How Values Work
How Values Work
By Common Cause /

Following decades of research and hundreds of cross-cultural studies, psychologists have identified a number of consistently-occurring human values.

Early researchers into human motivations discovered a surprising consistency in the things people said they valued in life. After testing this finding many times and across many countries and cultures, they put together a list of repeatedly occurring values.

Rather than occurring randomly, these values were found to be related to each other. Some were unlikely to be prioritised strongly at the same time by the same individual; others were often prioritised strongly at the same time.

The researchers mapped this relationship according to these associations, as presented below.The closer any one value ‘point’ is to another, the more likely that both will be of similar importance to the same person. By contrast, the further a value is from another, the less likely that both will be seen as similarly important. This does not mean that people will not value both cleanliness and freedom, for example – rather, they will in general tend to prioritise one over the other. Values can thus be said to have neighbours and opposites. Based on these patterns of association – as well as their broad similarities – they were then classified into ten groups.

Figure 2. Statistical analysis (dimensional smallest space analysis) of value structure across 68 countries and 64,271 people.

Figure 2. Statistical analysis (dimensional smallest space analysis) of value structure across 68 countries and 64,271 people.

The ten groups are described as follows:


Table 1. Definitions of the ten values groups.

These groups can be represented more simply in a circular diagram, called a circumplex:

Figure 3. Schwartz’s value circumplex.

The ten groups of values can then be divided along two major axes, as shown above:

  1. self-enhancement (based on the pursuit of personal status and success) as opposed to self-transcendence (generally concerned with the wellbeing of others);
  2. openness to change (centred on independence and readiness for change) as opposed toconservation values (not related to environmental or nature conservation, but to ‘order, self-restriction, preservation of the past and resistance to change’).

Much of the ongoing research on values simply supports some commonsense, intuitive ideas. Some values or motivations are likely to be associated; others less so. When we are most concerned for others’ welfare, we are very unlikely to be strongly interested in our own status or financial success (and vice versa). When we are at our most hedonistic or thrill-seeking, we are unlikely simultaneously to be strongly motivated by respect for tradition. But it also reveals that these relationships are not unique to our culture or society. They seem to recur, with remarkable consistency, all over the world.

Features of values

Some of the most important features of values are summarised below:

Values are universal

The circumplex is not an astrological chart, and values are not character types. Each of us is motivated by all of these values, but to differing degrees.

Engaging values

Values can be temporarily ‘engaged’, when brought to mind by certain communications or experiences – and this tends to affect our attitudes and behaviours. When reminded of benevolence values, for instance, we are more likely to respond positively to requests for help or donations.

Our values therefore not only change at different points of our lives, but also day-to-day.

The bleedover effect

Values that appear next to each other on the circumplex are more likely to be prioritised to the same extent by a person. Moreover, when one value is temporarily engaged, it tends to ‘bleed over’, strengthening neighbouring values and associated behaviours.

This relationship can produce some surprising results. People reminded of generosity, self-direction and family, for example, have been found to be more likely to support pro-environmental policies than those reminded of financial success and status – without any mention of the environment being made.

The see-saw effect

Whereas neighbouring values are compatible, values on opposite sides of the circumplex are rarely held strongly by the same person. When one value is temporarily engaged, opposing values (and behaviours associated with them) tend to be suppressed. As with a see-saw, when one value rises, the other tends to fall.

This has been illustrated consistently in experiments; for instance people asked to sort words related to achievement values (such as ‘ambition’ and ‘success’) from other words were less likely to volunteer their time to help a researcher (a behaviour associated with benevolence values).

Values aren’t characteristics

While the terms used to describe values are often also used in everyday speech to describe characteristics or outcomes, it’s important to distinguish between the two. While there may well be a correlation between some motivations and seemingly related outcomes, this is by no means always the case. Pleasurable activities are not necessarily motivated by hedonism (you can experience pleasure while pursuing any of your values), while a powerful social movement may be motivated more by social justice and equality (universalism values) than by power. There is even some evidence that artists motivated by their work – rather than by fame, rewards, or a desire to ‘prove themselves’ – ultimately tend to be the most successful.

In this and similar cases, achievement as a motivation can hinder achievement as an outcome.

It’s also important to be clear about the – often quite specific – definitions of each of these values. Desiring ‘achievement’ in the sense of ‘personal success through demonstrating competence according to social standards’, for instance, is quite different from a desire to ‘achieve’ advances for equality, world peace or environmental protection (all universalism values).

Values and goals

Our values are related to our goals – another way of measuring and categorising the things we strive for in our lives. Goals can also be grouped on a circumplex according to the compatibilities and conflicts between them.Two of these groupings – intrinsic and extrinsic – are particularly important, and have also been found to recur across cultures.The distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic goals is similar to that between self-transcendence and self-enhancement values. The two categorisations are not completely interchangeable, but for the sake of simplicity we will combine the two concepts into ‘intrinsic values’ and ‘extrinsic values’. Extrinsic values are centred on external approval or rewards; intrinsic values on more inherently rewarding pursuits.

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How Values Work