Although values are a peripheral aspect of our nature subordinated to more fundamental aspects, like personality and development, they are one of the most influential aspects affecting human behaviour.

So what are values? We know that values operates at two levels, at an individual level and at a social level. At an individual level, our values adjust to our personality and to our individual needs, tastes and preferences. And at a social level, our values adjust to the culture we form part of.

But what are they? Some things are better described for what they are not rather than for what they are; and values is one of those things. Let us begin our definition of values then with a negative description of values; that is, with the things that values are not.

. Values are not intrinsic to things. Values are a subjective attribution that we give to things. We value things that don’t have any extrinsic value by themselves. And we do so out of the interests that we might have on things.
. Values are not absolute. The value that we attribute to things is not absolute but relative. And values are relative in several ways. They are relative in space and relative in time, changing form person to person, from culture to culture, changing with situations and with time. And they are also relative to the value of other things. We don’t value things in themselves, but we value them in relation to other things. So behaviour is not guided by any priority given to single value, but it always involves tradeoffs between competing values.

From this negative description of values we can turn now to a positive definition of values. We know that values, for not being intrinsic, are related to our interests. And we also know that values, for being relative, depend on the value we give to other things.

So, from the combination of these two aspects, we define value systems as a -subjective- set of desirable aims or goals that serves as guiding principles among conflictive or superimposing aims and interests (based on Schwartz’s definition, 1996).

Things around us have different interests for us. And giving a value to them help us to order and discern among conflicting and superimposing interests.

Value systems are characterised for their diversity (people value different things in different ways) and for their variability in relation to place, situation and time. But values have one thing that is universal and constant: their structure.

Values, with all their diversity and change, are not order randomly but within a structure. We sustain that the structure of all value systems is universal, timeless and common to everybody. That is, while values systems are diverse and variable, their structure is an invariable and universal aspect of human nature. Furthermore, the structure is exactly the same at both levels: at personal values and at cultural values. In other words, the structure of values is trans-situational and it is the same for everybody regardless their personality or culture.

Value Structure

Values have a universal structure. And to analyse the dynamics of values we have to model the structure. Our model is based on the one developed by Shalom Schwartz. Schwartz models the structure of values on ten dimension (‘motivationally distinct types of values‘). The table below is a list of the ten types of values, with a description of their central goals and the single values that represent them, as given on the original table from Schwartz.

There is cross-cultural research to support the universality of these dimensions (Scwartz 1992, 1994; Szhwartz & Sagiv 1995).

The dynamics of these values are organised on a circular structure as represented on the figure below (from Schwartz original figure).

Schwartz model of values

This circular structure represents two characteristics of values. First, it reflects how adjacent value types are compatible sharing specific values. And second, it also represents how opposite value types are incompatible and cannot be easily pursued at the same time.

Schwartz organised the total structure of values in turn, on two basic dimensions: openness to change/conservation and self-enhancement/self-transcendence.

There is also cross-cultural support for this circular structure of values on research made by Schwartz (Schwartz 1994, 1995, Schwartz & Sagiv 1995), and on evidence form the World Values Survey.

To this model, we are going to add two additional aspects: and element of asymmetry on values and a developmental aspect.

Asymmetry on values
Not all values are equally important. Some values have more weight and a higher priority than others.

We sustain that, in general, values of conservation and self-enhancement have more weight than values of openness to change and self-transcendence.

The asymmetry on values can be explained, from a biological point of view, on a nature of self-preservation where self-enhancement and conservation are more important that openness to change and self-transcendence.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

The asymmetry on values is also compatible with the asymmetry on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.In Maslow’s hierarchy some needs take precedence over others. Comparing both models there is a parallelism between values and needs. Physiological, security and social needs can be associated with values of conservation. Esteem needs can be associated with values of self-enhancement. Cognitive and aesthetic needs can be associated to values of openness to change. And needs of self-actualization can be associated to values of self-transcendence.

So, by adding an element of asymmetry on Schwartz model we have:

Asymmetric model of values

Development on values

Values are not fixed and invariable but they change with time. And one of the ways they change with time is through development. So to Schwartz model we are going to add also an element of development.

Development is a universal natural phenomena that occurs in complex systems. Development is the process by which systems passes from states of lower complexity to states of higher complexity (see Development).

We sustain that in the value structure lower complexity – the original state- is related with values of conservation and self-enhancement and higher complexity with values of openness to change and self-transcendence. So with a development values changes from conservation and self-enhancement to openness to change and self-transcendence.

Complete model of Values

With higher complexity systems change, in general, in properties like higher autonomy, flexibility and stability (see Complexity). With values in particular, these properties are translated into the internalisation of values with higher independence form external parameters (like cultural determination or authority), higher tolerance to the diversity and relativity of values, and the association of values to more universal parameters that transcends the transient and circumstantial, like Nature, universal human aspirations, etc. (see also moral development).

Development is not an inevitable nor an irreversible process. That is, development doesn’t happen naturally but depends on an environment that facilitates the process. If the environment is favourable, then development occurs and results in a shift of values from conservation and self-enhancement to openness to change and self-transcendence. Development is also reversible. If the environment becomes adverse, detrimental or threatening, values tend to shift back to the original state of conservation and self-enhancement. The intensity of these backshifts is also related to the level of development. With lower development they tend to be more immediate, with higher development they tend to be more contained.

We sustain that this model is valid at both, a personal and a cultural level. No research has been done to corroborate it, but there is no lack of evidence. At a personal level the model seems to match ordinary experience. And at a cultural level evidence from the World Values Survey seems to support the model as well.


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