Advertisements at the Bay Centre Mall in Victoria, British Columbia. Each day, we are bombarded with thousands of commercial messages prompting us to consume—these ads encourage our extrinsic values, or those related to money, image, and status, at a cost to other parts of our value system.
Psychologists have collected data from thousands of people in dozens of nations around the world to understand what humans value and how they prioritize different aims in life. These studies consistently show that the human value system is composed of about a dozen basic types of values, including aims such as having caring relationships, having fun, pursuing spiritual understanding, and feeling safe. Thus far, the evidence suggests that people in every corner of the globe appear to care about and be motivated by each of these basic values, at least to some extent.
Not only do people have the same fundamental types of values, but these values are also organized in similar ways in people’s minds.1,2 Specifically, the evidence strongly suggests that the human value system is organized such that some values tend to be relatively consistent with each other, and thus easy to pursue simultaneously, whereas other values tend to be in relative conflict, and thus difficult to pursue at the same time. The extent of compatibility or conflict between values can be statistically represented in circumplex models (for an example, see Figure 1). Values are placed near each other in the circumplex when the pursuit of one value facilitates success at another value; for example, most people experience the values of image and status as compatible, as buying an in-fashion handbag or automobile not only enhances one’s image, but also conveys greater status. Values are placed on opposite sides of the circumplex when the pursuit of one value interferes with another; for example, most people find it relatively difficult to pursue spiritual goals while focused on hedonistic pleasures (it is difficult, for example, to party late on Saturday night and then pray early on Sunday morning).
Other studies offer additional support for the idea that the human value system is organized in this fashion by showing that thinking about one set of values has predictable ripple effects on others.3 Specifically, thinking about one value both bleeds over into compatible values and suppresses conflicting values. For example, if a person thinks about the importance of financial success, then image and popularity will usually rise in priority (as such pursuits are compatible with the desire for financial success), whereas giving back to the community will decline in importance (as that aim generally conflicts with the desire to make more money).
Because people’s aims in life influence their attitudes and behaviors,4 numerous studies show that prioritization of two particular sets of values affects outcomes relevant to many of the challenges humans currently face. The first set of values includes the extrinsic aims of financial success, image, and popularity. These values are called extrinsic because they are focused on rewards and other people’s opinions, and usually are not satisfying in and of themselves. The second set of values involves the intrinsic aims of self-acceptance, affiliation, and community feeling. These values are called intrinsic because they tend to satisfy people’s inherent psychological needs.5 Many studies show that the relative prioritization of intrinsic versus extrinsic values bears consistent associations with people’s personal well-being, their relationships with other people, and their treatment of the environment.
For instance, dozens of studies have documented that the more people prioritize values such as money, image, and status, the lower their well-being and the greater their reported distress. As such extrinsic values rise in importance, people experience less happiness and life satisfaction, fewer pleasant emotions (like joy and contentment), and more unpleasant emotions (like anger and anxiety) in their day-to-day lives. They also tend to be more depressed and anxious, and are more likely to use substances like cigarettes and alcohol. Even physical problems like headaches, stomachaches, and backaches are associated with a strong focus on extrinsic values. In contrast, placing higher importance on intrinsic values (and successfully pursuing these values) is associated with being happier and healthier.6
Social behavior also relates to people’s relative focus on extrinsic versus intrinsic values. People tend to be more empathic, cooperative, and caring when they prioritize intrinsic values, whereas a stronger emphasis on extrinsic concerns like money and image is associated with more manipulative and competitive behaviors. Unethical business and antisocial behaviors have also been shown to be more common among those who prioritize extrinsic values.7 What’s more, when they consider material belongings and image to be relatively important, people express more prejudicial attitudes toward other ethnicities and a stronger belief that downtrodden groups deserve what they have (or don’t have).8 Even brief reminders of extrinsic values can affect people’s social behavior: one set of studies showed that subtly reminding people of money (by having them unscramble phrases with money-relevant words or view a computer screen-saver with a dollar sign on it) leads to less generous and helpful behaviors moments later.9 This is a good example of the “suppression” effect, as the activation of the extrinsic value of financial success leads people to orient away from more intrinsic values such as generosity and caring for others.
Ecological behaviors and attitudes are also consistently associated with people’s values. Studies have found that people who prioritize extrinsic values care less about the environment and other species, whereas intrinsic values promote more ecologically sustainable attitudes and behaviors.10 And once again, even brief reminders of these values can affect ecological behaviors and attitudes. For instance, U.S. college students led to think about times when their nation has acted to support freedom, to build family values, and to be generous to others (i.e., intrinsic values) later endorsed more sustainable ecological policies, such as support for public transportation and smaller homes.11 And another study found that among people who tend to care a great deal about material possessions and social status, thinking for a few minutes about the intrinsic values of affiliation and being broadminded caused them to express stronger care for the environment and greater desire to help poor people in developing nations.12 These results show that activating intrinsic values can cause a beneficial “bleed-over” in people’s value systems, leading them to want to support the larger community of people, other species, and future generations.
