to alienate them – or simply fall on deaf ears? And doesn’t this mean we need to appeal to their existing priorities?
As we have suggested above, because of the distinction between behavioural outcomes and underlying motives and values, a person can have achieved a great deal and be in a position of relative power but be primarily motivated by concern for the wellbeing of others. Even if they are highly extrinsically-oriented or more concerned with power itself, since every person holds every value, they may nevertheless respond to sensitively-pitched appeals to intrinsic values.
Nevertheless, in addressing those within institutions constrained from acting in more intrinsically-motivated ways, some will regard choosing to ‘speak their language’ (of economic costs and benefits, for instance) as a tolerable trade-off if it helps to secure significant changes.
This approach may sometimes run the risk of causing collateral damage, however. The kinds of appeals with which powerful groups are surrounded may well ‘trickle down’ through the media. And if policies are rooted in purely economic concerns, the ‘policy feedback’ they generate may help entrench these values even further. To the extent that we can provide countervailing messages, we may be able to help alter these institutional cultures. Alternatively, we may simply choose not to engage, but rather to try to exert external pressure as a strong popular movement. All these considerations will have to be carefully weighed in such cases.
Are you saying people who have power cannot be intrinsically motivated?
No – and further, leadership and those operating in positions of power can play important roles in pushing for and implementing change. However, an understanding of how values work highlights the significant challenges faced by people in leadership roles – given that there will be constant pressures towards ambition and concern for image or success in attaining and maintaining leadership positions. These challenges are not insurmountable, but they will require self-awareness and reflection on the part of people in leadership roles to overcome them, and they should be supported by critical friends around them.
Doesn’t this analysis divide values and people into good and bad? Or even left-wing and right-wing?
Values are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in and of themselves. They are each thought to express different needs, and are therefore each necessary for different purposes. Generally speaking, however, the priority we give to some values relative to others is associated with particular social and behavioural outcomes.
None of us can be considered ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as individuals, either. All of us will hold all of the values on the circumplex to some extent. Which of them come to the fore at any given moment will depend on the situation we happen to be in (and this effect will be strengthened over time).
There are a few meaningful associations between values and ideologies, so this connection cannot be entirely dismissed. However, the circumplex cannot simply be mapped onto the political spectrum, and a range of values will inevitably crop up across ideological divisions.
Aren’t there more important factors in communication than values in any case?
This approach does not advocate throwing out everything else we know about effective communication (or other aspects of our work). Nevertheless, it does suggest that alongside and underlying these considerations should be a clearly thought-out set of values and frames.
This may mean rethinking the way some areas are handled. Since people are most influenced by those they relate to and respect (including family and peers), messengers will remain important, for example. But the use of attention-grabbing celebrity spokespeople may need to be reconsidered – particularly if they are most closely associated with wealth, social status and other self-enhancement values.
The settings in which we interact with people will also remain important. And we will still need to present positive visions that engage and inspire. A values-conscious approach should aim to make these positive visions sustainable, and align them with values that won’t ultimately undermine that vision.