Understanding diversity primer: 5. Values

By Gabriele Bammer


How can differences in values be understood? How do differences in values affect research on complex societal and environmental problems, especially how problems are framed, understood and responded to, as well as how well those contributing to the research work together?

Ten basic personal values

Shalom Schwartz’s theory of basic values (2012) identifies ten broad personal values, which are differentiated by their underlying goal or motivation, as described in the table below. These values seem to be culturally robust.

Overall, each value helps humans cope with one or more of three requirements of existence, namely the needs of:

  • individuals as biological organisms
  • coordinated social interaction
  • group survival and welfare.


Characteristics of values

Six features that all values share and that also seem to be robust across cultures are:

  1. Values are inextricably linked to emotion.
    For example, people for whom “Achievement” is an important value will be happy when what they have accomplished is recognised.
  2. Values motivate action because they refer to desirable goals.
    For example, people for whom “Power” is an important value will act in ways that increase (or at least maintain) their power.
  3. Values are relevant to multiple situations and actions.
    For example, people for whom “Conformity” is an important value will avoid violating social expectations in their family, work and social lives.
  4. Values set the standards for choices and how humans evaluate the world around them.
    People decide, generally unconsciously, what is good or bad, justified or illegitimate and worth doing or not based on the consequences for their values.
  5. Values are ranked or ordered relative to one another.
    Each person’s values form an ordered system of priorities that characterise the person.
  6. The relative importance of values and trade-offs among them guide attitudes, behaviours and actions.

Of the ten values, some are in harmony with each other, such as benevolence and universalism. Others conflict, such as benevolence and power. There are two overarching sets of conflicting values:

  • 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.”
  • 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.” On the other hand, self-transcendence is characterised by universalism and benevolence and emphasises “concern for the welfare and interests of others.”

An individual may hold conflicting values in the ordered system of priorities that characterises the person. These conflicting values tend not to come into play at the same time, but rather through different actions, at different times, in different settings.

Differences in values and how problems are framed, understood and responded to

It can be helpful to consider a problem from different value perspectives to get a richer understanding. For example, different perspectives on the problem of illicit drug use arise when it is viewed through:

  • the value of hedonism and the pleasure arising from using psychoactive drugs
  • the value of security and concerns about how the illegal nature of drugs undermines the stability of society
  • the value of universalism and the desire to ensure that those using illicit drugs remain healthy and integrated in society.

Combining different values for effective action can be more challenging, especially for competing values. Nevertheless creativity can occur in spaces where values clash, but this is currently poorly understood.

Differences in values and how well those contributing to the research work together

Because values are so closely tied to people’s emotions, motivations, actions and identities, it can be difficult for researchers and/or stakeholders to work together when they have competing values.

A useful first step is both to understand the differences and the features that make conflict more likely.

Concluding notes

Because value clashes can be vitriolic, research groups often avoid deliberately including those with different values. This can limit the development of more comprehensive understanding and effective action on complex problems.

Anything to add?

Do you have additional perspectives to share about the role of understanding values in research on complex societal and environmental problems? Is there other basic work on values that you have found to be useful?

Particularly welcome are examples from your research about how values were relevant and how you worked with them.

If you are new to this topic, is there anything else on understanding values that would be useful?

Sources and references:

The main source is the work on values by Shalom Schwartz (2012) who, in turn, drew on the work of others, which is cited in the reference below.

Schwartz, S. H. (2012). An Overview of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2, 1. (Online – open access) (DOI): http://dx.doi.org/10.9707/2307-0919.1116

Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is Professor of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at The Australian National University in Canberra. i2S provides theory and methods for tackling complex societal and environmental problems, especially for synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns, and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change. She is also a member of blog partner PopulationHealthXchange.

The Understanding Diversity Primer comprises the following blog posts:

1. Why diversity? (April 21, 2022)
2. Mental models (April 28, 2022)
3. Perceptions of good research (May 5, 2022)
4. Power (May 12, 2022)

This blog post:
5. Values (May 19, 2022)

Still to come:
6. Interests (May 26, 2022)
7. Culture (June 2, 2022)
8. Personality (June 9, 2022)
9. Team roles (June 16, 2022)
10. Advanced considerations (June 23, 2022)

4 thoughts on “Understanding diversity primer: 5. Values”

  1. I would distinguish advocacy for a specific change from openness to change, as advocacy is often a form of conformity. The policy domain is awash with proposals for change, most of which are part of some social movement or other. So openness to change might have little to do with a policy debate.

    Openness to change might best be contrasted with skepticism. Some people find pleasure in contemplating possible changes, others not so much. As a personality trait this is largely independent of the specific issues.

    • Thanks for your comment. One of the things I decided in developing this primer is to examine different aspects of diversity separately ie to differentiate values, interests, personality, mental models etc. That has some advantages, but also sets aside the fact that for each of us, all these aspects are intertwined. I’d be interested in any literature about bringing them all back together again. Your comment also suggests another path to integration ie to take a topic such as “openness to change” and then see what values, personality, mental models etc have to say about the topic and also study empirically how people deal with such a topic taking in account all these different facets of their being.

      Most interested in further comments on this.

  2. Values are naturally important and the basic driver in decision making. However, it is not easy to make value based decisions because in real life situations you always need to make trade-offs (Feature 6 above). In decision situations it is also important to develop decision alternatives and objectives reflecting the values of the decision makers. Values can be absolute but preferences in choice situations need to reflect the range of impacts related to the alternatives available. It is surprising that it is often difficult for people to identify and express their objectives. Research on multi-criteria decision making has developed approaches to support people and groups in these tasks. A survey of the related tools is given by Mustajoki and Marttunen
    For the interested reader I would suggest the texts by Ralph Keeney on value focused decision making https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0377221796000045
    In decision settings we need to define objectives . Not everything can be included but the set needs to be such that it captures the essentials and helps in the process, see ,e.g.


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