On having more than two sides: how do you describe values?

Common Cause draws on research by an academic called Shalom Schwartz, who divides values into four overarching groups: openness-to-change, self-transcendence, self-enhancement, and conservation. Yeah, right, they’re a bit of a mouthful.


It also draws on work from researchers such as Grouzet and Kasser who use a similar model but that relates to goals.

Kasser Remade


When we’re talking about Common Cause, we often just talk about two values groups that combine the two: ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’. This terminology is pretty familiar to many people now, and it’s particularly useful for telling a simple story of how our society has become more materialistic, more unequal and more selfish – shifting from intrinsic to extrinsic – like George Monbiot recently did in the Guardian.


But as with any simple story, it’s incomplete.

Here are some of the comments we sometimes hear:

a) “The terms are confusing” Intrinsic & extrinsic just sound quite similar, and also intrinsic sounds like it’s about what’s internal (i.e the self) and extrinsic what’s external (i.e. society, the natural world), which is a bit confusing, initially at least.

b) “This is binary / moralistic” People often paraphrase the message as intrinsic good and extrinsic bad. This is an over-simplification and often gives the mistaken impression that we’re making judgements about one side or the other, as usually happens in a simple two-sided model (though obviously some values are more associated with positive social and environmental outcomes).

c) “What about the other values?” Stimulation, hedonism, conformity, tradition and security values are neither intrinsic or extrinsic – but there are also interesting stories to be told about all of them. Security, in particular, is often singled out – sometimes mistaken for an ‘extrinsic’ value because of its proximity and because we often point out that when it’s engaged it shifts people towards materialism, prejudice and economic self-interest.

So we started wondering whether there were better ways of describing values.

Our discussions have included the following suggestions:

a) We could rename ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’
For example, this could be Common-interest vs. Self-interest / We-values vs. Me-values / Compassion vs. Competition… or something better. But this only really addresses the first (and, maybe partially, the second) criticism.

b) We could rename Schwartz’s four values groups
… maybe Care, Change, Power & Stability or Justice, Autonomy, Competition & Security. You can read an example in this blog about equality and discrimination across Europe.

When we’ve done work in areas such as human rights, equality and social justice, the values that don’t fit into the ‘intrinsic’ or ‘extrinsic’ boxes are often just as interesting. For example, stimulation values are associated with support for human rights laws, and tradition and security values with discrimination. When we were writing this report on the relationship between our values and prejudice, we found that talking about intrinsic and extrinsic just didn’t seem to cut it.

4 parts of us

c) We could talk about both models more. And talk about the interesting things about both!

d) We could keep things the way they are. Has the horse bolted? Do people get that there are nuances without it being spelled out more?

How do you describe values? Do you like the intrinsic / extrinsic terminology, and do you have any problems with it?

We’d really like to hear what you think – take the poll and join the discussion below…

[yop_poll id=”4″]




Elena BlackmoreOn having more than two sides: how do you describe values?


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  • Osbert Lancaster - July 30, 2014 reply

    Good idea to open up this debate, the points you raise come up a lot for me when I work with people on Common Cause. I think raising the profile of the openness to change / conservation axis is important, especially as working change is central to much of my work in this area. And surely a pro-social, pro-environment shift in society must involve change, so we need to pay more attention to this axis.

    For what it’s worth I think the suggestions “care, power etc” are a little too simplistic; we shouldn’t be afraid of two to three word phrases so long as they are clear: e.g. “openness to change” works well; but “greater than self” doesn’t quite get there. “Self enhancement” is clear enough, but “self transcendence” is either obscure or hippyish! Verb and noun is perhaps what we need for each.

    So: agree terms for the four groups and make them clearer – neither overly academic nor too simplistic, but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!

  • Rebecca Nestor - July 30, 2014 reply

    It’s good to see you exploring this. I’ve voted for renaming the values groups, and I also think it’s helpful to keep talking about the complexity of the model. For me the risk of the binary ‘intrinsic-good, extrinsic-bad’ discourse is huge. Let’s rejoice in human complexity!

