Understanding values: Schwartz theory of basic values

By Shalom H. Schwartz

Shalom H. Schwartz (biography)

Why are values important for tackling complex societal and environmental problems? Can personal values that are robust across cultures be identified? Can these personal values help explain conflicts in values?

Six main features of values

All values have six features in common and these illustrate why values are important in researching and acting on complex problems.

1. Values are beliefs linked inextricably to affect. When values are activated, they become infused with feeling.

2. Values refer to desirable goals that motivate action.

3. Values transcend specific actions and situations. This distinguishes values from norms and attitudes that usually refer to specific actions, objects, or situations.

4. Values serve as standards or criteria. Values guide the selection or evaluation of actions, policies, people, and events. People decide what is good or bad, justified or illegitimate, worth doing or avoiding, based on possible consequences for their cherished values. But the impact of values in everyday decisions is rarely conscious. Values enter awareness when the actions or judgments one is considering have conflicting implications for different values one cherishes.

5. Values are ordered by importance relative to one another. People’s values form an ordered system of priorities that characterize them as individuals.

6. The relative importance of multiple values guides action. Any attitude or behaviour typically has implications for more than one value. The trade-off among relevant, competing values guides attitudes and behaviours. Values influence action when they are relevant in the context (hence likely to be activated) and important to the actor.

Ten basic personal values

The Schwartz theory of basic values, which I developed, identifies ten broad personal values, which are differentiated by their underlying goal or motivation. These values are likely to be universal because they help humans cope with one or more of the following three universal requirements of existence:

  • needs of individuals as biological organisms
  • requisites of coordinated social interaction
  • survival and welfare needs of groups.

The following table describes the ten broad personal values and their defining goals.


Dynamic relations among the values and value conflict

Relations among these 10 broad personal values are dynamic. Actions pursuing one value have consequences that conflict with some values but are congruent with others. This has practical, psychological, and social consequences. Of course, people can and do pursue competing values, but not in a single act. Rather, they do so through different acts, at different times, and in different settings.

The circular structure in the figure below portrays the total pattern of relations of conflict and congruity among values. There are two bipolar dimensions:

  • Openness to change versus conservation
    Openness to change is characterised by self-direction and stimulation, as well as partly by hedonism, and emphasises independence of thought, action, and feelings, and readiness for change. In contrast, conservation is characterised by security, conformity and tradition, and emphasises order, self-restriction, preservation of the past, and resistance to change.
    Tradition and conformity are located in a single wedge because they share the same broad motivational goal. Tradition is on the periphery because it conflicts more strongly with the opposing values.
  • Self-enhancement versus self-transcendence
    Self-enhancement is characterised by power and achievement, as well as partly by hedonism, and emphasises pursuit of one’s own interests and relative success and dominance over others. In contrast, self-transcendence is characterised by universalism and benevolence, and emphasises concern for the welfare and interests of others.
    Hedonism shares elements of both openness to change and self-enhancement.
Dynamic relations among the ten basic human values (adapted from Schwartz, 2012)

Two additional dynamic principles that organise the structure of values are shown in the figure below:

  • the interests that value attainment serves.
    Values in the top panel of the figure (power, achievement, hedonism, stimulation, self-direction) primarily regulate how one expresses personal interests and characteristics. Values in the bottom panel (benevolence, universalism, tradition, conformity, security) primarily regulate how one relates socially to others and affects their interests. Security and universalism values are boundary values. They primarily concern others’ interests, but their goals also regulate pursuit of own interests.
  • relations of values to anxiety.
    Pursuit of values on the left in the figure serves to cope with anxiety due to uncertainty in the social and physical world. These are self-protective values. People seek to avoid conflict (conformity) and to maintain the current order (tradition, security) or actively to control threat (power). Values on the right (hedonism, stimulation, self-direction, universalism, benevolence) express anxiety-free motivations. These are growth or self-expansive values. Achievement values do both: Meeting social standards successfully may control anxiety and it may affirm one’s sense of competence.

Drawing on the grounding of values in interests and in anxiety can help in predicting and understanding relations of values to various attitudes and behaviours.

Three dynamic principles that organise the structure of values (Schwartz, 2012)


People everywhere experience conflict between pursuing openness to change values or conservation values. They also experience conflict between pursuing self-transcendence or self-enhancement values. Conflicts between specific values (eg., power vs. universalism, tradition vs. hedonism) are also near-universal.

What has your experience been with values and value conflict? Do the concepts presented here resonate with your experience? Do they provide a way forward in understanding and managing value conflict?

To find out more:
Schwartz, S. H. (2012). An Overview of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2, 1. (Online) (DOI): http://dx.doi.org/10.9707/2307-0919.1116
Much of the text in the blog post is taken verbatim from this article and some has been updated based on subsequent work.

Biography: Shalom H. Schwartz PhD is Leon and Clara Sznajderman Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. Although retired, he continues to develop and promote his Basic Human Values Theory.


5 thoughts on “Understanding values: Schwartz theory of basic values”

  1. Thank you Shalom for this succinct summary! I’ve found your work to be very interesting in thinking about the links between change at different scales from individuals to society in sustainability transitions, through the lens of behaviour change. I’ve often felt our efforts to change behaviour don’t always engage well with deeper underlying values and cultural maladaptations bound up in them, but I’m also not entirely convinced that targeting values change to the exclusion of behaviour change is a good way either (i.e. http://www.commoncause.com.au/uploads/1/2/9/4/12943361/common_cause_handbook.pdf). I was curious if you are aware of any work that has engaged with your framework well from this perspective – for example integrating the theory of basic values into some of the frameworks we use a lot in behaviour change like Theory of Planned Behaviour/Reasoned Action, and/or Michie et al’s COM-B and/or Theoretical Domains Framework?


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