If you’re a typical Brit, you may love Strictly Come Dancing, worry about the household budget and quite fancy your boss’s job. But you’ll also value friendship, honesty and justice above image, money and success.
Our new report – Perceptions Matter: the Common Cause UK Values Survey – published today, finds that old or young, north or south, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, male or female, UK citizens attach greater importance to compassionate values than selfish values. Overall, 74% of UK citizens prioritise their values in this way. And this really does seem to be the case – the design of our survey enabled us to dismiss the possibility that people were simply reluctant to own up to holding selfish values.
But if you are a typical Brit, you’ll also be convinced that other people hold these compassionate values to be less important than is really the case. When we asked people about the values that they thought that a typical fellow citizen holds to be important, 77% underestimated the importance attached to compassionate values and overestimated the importance attached to selfish values. “There’s a focus on earning money,” we were told by one survey participant in Essex. “There’s a culture of self, and not a culture of responsibility. It’s all about me, my needs, not society’s need.”
This is important because we found that the more people underestimate the significance that others attach to compassionate values, the less likely they are to have voted in recent elections, the lower their intentions to volunteer or support the work of a charity, and the more alienated they are prone to feel.
Another participant, a woman from Wales, provided a clue as to why this might be. “It’s a very materialistic society that we live in,” she told us. “I don’t like it very much. I try to express my values as much as possible but, to live with other people, you just try and play the roles as much as possible.”
Perhaps that’s the problem: people “play the roles”, reluctant to act in line with the compassionate values they hold to be most important, because this would leave them feeling out-of-kilter with what they think they know about wider society. This reluctance would in turn deepen the widespread misperception that most people care less for compassionate values than is actually the case.
As this spiral gathers energy, people are left tragically and needlessly less civically engaged and more socially alienated. Your misperceptions of others, in other words, may hold you back in helping to mount collective responses to the major challenges that confront UK society today like child poverty, care for the elderly and climate change.
Can this spiral be reversed? Yes. The first step is to talk to people with the conviction that the things they value aren’t so different from the things that you probably value most yourself. That is, by talking as though a sense of vocation is more important than take-home pay; as though caring for those in need is more important than weeding out welfare cheats; as though educating the next generation to be compassionate and open-minded is more important than teaching the skills needed for global competitiveness.
When you talk to people in this way – whether as an employee, a manager, a job-seeker, a politician, a student, a celebrity or a teacher – you’ll not only connect with the values that matter most, to most people, but you’ll also encourage others to express these values themselves.