What are values?

If we want to deal with what’s important in people’s lives, and use it to make positive change, we have to study values. This is not about what values are good and what aren’t. It’s about the fact that you can study what values people have—if you’re smart about it. Values are people’s most important life priorities, the bases for what they actually do, what they want to accomplish, and how they want to be. When we live out our values, we commit our actions to the important matters of our lives, not the trivial. Ideas like “individual character” are built around deeply held values, and the meanings and worldviews associated with them. When we talk about good societies and democratic politics, we’re always talking about culturally held, and shared, values and worldviews. Worldviews are sets of beliefs about ‘how things work,’ ‘how life is,’ and ‘what’s objectively important in life.’ When we talk about cultural differences across nations (or subculture differences within a country), the core of those differences often grows out of particular values and worldviews held in common within a people, or an ethnic group, not just the way they dress and talk, or quaint customs.

Values are the deepest and slowest-changing indicators we can measure with surveys, and worldviews are almost as deep, while attitudes and opinions are closer to the social surface of life, more superficial, labile and faster to change. Values and worldviews are said to be ‘deeper’ when they are part of who we think we are, are more strongly held, matter more to how we live our lives, and are more a part of our personal ‘systems of meaning and important life priorities’. The more we believe that our ideas, beliefs and opinions are ‘who I am,’ the more tightly we hold onto them.  Not only are they slower to change, but when change comes, it is rather like a ‘conversion experience.’ After a time of gradual accumulation of beliefs and experiences, then big chunks of things in our psyche all have to change together. A view that’s easy to change is what we don’t hold onto very tightly, because it doesn’t mean as much to us, or because we know it’s a changeable fact, like today’s sports scores and the weather, or because it’s a news factoid disconnected from the rest of what’s important to our lives. Attitudes and opinions that change easily are rightly seen as superficial.

Values are deeper and slower changing than attitudes and opinions, which change rather fluidly as new information, new experiences, new social status, new group membership or social connections come into people’s lives. (So the opinion pollster and news reporter prefer attitude and opinion data because there’s always something new to talk about, even though it is shallow.) Many aspects of atttitudes and opinions are psychological: emotional or cognitive, but they too may be filtered through a heavy cultural framing. The ones that stick become incorporated in worldviews. Values changes seem to occur only at a very few times in life, when deep meanings are invoked, or deep learning occurs, or important life priorities are reassessed: going to college, the birth of a first child, or grandchild, the death of a loved one, a divorce, changing a career, moving across the country, getting involved in a social movement, entering a deep psychological or spiritual training, enduring a financial calamity or a threat to one’s way of life, such as a depression or global warming…

When you do research on values, the acid test is whether you’re able to use that values information to predict people’s actual behavior. Of the very large number of values we might measure, only a few will tell us about what people will strongly take as their life priorities, and be strongly correlated to what they do. Our research has identified the kinds of values that matter to the way people live, and predict things like how they will vote, the symbolically important products and services they will buy (food, houses, cars, vacations), how they want to live, and what kind of future they want for themselves and for their children.

Two kinds of values had to be discarded: lip-service values and universal values. Lip-service values are not related to people’s life choices. They’re what ‘sounds good,’ what people think they should say about themselves if asked. So, saying that they hold ‘giving to charity’ as a value only predicts weakly to actually giving—and it fell out of the list of values statements in our research. Universal values, principles that nearly everyone espouses, do not predict either, for they don’t differ significantly across people, like ‘a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay,’ or ‘honesty,’ and ‘fairness.’ You can only make a prediction if there are differences in the causes related to differences in the resulting behaviors. If we all would save the planet from total ecological destruction, then even if it is really important, that value is a constant, not a variable. So the survey asks, ‘what is important about this?’ and ‘what are you willing to do about it? Those statements will actually predict to different actions and degrees of concern. Then you can see a range of views, from total denial to a demand for strong, immediate action.

So what kinds of values predict best? You’ve probably been assuming that the best predicting values are psychological. Most people do. Actually the best-predicting values are not psychological, and not found in individual differences, but in cultural differences. These are important life priorities common within a group, ones that often turn out to be precisely what make that group different from others. Cultural values grow out of our discussions with others, as well as reading or seeing the same media, but also from making the same kinds of life interpretations and commitments, and from exposure to the same events and dangers. We’re used to talking about ethnic subcultures which usually come from the same language group, region or racial group. But the values, worldviews and lifestyle subcultures that are now important to our lives, the ones we measured in this research, have gone beyond those old tribal identities.

Interestingly, there are three distinct subcultures within the US, Western Europe, and Japan, that are similar across national, racial and linguistic lines. These subcultures are Traditional (social and religious conservatives), Modern (both liberal and conservative), and Culturally Creative (basically moderate, often Green, beyond left and right). Each subculture’s values and their worldviews are strongly intertwined. The results of this are that our lifestyles and politics can be very well predicted by our combination of culturally held values and worldviews. That’s why I do this kind of research.

When American LIVES, Inc. started doing this research in 1986, the first thing we did was look at personality and other psychological variables, and they had a very weak correlation with values that predict well to differences in actual behavior. The point to our effort was to improve on demographic variables like age, income, occupation, education, gender, race, region, or ethnicity. Those are notoriously ineffective (if cheap to use). The most surprising result was that demographics are nearly uncorrelated with values. (The partial exception is that older uneducated people tend to be social and religious conservatives, but little more than that.) Another way of seeing this is not the negative result of ‘no correlation,’ but rather that looking at values, and doing it through a lens of culture, adds a really new dimension to what social surveys can tell you about people.

It’s not helpful to ask people directly about which values they have, because what they tell you comes from social norms that say “how I’m supposed to answer,” not what they do. So, even though researchers can rate which values people tell them are important, it is almost useless information. That bias is a big problem with many values studies. Values have to be inferred from sets of highly correlated questionnaire items that are used to make a measurement scale for each value. The key questions in our surveys start with, “What’s most important in my life is…” and then state various things like, “making a lot of money” or “living in harmony with nature” or “having time for my church work.” These three items belong to three different measurement scales: financial materialism, ecological concerns, and religious conservatism. And those are strongly related to worldview items that show how their culture construes reality.

It’s the way cultures construe reality that matters. Thus, a financial materialism measure is part of what identifies the Modernist subculture, and an ecological measure is part of what identifies the emerging culture of the planet, and the Cultural Creatives. When we put them into a context of politics, they are at the opposite ends of a larger dimension, the tense opposition between a rich and powerful, but recently wounded, business conservatism, versus a large and growing group of new ecological and planetary concerns, which grew out of all the new social movement values and beliefs. This takes on the flavor of something very consequential. These are the values behind the opposition of the very exclusive meetings of the global financial elite in Davos, versus the huge World Social Forum in Brazil. The media framing of these opposed meetings as rich vs. poor is a weak reflection of the actual values concerns of an emerging planet. In fact, contrary to the interpretation of the Modernist-culture media, this is not only about socialism vs. capitalism, or big money vs. social justice, though that is certainly present. It’s about the future of the planet.