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A Theory of Ten Universal Values

Matching 10 universal values with the unified approach.

I have been reading up a lot on values and theories of values lately. One particularly interesting and prominent theory is from Shalom Schwartz, who proposes that there are 10 broad value domains that are universal and fairly comprehensive. The values he advocates for are as follows.

Power: Social status and prestige, control or dominance over people and resources.
Achievement: Personal success through demonstrating competence according to social standards.
Hedonism: Pleasure or sensuous gratification for oneself.
Stimulation: Excitement, novelty, and challenge in life.
Self-direction: Independent thought and action
choosing, creating, exploring.
Universalism: Understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature.
Benevolence: Preservation and enhancement of the welfare of people with whom one is in frequent personal contact.
Tradition: Respect, commitment, and acceptance of the customs and ideas that traditional culture or religion provide.
Conformity: Restraint of actions, inclinations, and impulses likely to upset or harm others and violate social expectations or norms.
Security: Safety, harmony, and stability of society, of relationships, and of self.

Schwartz argues that these values can be arranged in the following visual way (this is called a circumplex, and identifies even larger themes).

One of my arguments is that, via the unified approach, we can work to assimilate and integrate various perspectives into a more coherent whole. Although I had heard of Schwartz’s value theory, I had never spent much time with it. But I think that some benefit can be looking at Schwartz’s value theory through the lens of the unified approach.

Let’s first consider the values theory from the vantage point of Behavioral Investment Theory. BIT considers the nervous system an “investment value system,” shaped by evolution and individual experience. The experience of pleasure and pain are considered to be building blocks of conscious experience that orient animals toward “the good” and away from the “bad."

In this light, hedonism, along with stimulation and (basic/self) security are “values” built into the very foundation of the nervous system. “Values” are in quotes here because there are two meanings of the term. One, which is the way Schwartz means it, has to do with human’s developing explicit beliefs that justify the pursuit of certain goal states. The other has to do with the basic experience, shared with other animals, of things feeling good or bad, and how those feelings orient approach and avoidance behavior. Here I am referring to the second meaning. However, obviously people will justify explicit values based on experiential feeling.

Now let’s consider the Influence Matrix, which is another key piece of the unified approach. The matrix maps how humans intuitively represent self-in-relation-to-other in their experiential system (i.e., via perceptual and emotional processes). It argues that there is a central variable, called relational value, which organizes the human relational process.

More to the point here, it posits that there are three relational process dimensions that folks need to navigate.

The first process dimension, the blue line, is called competitive influence. It is sometimes called “power’ for short, but it is important to note that there are two forms of competitive influence, direct (which is power in Schwartz’s model) and indirect (which is achievement in Schwartz’s model).

In the second process dimension, the red line is called cooperative influence or "love" for short. The positive valence corresponds to benevolence in Schwartz’s model.

The third dimension is freedom from influence or “Freedom” for short. This corresponds to self-direction in Schwartz’s theory.

The third piece of the unified framework to consider is technically called “The Justification Hypothesis.” It refers to the unique elements of the human primate, which is that we are unique in the extent to which we attempt to build (and are defined by) explicit knowledge-justification systems.

This point about justification systems is relevant first because it highlights how explicitly beliefs and values are both unique and central to human existence. Thus, there is a point of contact here with Schwartz, which is agreement that such values guide and coordinate human behavior.

Second, we can then move to some of the remaining values in his theory. Conformity is easily understood as the intersection of the basic social motivation for influence and relational value pointed out by the Matrix (i.e., the black line) and the need for groups to have shared beliefs to coordinate action. The classic social psych experiments from Solomon Asch on conformity show this process in action.

Likewise, tradition provides the identity-culture link. It explains what is justifiable for the individual in their social context. That is, tradition is the process by which individuals identify (or not) with the version of reality offered by the macro culture and their place in it. It is not surprising then, that tradition and conformity are also deeply linked with security, as these are all states associated with the desire to conserve risk and reduce threat and uncertainty.

Finally, human justification processes have now evolved for a search for moral systems that can guide our actions writ large. This searching for transcendence is called universalism, and it refers to the quest for moral systems of justification that can guide our human value systems across context.

I have found much to like about Schwartz’s theory of universal values. I also believe there is much value in building bridges between this work and the unified approach.

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