  • Mark Chenery - July 30, 2014 reply

    We absolutely need to talk about the four categories. I was always slightly uncomfortable using a binary model that simply ignored a whole bunch of values that really mattered to people and organisations seeking to challenge the status quo (“openness to change” v “conformity”).

    In fact, recently, I’ve started to use the four categories and cheekily talked about them as:
    – Intrinsic v extrinsic
    – Openness to change v Conformity

    Of course, it made it a bit akward that there were overlaps between “Self Direction” and the “Intrinsic” grouping. But then there’s also that overlap with “Hedonism” between “Openness to Change” and “Self-Enhancement” in Schwartz’s four categories.

    Anyway, as to the future, I’d strongly recommend using the four categories, but renaming them. And not just any four names, but names that clearly show the two oppositional “axis”:
    – Self-Transcendence v Self-Enhancement
    – Openness to change v Conformity

    Names like “Care, Power, Security and Change” simply don’t capture the oppositional nature of the categories. What about something more like:
    – Me v We values (love these names)
    – Open v Closed OR Stability v Change OR Follow v Freedom values (not wedded to these, but you get my drift)

    I’m so glad we’re having this conversation!

  • Davida Ginter - July 31, 2014 reply

    Agree it’s an important discussion – the four categories are much more representing the entire spectrum rather than the only two (intrinsic vs. extrinsic). More over, they are far more understandable, especially if they are given new names such as: care, change, etc…
    We’re dealing with communication here – communicating values towards a more sustainable society – therefore we should be as clear as possible in our own communication!

  • Davida Ginter - July 31, 2014 reply

    I agree it’s an important discussion. The four categories seem to be more relevant since they are covering the entire spectrum, especially if they are given simple names such as care, change, etc.
    More over, intrinsic and extrinsic (at least when translated into Hebrew..) are very much confusing.
    We’re dealing with communication here – communicating values towards a better and sustainable society – therefore we should be as clear as possible in our own communication!

  • Vital Systems - July 31, 2014 reply

    Yes, great questions that highlight the importance of appropriate _framing_ for fundamental values models. For me, intrinsic / extrinsic is a bit of a ‘red herring’ dichotomy here. The above spectrum of values can be both / and / either, depending on the frame of reference and the relevant inquiry. E.g., creativity as a movement to express or invent may be inherently rewarding on some levels, while simultaneously and inextricably fulfilling a culturally formatted need for belonging, respect, wealth, etc.

    If we take for a moment solely the intrinsic frame, of agents subject to a range of conscious and subconscious drivers (mediated or not by external environs and outlook), the best generalized categorization scheme I’ve devised is thus:

    **SECURITY** (basic comfort, safety, provisions, connections)

    **IDENTITY** (personal and social contexts of perspective and discernment)

    **GROWTH** (urge to acquire, expand, learn, participate, propagate)

    **CREATION** (expressive actions, innovation, evolution, presence)

    **SERVICE** (partnership, subordination, communion, spirituality, ecstasy)

    This approach is based on understanding any given action / event / choice as a ‘story molecule’ that can be factored by who – where – when – what – why – how metadata elements. Conventional discussion of ‘values’ can cover the range of what, why, how aspects, but if we’re talking about basic motivating metaphysical force-principles (and not external / conceptual goals or selective strategy), we’re in the pre-rational domain of “WHY”. See the following visual taxonomy for more of what this leaves to the What and How segments, which correlate more towards the ‘extrinsic’ framing:

    Can I suggest that anyone who wishes to play with some ideas and variants on this topic join a Metamap canvas workspace to look at different labels, structures, and relations? I’ve found it’s a great collaborative diagramming tool to help make sense of complex design conversations. There’s a growing knowledge / pattern base already accessible on the platform, along some of these lines.

    See here, for a start:

    and related example:

    Anyone who’d like to join there can do so at with code y9lcs947. It would be great to see a bunch of useful ‘frames’ (a la metamaps) evolve to work with many of the same basic concepts and processes for various applications and contexts. I don’t imagine there is an ultimate, empirical answer here after all!


