The last word: Why values really do matter

People often think of values as abstract and subjective ideals that rarely translate into people’s actual behaviour.

Common Cause Australia, an organisation that promotes values-based campaigning

Common Cause Australia, an organisation that promotes values-based campaigning

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, a growing body of research shows that values are at the heart of progressive change. 

In recent decades, social psychologists have made incredible advances in understanding how the human value system works and why it matters. What they’ve discovered is that people around the world share 58 universal values. The difference between us is that we priorities these values differently.

Our values priorities, in turn, influence the goals we set ourselves in life, the attitudes we hold and the behaviours we exhibit.

Dozens of studies show that people who prioritise a broad group of values known as intrinsic values - which includes things like creativity, broadmindedness, unity with nature, responsibility and loyalty – are more likely to act in pro-social and environmental ways.

On the other hand, people who prioritise a competing set of extrinsic values – such as wealth, public image, social power, ambition and success – are more likely to act in anti-social and environmentally destructive ways.

The good news is that in New Zealand, as well as in over 60 other countries on which we have data, we know that the majority of people prioritise intrinsic values. Unfortunately, this is only half of the story.

Researchers are now exploring the extent to which our values are primed by our context – the things we see, hear, read or otherwise experience. This includes the way corporations, governments and non-profits frame their communications.

In fact, studies show that our context can be a lot more important than our normal values priorities in determining which values guide our attitudes and behaviours in that moment.

For example, in one study researchers wanted to see if values priming could be used to influence people’s levels of helpfulness. To do this, they split 94 participants into three groups. The first group was asked to write reasons for and against honesty and loyalty (intrinsic values). The second group to write about success and ambition (extrinsic values). A control group was asked to complete an unrelated task.

Then, one at a time, the participants were told the study was complete and that they needed to go into a separate room to fill in a form before leaving. In the other room, a researcher pretended to knock over a cup of 10 pencils. The real test was to see how many pencils each unsuspecting participant picked up in the allocated time.

It turned out those primed with the intrinsic values of honesty and loyalty picked up more pencils than the control group. Not only that, but those who had been primed with the extrinsic values of success and ambition picked up fewer pencils than the control group. In other words, priming people’s extrinsic values doesn’t just fail to boost helpful behaviour – it actually supresses it.

Dozens of other studies have found the same effect using a variety of priming techniques and measures of pro-social and environmental behaviours.

Last time I was in New Zealand I picked up a newspaper with a headline proclaiming the cost of violence against women to the economy – as if violence is only worth preventing if it also hurts the economy. In a similar vein, environmental organisations increasingly assign financial value to “eco-system services” in order to advocate for the conservation of nature.

In all these cases, we’re assuming the worst in people instead of bringing out their best. And the more we do it, the more we strengthen values in people that actually undermine support for all of our causes.

So the next time you’re trying to convince someone to support a cause you care about think twice about the values you’re appealing to – it really does matter.

Mark Chenery is the co-founder and director of Common Cause Australia.

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