Blog post

What about people for whom extrinsic values are particularly important?

A great deal of the research that we have brought together on this site points to the advantages, on aggregate, of appealing to intrinsic values in communicating to people about social and environmental problems – and the potential costs of appealing to extrinsic values.

But, of course, people aren’t all the same, and it may be that there are some people who are simply impervious to communications which appeal to intrinsic values. We’ve argued that this is unlikely, because we all express all these values at different times – life, afterall, is a ‘dance around the values circle’!

But the original group of people who supported the Common Cause report – from COIN, CPRE, Friends of the Earth, Oxfam and WWF – wanted to test this further. So we enlisted the help of some psychologists (at Cardiff University, and Knox College, Illinois) and linguists (at Lancaster University).

We have published the results of this research today. This report, Communicating bigger-than-self-problems to extrinsically-oriented audiences, demonstrates that a simple process of asking people for whom extrinsic values are of particular significance to reflect on the importance that they attach to intrinsic values can lead to marked changes in the way that they subsequently talk about bigger-than-self problems. For example, once their intrinsic values are engaged in this way, people who are normally more extrinsically-oriented are more likely to voice concerns about equality and justice, the moral imperative to address bigger-than-self problems, or to express a feeling of responsibility to others. Conversely, they are less likely to invoke self-interest or financial concerns.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that we can afford to be indifferent to variations between audiences. There are many ways in which different approaches might be used to engage different audiences on intrinsic values. But it does provide further evidence that it is wrong to imagine that people for whom extrinsic values are particularly important can only be engaged through communications focused on self-interest, wealth or social-status.

Communicating bigger-than-self problems to extrinsically-oriented audiences

Communicating bigger-than-self problems to extrinsically-oriented audiences

Chilton, P., Crompton, T., Kasser, T., Maio, G. & Nolan, A. | January 25, 2012

A report summarizing the results of an interdisciplinary research project on expressions of social and environmental concern by people who attach greater than average importance to values of popularity, preserving public image, or wealth. This experiment was conducted jointly by researchers in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University and the Department of Linguistics at Lancaster University. It works with people selected from a large pool of citizens from the Cardiff area who attach higher-than-average importance to extrinsic values, and explores the effects of priming them with intrinsic values before interviewing them about climate change, loss of the British countryside, child mortality in developing countries, and domestic child poverty.

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Tom Crompton

About Tom Crompton

I'm Change Strategist at WWF-UK. For five years I headed WWF-International's Trade and Investment Programme (working on World Trade Organization issues, for example). While I was (and still am) convinced that international trade policy is crucially important in sustainability terms, I was frustrated by the glacial pace of change on this agenda - and the fact that even those trade negotiators I got to know who were personally quite 'radical' nonetheless felt impotent in a system where there was so little political space to pursue the changes that are needed. This led me to ask how organisations like WWF might begin to work to help create the political space for more ambitious change. What leads to more vocal expressions of public concern about sustainability issues? What motivates people to bring more pressure to bear on their elected leaders? These questions led to work with social psychologists and political scientists, and the publication of a series of reports: "Weathercocks and Signposts: the environment movement at a crossroads" (2008); "Simple and Painless? The limitations of spillover in environmental campaigning" (with John Thogersen, 2008), and "Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity" (with Tim Kasser, 2009). These pieces of work culminated naturally in our new report, "Common Cause".
  • Adam Lofting

    Hi Tom,

    This sounds like essentially good news about the intrinsic capacity of the human race. But, here’s a half thought/question from me to follow up… 

    If everyone can be moved towards either intrinsic or extrinsic values via exposure to either intrinsic or extrinsic messages and ideas (in their myriad of forms), the resulting balance of intrinsic to extrinsic values at a societal level will always boil down to the overall balance of intrinsic or extrinsic values in the messages that surround us. This is where I become less optimistic – as the most pervasive, consistent and optimised messages surrounding us today are from advertising; an ecosystem which perpetually surfaces the most profitable messages to the fore, and the most profitable messages, I believe, will favour extrinsic values, which in turn may cause the kind a feedback loop that changes a society.

    So I guess my question is, does the intrinsic/extrinsic bias and scale of advertising overpower any tweaking of messaging that can be done at a grassroots level? And if so, what does that mean for the people who want to make things better?

    I’ll leave it on that note, as you may have addressed this in ‘Think Of Me As Evil’, which I’ll have a look at this evening.