Different values, and the psychological relationships between them, have important effects on our behaviours and attitudes. Some of them reveal a deep connection between many of the issues we work on. However, other factors (contextual, environmental, and habitual) play a role too – suggesting that it is still important to address structures and policies.
Values and the issues we face
Prioritising intrinsic values such as freedom, creativity and self-respect (self-direction values), or equality and unity with nature (universalism values) is closely related to political engagement, concern about social justice, environmentally-friendly behaviours, and lower levels of prejudice.
In contrast, placing more importance on extrinsic values is generally associated with higher levels of prejudice; less concern about the environment and corresponding behaviours; weak (or absent) concern about human rights; more manipulative behaviour and less helpfulness.
What motivates us also seems to affect our levels of wellbeing. Extrinsic values – such as wealth, or preservation of public image – tend to undermine our levels of personal wellbeing. In general, the esteem of others or pursuit of material goods seem to be unreliable sources of satisfaction in life. Other, more inherently rewarding pursuits – such as those found in intrinsic motivations and self-direction values – seem to provide a firmer foundation.
It is common to see people segmented into distinct groups or dichotomies (right/left, for/against, good/bad). The evidence, however, suggests that people are far more complex than this and are unlikely to subscribe purely to one set of values or another. Rather, everyone holds all of the values, and goals, but places more importance on some than others. Each of the values will therefore have an impact on any individual’s behaviour and attitudes at different times.
Values are an important driver of behaviour (but there are other factors at work too)
Our values, then, are strongly related to various kinds of behaviour. People who hold tradition values strongly are more likely to observe national holidays and customs. Stronger achievement values are associated with stress-related behaviours (such as taking on too many commitments); stronger hedonism values with over-eating.
It is clear, however, that values are not the sole determinant of our behaviour: in fact, our actions can at times be fairly divergent from our dominant values. The failure of witnesses to intervene in emergencies – such as an act of violence or an accident – is one well-known example. Equally, though we may hold pro-environmental and pro-social values, we might not always act in ways that would protect either people or the environment (we might not always buy organic or fairtrade produce, for example). A highly intrinsically-oriented person may also be motivated at times by extrinsic rewards such as personal recognition.
Research supports some fairly commonsense explanations for this gap between values and actions:
- For a value to guide a behaviour or attitude, we must see that value as relevant. We may believe in equality for women, for example, but fail to recognise this value as relevant in our responses towards other groups.
- A value must not be in competition with another value that is more strongly held, more strongly engaged, or seen as more relevant at the time.
- Our level of control also matters. There are times when we are powerless to help another person or find that we have to overcome enormous obstacles in order to make the right choices. If our council does not provide facilities for recycling, a decent transport service, or safe roads for cycling, then these green behaviors will be difficult to sustain (though these constraints will also be in part a product of the values that are dominant in society).
Clearly, then, various aspects of our society may constrain people from expressing the intrinsic values they hold. Education, the media, and social pressures are likely to influence the kinds of values seen as relevant to particular situations – and the normalisation of consumer culture will shape social norms and expected behaviours. Equally, large levels of personal debt will significantly constrain people’s scope for action.
We use values in making judgements
Again, although there are other factors at play, the judgements we make are often related to our values: whether we support a political party or policy, or what media we engage with.
The relationship between values has an important effect on our judgements. Because of the tension between them, when opposing values are engaged at the same time, we tend to react with conflicting feelings. In the case of anti-terrorism ‘security measures’, a person might value both ‘freedom’, (a self-direction value), and ‘national security’ (a security value), experiencing ambivalence when their conflicting attitudes are brought to bear. This has also been shown in some people’s ambivalent attitudes towards homosexuality and gay rights, political candidates, minority groups, eating meat, and obesity – where two opposing sets of values pull towards two conflicting attitudes.
This relationship also seems to affect our responses to political rhetoric. People have been shown to find statements referring to compatible values more persuasive than those appealing to opposing values – whether or not they themselves rated the values as important. Similarly, we often react with mixed feelings to people who strongly hold opposing values – even if one is very close to our own, or we approve of both.
Given the impact of values on our responses, it seems useful to look at what influences values themselves, and how they develop and change over time.
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