Why Having a Bright Outlook Means Mapping Your Values 

I wrote about "values literacy", then I wrote about why having a strong sense of value is necessary to be a well-rounded person, then I wrote about how knowing our own values is the only way to make truly free choices. It's time to talk more about values.

Where do we start?

Choosing where to start writing this article was not an easy decision. According to David Potts, who teaches philosophy at the City College of San Francisco, "the psychological study of values is ... not in a particularly advanced state of development."The Schwartz Theory of Basic Values and Some Implications for Political Philosophy, Posted on August 12, 2015 However, like Potts, I'm most attracted to one particular "theory of basic values," proposed by Shalom Schwartz.Schwartz, S. H. (2012). An Overview of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1). https://doi.org/10.9707/2307-0919.1116

There are many approaches to the study of human values, and all that I'm familiar with attempt to find similarities among the wide variety of terms that can be used to describe values. One popular method encourages the user to choose from a list of common values and then try to group together the values into categories that make sense to the user. Next, the user tries to choose one word that represents the category, finally writing each in a sentence form as a sort of motto that he or she can refer to when making important decisions.In the spirit of learning in public, as I write this article I am in the middle of doing the exercise at https://www.taproot.com/live-your-core-values-exercise-to-increase-your-success/ Another suggestion I've encountered is to check this list once a day and rate how well you are doing in upholding these values.

Why I've started with Schwartz' theory

I found it difficult to choose the categories. After all, it's hard to know what underlies each of these values. Why is it important to me? I chose each one because it "resonated" with me. I felt like each was important to me. But I couldn't exactly say why.  That's one reason Schwartz' theory of basic values really does resonate with me. He's spent decades thinking this through and refining his theory.

Here's an example of some of the values: 

Sample values mapped onto the Schwartz 2-dimensional concept

 Here's a diagram showing different ways that Schwartz uses to categorize values:

Individual subcategories form spokes on a wheel, while broader categories become axis labels

I've examined several academic papers that analyze his theory, especially in cross-cultural settings. Because a theory of basic values has more teeth if it seems to hold true across the breadth of human experience. So far, it appears that this theory does. I did encounter suggestions that certain cultures may distort the circle in some ways, but so far I've seen scant evidence that the broad descriptions of value categories is wrong. Several studies found that certain related values may need to be adjusted slightly, but in my view this is equivalent to saying that the spokes on the wheel need to be shifted slightly to the right or to the left. It doesn't affect the validity of the theory to help me better understand values in general.

I'm not going to spend a lot of time in this article focusing on the specifics of Schwartz' theory. I plan to explore both values in general and my personal values in more depth in future days. But what interests me the most right now are the underpinnings of the theory. Whenever someone shows me an elegant structure my first instinct is always to look underneath to see what it is resting on. And in this case, I like what I see.

The foundations of the Schwartz theory of basic values

One of my favorite parts of his very readable overview (see footnote 2) is his description of the "continuum of related motivations." He describes each spoke on the wheel as a function of related motivations for adjacent values. The wheel becomes more than a catchy image. It represents a multi-dimensional concept that maps to our world in useful ways.

y-axis is personal focus<->social focus. x-axis indicates the continuum of self-protection <-> growth

In addition to the circular diagram, Schwartz also uses a simpler graphic to illustrate the prime, basic motivators that underlie all values. These tie in closely with the neurological model I mentioned in my last article. Desire to gain rewards or avoid pain are the fundamental reasons we do virtually anything. No wonder, then, that one dimension of the values model can be expressed using the concepts of seeking gain or avoiding pain. Schwartz describes the former as anxiety-free values, promotion of gain goals, self-expansion and growth. The latter he calls anxiety-based values, prevention of loss goals, and self-protection against threat.

As I also mentioned, our brain connects secondary rewards with primary rewards. Thus to a greater or lesser extent we all attach value to our place in society. This forms the second dimension in Schwartz' theory. Regulating how one relates socially to others and affects them points toward a "social focus", while the complementary "personal focus" regulates how one expresses personal interests and characteristics. A social focus reduces the focus on self, either by seeking to avoid loss by conservation and conformity, or by seeking the common good either of a closely related group or of others in general. On the other side of the social continuum, one with a personal focus either strives to avoid loss through self-enhancement or seeks rewards with decreased anxiety about effects on others.

These are deep concepts, and I doubt this brief overview is accomplishing much other than helping me wrap my mind around this theory. So far, it makes sense when I compare it with what I know of psychology and sociology. It harmonizes with my personal experience.

Does the theory help explain the political divide?

I was especially moved by the point Potts made in the article referenced above, that the dual-continuum Schwartz model has a striking similarity to concepts that most people familiar with politics would recognize. In the West there is a sharp divide between those who take either a "liberal" or a "conservative" position. According to Potts, this "equality vs hierarchy" conflict may simply reflect the "self-transcendence vs. self-enhancement" continuum on the Schwartz graph.

How does this comparison sound to you? Have you made a thorough analysis of your own values yet? If not, I encourage you to do so. In the future I plan to describe ways that may be most effective for doing so. (remember, I'm still learning) If you have, how do your values and political leanings compare? Is there validity in Potts' ideas?

Of course, this may be an oversimplification, since political views aren't just molded by personal values but also by group affiliations. Maybe you see evidence of that in your life too.

The map analogy

What have we learned? If primary and secondary rewards and punishments are two dimensions on a compass rose, that is, growth and self-protection are the N-S axis and personal focus and social focus are the E-W axis, then individual values are the map that help us see where we are in the world. Where are you located on the values map? Do you like where you are? If so, how can you take a stronger stand for the values you cherish?

We'll be returning to the map analogy many times in the future. Because to have a bright outlook, it's essential to know where we are, how we got here, and where we are going.