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Mind over matter

Human psychology, political values and action. By Tim Holmes

August 29, 2011
9 min read

Why is it that so many of the major problems the world faces seem so intractable? In case after case – inequality, xenophobia, war, public services, economic instability, ecosystem destruction – the trends continue to move almost inexorably in the wrong direction.

If most of these problems are familiar, so too are many of the most obvious explanations for the failure to act. Action on climate change threatens the most powerful, entrenched vested interests in the world, who effectively own – and frequently staff – the governments of the world’s biggest per capita polluters. Global poverty has routinely been worsened by the financial interests that dominate the major international financial institutions. The current dominance of neoliberal ideology is no accident; it merely represents the entrenchment in political thought of the moneyed interests that dominate the political sphere.

Why so quiescent?

Some of the reasons the public have often remained quiescent in the face of this onslaught are also fairly clear. Crises and ‘shocks’ are continually exploited to push through unpopular reforms while people are still reeling. At the same time, the media’s partial reporting and selective dissemination of information (or misinformation) has a marked effect on what we know, believe and think of as important. With the media largely dominated by moneyed interests, this can hardly help but prop up the prevailing distribution of power in society.

But this is not the full story. Even in situations where people have access to the facts and some ability to act, many still fail to do so. Part of the reason, it seems, is that we are particularly good at repelling unwelcome information when it threatens our lifestyles, identities and affiliations. Political partisans, for instance – while easily spotting negative information about groups they oppose – consistently find reasons to write it off for those they support.

It was partly on the basis of this recognition that a lot of work engaging the public on major issues has sought to drop the emphasis on facts – instead ‘tapping into’ the different varieties of motivations that people hold. Many campaigners do this almost intuitively. It has become a staple of campaign rhetoric that we must oppose wars or address human rights abuses because they make us – those not primarily suffering from them, that is – less safe. But a professional communications industry has also built up around ‘social marketing’, which uses demographic segmentation to map the dominant motivations of different groups, tailoring communications to appeal to them. This is often a prominent tactic of environmental groups in particular, who tell us that insulating our homes will save us money, travelling by train offers us an opportunity for pleasure and relaxation, or that ‘eco-chic’ will make us look good.

In some cases – such as health interventions – social marketing approaches can undoubtedly have very significant positive effects. See for example, ‘Social Marketing in Public Health’ by Grier and Bryant (Annual Review of Public Health 26, 2005). But in the case of larger, more deeply-rooted problems, they can pose serious risks, because of their impact on our values. It is this insight – among others – that has prompted a number of campaigning organisations to take a greater interest in human values, the subject of a number of recent reports – including WWF’s Common Cause report; Finding Frames, by the development organisation Bond; and, most recently, The Common Cause Handbook, by the Public Interest Research Centre.

Human values and goals

Research into human values has been going on for many decades, and has built up a large and growing body of work. By ‘values’, psychologists effectively mean the things we care about and strive for in life. Early researchers in the field developed a list of values that seemed to recur across cultures (and in different languages). It was subsequently refined as research developed. Much of the groundwork was laid by Milton Rokeach, including in his 1973 book The Nature of Human Values, and was taken further by Shalom H. Schwartz, in particular in his 1992 paper ‘Universals in the content and structure of values: theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries’ (in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 25).

Values seemed to be related to each other in surprisingly consistent ways. In particular, they divided along two major axes:

n ‘self-transcendence’ values (centred on concern for one’s immediate community or the wider world) versus ‘self-enhancement’ values (for personal recognition and influence);

n ‘conservation’ values (such as conformity, tradition and security of self and in-groups) versus ‘openness-to-change’ values (such as excitement, freedom and personal enjoyment).

Strongly holding values at one end of an axis made individuals less likely to strongly hold those at the other end. So, for instance, individuals who placed a great deal of weight on achievement or wealth were unlikely to place a lot on kindness or social justice. We all seem to hold all of these values, but differ in how we each prioritise them.

A similar relationship seemed to hold in the study of human ‘goals’ – another category used to map the things we value in life. Of particular importance was the tension between ‘extrinsic’ goals – for externally-derived rewards, such as image, wealth, status and authority – and ‘intrinsic’ goals – for more inherently fulfilling rewards, such as self-acceptance, affiliation with friends and family, and concern for the wider human community. (As a kind of shorthand, self-transcendent values and intrinsic goals can be bundled together as ‘intrinsic values’, self-enhancement values and extrinsic goals as ‘extrinsic values’.)