These value dynamics are also relevant at the national level. Nations ranked as having citizens who especially endorse intrinsic over extrinsic values also have children with greater overall well-being, provide new parents with more generous leave after a baby is born, and emit less CO2 per capita (even after controlling for national wealth).13
To summarize, three hopeful messages emerge from this body of empirical research:
This values-based perspective suggests an empirically-supported strategy for addressing humanity’s greatest challenges: Discourage extrinsic values and encourage intrinsic values in people’s lives and in society. Indeed, if one uses this perspective to look at seemingly disparate efforts to promote human well-being, social cohesion, or ecological sustainability, many such efforts, at base, critique the extrinsic values of status and possessions and instead promote intrinsic values such as self-acceptance and connection to others. Space limitations do not allow for a full exposition of this idea,14 but consider the following six examples.
A not-insignificant minority of individuals in Western nations choose to drop out of the work-spend-work-some-more lifestyle and instead pursue the “inner riches” of personal growth, family, and volunteering. Examined through a values lens, such voluntary simplifiers have rejected extrinsic values in order to focus on intrinsic values. This suggestion is supported by empirical analyses showing that voluntary simplifiers prioritize intrinsic over extrinsic values more highly than do mainstream Americans. What’s more, these differences in value prioritization explain, in large part, why voluntary simplifiers are both happier and living more sustainably than mainstream Americans.15
For at least the last couple thousand years, millions of humans have engaged in practices designed to enhance their awareness of their present state. Contemporary scientific studies document that cultivating this experience of mindfulness not only yields psychological and physical health benefits, but also helps people care less about material possessions and jockeying for social position and more about their own inner lives and their connection to the community. What’s more, mindfulness also helps people live more sustainably and resist the endless pursuit of acquiring more material stuff.15,16
In many economically developed nations, work hours have been increasing over the last few decades. Consequently, people have less time to pursue their own interests, to be with their families, and to be involved in their communities. To counter these trends, the time-affluence movement has proposed polices to provide new parents with more generous paid leave, to extend paid vacations, and to decrease overall work hours.17 Looked at through a values lens, each of these policies changes the focus from working and earning (i.e., extrinsic values) to family, opportunities for rejuvenation, and more equitable distribution of labor among citizens (i.e., intrinsic values).
Citizens in contemporary consumer cultures are bombarded each day with thousands of commercial messages designed to stimulate their desire to consume. Viewed through a values lens, such messages activate and encourage the extrinsic portion of people’s value systems. As such, efforts to remove advertising from public spaces (e.g., in subways, on highways, and in schools) and to ban advertising to children, who are particularly susceptible to such value messages, can be understood as attempts to discourage extrinsic values. This values-based approach would also be consistent with proposals to revoke government subsidies that allow businesses to deduct advertising expenditures from their tax returns and to instead tax such expenditures as a form of “value pollution.”18
Alternative Indicators of Progress
Policymakers, business people, and the media typically use economic indicators, such as Gross National Product, consumer confidence, and stock market trends, to express the health and prosperity of a nation, despite the facts that these indicators were never designed for this purpose and that increases in these indicators have been associated with stagnation in citizens’ well-being and with greater ecological degradation over time.19 Many individuals and organizations have suggested developing alternative indicators, with proposals including Lord Layard’s happiness measures, the Kingdom of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness approach, the Happy Planet Index developed by the new economics foundation, and the recent recommendations of the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Development and Social Progress, created by French president Nicolas Sarkozy. While each alternative indicator has its own particular features, all of them de-privilege extrinsic values (by taking the focus off profit-making and economic growth at any cost) and incorporate data reflecting a nation’s success on measures relevant to intrinsic values (e.g., equal distribution of wealth, environmental health, opportunities for free time, and mental health).
Publicly-traded corporations are frequently blamed for social and ecological ills.20 These organizations’ mandate to maximize financial profit for shareholders (i.e., extrinsic values) can lead boards and CEOs to make decisions that harm overall environmental or societal well-being. Proposals to replace this dominant business model with cooperatives, benefit corporations, and stakeholder-based organizations all hold promise because each involves tempering the concern for profit with more intrinsic concerns, such as the democratic participation of workers and the good of the community.21
Despite the fact that these six existing efforts all share a common value base, it is relatively rare that people who practice mindfulness meditation sit down with those trying to create benefit corporations, that voluntary simplifiers converse with people promoting policies for more generous parental-leave laws, or that organizations developing alternative indicators of national progress combine forces with those trying to ban advertising to children. But there is good reason for these diverse groups (as well as others not mentioned here) to recognize that they all are, at base, trying to discourage a focus on extrinsic values and to encourage the successful pursuit of intrinsic values. For if individuals and organizations were to acknowledge these shared goals, perhaps the compartmentalization and competition that seem so prevalent in today’s civil society can be avoided. Instead, perhaps the next generation will work to coordinate and jointly design interventions, communications, and campaigns that discourage values such as money, image, and status and that instead provide many opportunities to pursue values such as personal growth, close connections to other people, and contributions to the larger world.22 As I hope to have shown here, a solid empirical base suggests that if such broad coalitions were to use the values-based approach articulated in this article, substantial progress could be made toward solving society’s most pressing problems.