When President Obama announced that he supports gay marriage he described it as an “evolution” of opinion over a number of years (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/05/10/us/politics/20120510-obama...). Yet, even though he noted a long period of thought behind his opinion, he indicated that he would not attempt to push his view into policy. Many pundits have suggested that it would not be pragmatic for him to try.

We all face similar conflicts with pragmatism. We may hold dear a particular opinion, belief, or attitude, but be unsure how to apply them in reality. Cherished values like equality and freedom seem great in the abstract, but there is always uncertainty about how far they should be pushed. To whom do these values apply? When do they apply, and how do they apply?

 Despite the many uncertainties that arise when we try to apply our values, we cherish our own values dearly and consider them pivotal to our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Moreover, one single value, like “health”, may be the impetus for diverse actions. For example, because of the importance I place on health, I don’t smoke (despite the occasional craving), eat fruit in the morning (instead of a donut), cycle to work (through driving rain), jog (on arthritic knees), visit a gym (that I do not enjoy), and occasionally pass up on a bottle of beer (that looks really good). If I did not value health, many of these behaviors would be very different. Thus, adherence to this single core value helps to shape a broad range of my behaviors. In the same way, if you know how someone feels about health, equality, freedom, forgiveness, national security or any of many other abstract values, you should be able to predict a variety of their behaviors.

At the same time, there’s only so far we would take our values, and it is not always clear how far we should take them. For instance, there’s evidence that meat production is harmful to the environment, and this bothers me because I value the environment and want a beautiful world for my children. It’s probably not essential that I eat meat to keep healthy, given that there are other options for protein and iron. We may even debate whether meat promotes health, but should I drop meat from my diet completely? Similar debates can be applied to many values. People often argue about whether we should support affirmative action plans because we value equality, or oppose legalized abortion because we value the sanctity of life. In such cases, different values can come into conflict (e.g., equality, freedom).

 The upshot of all this is that values matter, but there are many complexities in how they matter. I explore many of these complexities in an upcoming book, The Psychology of Values (with Psychology Press), but here’s one example. Over two millennia ago, the Greek philosopher Plato wrote that his mentor, Socrates, advocated “it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day”. Socrates believed in persistent self-examination and in virtue through action. He spent a great deal of time drawing people into deep, exhausting dialogue about the hidden assumptions behind many of their most trusted values and ideals. These dialogues would leave people with more knowledge about what they did not know than what they did know.

 Over the years, my colleagues and I have conducted many experiments testing whether or not performing a similar kind of critical self-examination of particular values affects our subsequent behavior. For example, some experiments have randomly given students one of two tasks: they would either spend 10 minutes writing a defense of why they thought the value of equality was important or not, or the students would complete simple tasks that merely mentioned equality in some way (e.g., by rating their feelings about equality). After finishing their task, we measured how much the participants discriminated against random members of an arbitrary group of people that was created in the lab (e.g., the ‘Blues’). We have consistently found that participants who have thought about why they value equality show less discrimination than participants who have merely been reminded about the value.

 This difference occurs even though participants who completed both tasks also professed to consider equality as an important guiding principle in their lives. Those participants who thought about their reasons did not later consider the value more important than those who did not. Yet, somehow, those who thought about why they value equality were more likely to apply this value to their subsequent behavior, suggesting that Socrates was on to something when he continually used critical self-examination in his quest for harmony between virtue and action. In fact, the participants themselves often commented that the task was difficult but enjoyable and worthwhile to them.

 So how does this self-examination of values increase the tendency to express values in action? There are several processes that may be important, but many experiments suggest that concreteness may matter the most: those who refer to specific examples and particular situations are the ones whose actions are most affected by the task.

 In the long run, this method may be a useful way for people to diminish the conflict of hypocrisy in their own lives. By reasoning about values, we can think about them in ways that makes them purposeful and relevant to our actions. Maybe I don’t need to cut meat from my diet completely, but perhaps there are occasions when I really should eat something else. While making such choices, I may sense that I am better projecting my own values on my choices and not merely going whichever way the wind blows.

There will be much more to say about this process in upcoming entries on this site.

About the Author

Gregory R.  Maio, Ph.D.

Gregory R. Maio, Ph.D., is a professor of social psychology at Cardiff University, and has published on the topics of social values, attitudes, and behavior.

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