The Value of Values

education to buy

I have been reading a lot recently about how values affect and guide choice. My focus has been largely on choices in the consumption market place: cars, food, iPods, shoes, houses and so on. I can't, however, stop thinking about how values are playing out in the current political campaigns. In yet another case of synchronicity, I stumbled onto a new study/analysis, Common Cause, prepared for the WWF. I mentioned it a few posts ago.

In that earlier post, I noted only that reliance on rationality had led progressive causes astray. The research discussed in the WWF report makes a strong case for deeply held values as the more important driver for people's actions, whether buying a car or casting a vote. So much for Jefferson's informed citizens. "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government." (Jefferson to Richard Price, 1789.)

The implications of this finding, while not entirely new or surprising, are vast, affecting the way we educate our children, run our businesses, set government policy, campaign for any cause—-political or otherwise, and more. The facts of the matter count for less than the way one's action express the values shaping one's life goals. It's like the values are the genotype and the characteristic behaviors are the phenotype. I had a sense of this when I wrote my book. I knew that rationality, the search for the right answer, could not explain the way we actually act collectively. If it were the case, we could not ever explain the self-destructive path we are on.

Since the earlier post, I have been reading that report and related work in earnest. I guess I would be OK with this theory if I could find a way to make it work for the causes aligned with my own values. Rationally, I believe them to be the "right" causes, but maybe my rational beliefs are driven by my values, not the other way around. What I find most disturbing is the actual set of values that these researchers find in current cultures. Here is a neat way of presenting them I cribbed from the WWF report.

values wheel.png

The axes need a little explaining. Intrinsic refers to goals internal to the self. Extrinsic goals are meant to elicit rewards or praise from others. Self-transcendence refers to goals related to something "higher" than merely obtaining pleasure. Physical self goals are just the opposite, relating to corporeal pleasure. The significance of this particular way of presenting values (circumplex) found by surveys is that values clusters tend to drive out those diametrically opposite.

The values that are most aligned with sustainability (community, spirituality, affiliation. health, and safety) lie on the right hand side opposite to the set comprise the dominant cultural values in the US: popularity and image (narcissistic), financial success, and conformity. It is ironic that popularity, image, and wealth do not equate to more happiness. It is the spiritual and connectedness of community and family that show up as more important in many studies. The messages in the current campaign are mostly designed to light up the values on the left hand side.

I have only time and space tonight to present the gloomy side. The report and other works offer remedies to the present situation. More later.