  • Greg Maio - August 4, 2014 reply

    To describe complex behaviour, retention of a minimal level of complexity is essential. The four Schwartz domains, in whichever names suit best, help to provide a minimal level. Moving to two domains risks eventually being caricatured in a way that is harmful (e.g., yin v yang, good v bad, the Dark Side vs the Light Side). Although some research and discussion may focus on two poles of one dimension out of necessity, I’d be concerned about moving to describing a model that only focused on one dimension. Perhaps there is an important distinction between the language used to present findings on one dimension, and the description of the background research. If they are kept separate, the background is more credibly and accurately retained.

  • Niki Harre - August 6, 2014 reply

    A few comments:
    The diagram with self-transcendence/physical self and intrinsic/extrinsic is really hard to follow. I can’t make any intuitive sense of why particular characteristics fall where they do in the quadrants this creates. The diagrams above and below this are clear.
    Regarding intrinsic/extrinsic being confusing and disliking binaries… I think it is really hard to pick utterly non-confusing terms because these are dividing up the psychological space in a slightly different way to what we are used to. I face the same problem with infinite/finite values. I’ve realised people often take the words “infinite” and “finite” too literally and ignore that they are about the values-component of a phenomena, not the phenomena in itself. (So water is sometimes argued to be of finite value because it is limited, not because it is seen as primarily of value for its utility, which is the “correct” meaning of a finite value). Sounds like you have the same problem with intrinsic/extrinsic. Re the binary issue, some people always complain about binaries. I feel they are useful – and given the male/female binary which is central to all cultures, probably pretty core to how people think – despite rhetoric suggesting it is culturally confined. Finally, on this, maybe intrinsic values are better? In a sense, isn’t that intrinsic to the definition, that they are primary, ends in themselves etc? This doesn’t make extrinsic values bad, but it does make them less good, by definition. No, please don’t rename intrinsic/extrinsic as a me versus we type values. This implies that me and we are at odds with each other – which we don’t have to be. I like Ralph’s cartoon a lot. But should “autonomy” be “creativity”? I think autonomy can cut across all the dimensions.

  • Rachel Adatia - August 6, 2014 reply

    It’s an interesting discussion … in the end I opted for keeping ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ because I understand these as making the link to the psychological research re. motivation (e.g. extrinsic – motivated more from outside the individual, driven by external rewards) – but of course there are cases where this doesn’t ‘work’ either. However, for me it is a useful idea.

    I think we should not get too hung up on the words – everyone will have different words for these values/goals (and their own ‘frames’), especially those whose first language is not English. I’d say rather keep the explanation as a simple way of reflecting the research and allow people in a workshop to change/adapt the actual words themselves as they make them more meaningful for themselves. Isn’t the main thing to get the ‘gist’ rather than to write a definitive picture of these complex ideas in words?

    However, having said that, in the diagram the words ‘extrinsic’ / ‘intrinsic’ could be less dominant (not bold) and perhaps linked with a note about the link to motivation/’why’?? Also the fact that there is a gap at the sides of the ‘extrinsic/intrinsic’ ‘curves’ is important I think as it implies it is not ‘complete’ …

    The other axis -“openness to change”/ “conservation” is important – I prefer the word “conformity” rather than “conservation” (as conservation links to ‘protecting’ wildlife (unity with nature)/preserving built heritage etc….)

  • James Payne - August 6, 2014 reply

    Great discussion – check out an approach that uses affective neuroscience as its starting point here:
    By grounding the approach in a more objective/biological understanding of behaviour it removes ideological fighting around how people ‘should’ behave, instead seeking to understand the full range of intrinsic human motivation.

  • Rachel Adatia - August 14, 2014 reply

    how about simply “inner” (intrinsic) and “outer” (extrinsic) – idea from a couple of posters I saw in a meditation centre that was about qualities that can be strengthened from enhancing ‘inner consciousness’ (tolerance, compassion etc), and qualities that were linked to paying too much attention to ‘outer consciousness’ – (I may not have explained that quite right, but the terms ‘inner/outer struck me as useful …

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