Why do values matter?

Why do values matter? Because, somewhat predictably, they are related to the kinds of attitudes we hold, and the way we act. Prioritising intrinsic values, for instance, is associated with being more politically active; more concerned about social justice; more engaged in environmentally-friendly behaviours; and less prejudiced. Prioritising extrinsic values is associated with higher levels of prejudice; less concern about the environment; higher ecological footprints; less concern about human rights; more manipulative behaviour; and less helpfulness. Intrinsic values are also associated with greater wellbeing, extrinsic values with lesser wellbeing.

It also appears that values can be temporarily heightened by reminding people of them. To take one example, according to a study by Maio et al published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2009, people asked to sort words related to ‘achievement’ values subsequently did better at word searches. But such reminders also seem to diminish opposing values. So those prompted with ‘benevolence’-related words did less well at the word search, but were more likely to volunteer to help in future experiments (while those prompted with ‘achievement’ were less likely to help out). Opposing values are thus rather like a see-saw: as one goes up, the other tends to go down.

Conversely, reminding someone of one value stimulates compatible values – sometimes with startling effects. In a forthcoming study by Sheldon et al (2011), one American group reminded of ideas of autonomy, generosity and family, for instance, recommended a lower ecological footprint for the US than a similar group reminded of status, prestige and financial success.

These experiments have major implications in the real world. Studies have repeatedly documented significant temporary increases in the weight people place on ‘security’ values following terrorist attacks, for instance. A sense of threat or insecurity, in fact, has continually been found to move people towards extrinsic values.

Perhaps more importantly, over time these reminders seem to have lasting effects. According to Sheldon and Krieger, in a paper for Behavioral Sciences and the Law in 2004, law degrees in the US seem to shift students’ values in a more extrinsic direction, while advertising and commercial television seem to foster greater materialism – with adverse effects on wellbeing in both cases. Experiments have also shown that what we perceive to be the norm among our peers changes the values we hold – and there is evidence that the weight Americans placed on ‘equality’ was strongly boosted in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the civil rights movement. Many political scientists suggest that our experience of particular policies can shift our perception of what is acceptable, desirable and normal.

Mental association

Values are also connected to ‘frames’: patterns of mental association, formed by communication and experience, that can be reinforced or undermined by further communication and experience. ‘Framing’ messages is all about what the communicator leaves in or out: the features and relevant values in a situation that are placed front-and-centre.

Do we hear the NHS described in terms of ‘public sector waste’, for example, or ‘free and universal healthcare’? Do we hear metaphors such as ‘tax burden’ and ‘tax relief’ – implying that taxation is a kind of uncomfortable imposition – or about ‘paying our fair share’? Over time, these kinds of frames in communication lay down and reinforce the mental pathways we use to make sense of the world. But our dominant frames are not fixed: they can be revised and replaced.

What this means is that compromises and concessions to people’s dominant values and ways of thinking cost us more than we think. Appeals to certain desires or motivations – particularly if they are successful – tend to reinforce them in our minds, and encourage us to act on them in the future. We might want to fit low-energy light bulbs out of a desire to look good in the eyes of others, say. But anything that persuades us to act for this reason will also undermine our more ‘intrinsic’ reasons for acting. That in turn will make us less concerned about the environment or social justice, less likely to get involved in political action, and even more likely to pursue other, more harmful actions.

Sometimes, of course, the benefits of an outcome will outweigh the ‘collateral damage’ it causes for people’s values – and trade-offs will need to be made. But in general, achieving concerted action on global justice issues will require a different approach altogether.

It will mean deliberately cultivating ‘intrinsic’ values such as self-acceptance, care for others, and concern about the natural world, as well as frames that help embed these values in the way we perceive and approach the world. It will mean more involving organisations that help foster these values in our experiences. It will mean confronting factors and institutions – such as inequality or commercial marketing – that help pull our values in the wrong direction. And – because changing people’s values is a big task – it will mean making sure we are pulling together in the same direction.

Only in this way can we catalyse the kind of mass mobilisation capable of confronting the grave and growing problems that we face. n

Tim Holmes is an activist, writer and researcher. He currently works for the Public Interest Research Centre

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