Here is the English translation of an article I wrote in May 2018 for DODO – the Italian magazine for Youth Policies published by Eurodesk Italy in cooperation with the Sardinia Region. It is a basic introduction to S. Schwartz’s Theory of Universal Human Values, how values change in society, and a story about the “Live Aid” concert and its legacy.
Shalom H. Schwartz, professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has been working since the 90s to the definition of “values”, and he composed a theory of their universal psychological structure.
“Values” are very hard to define (as we will see below), and they are among the most important elements to understand how cultures work. But for all those who work with intercultural learning, it is paramount to understand the mechanisms that determine the dominant values in any given society.
First of all, what is a “value”? Let’s just define them as “something (such as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable”.They are born from our needs, biological (we all get hungry, thirsty, need to rest), social (when we meet and interact other people), and the “political” obligations that allow groups to survive and achieve common goals.
In general, we talk about “personal values”, and it’s true, since we are all different in the way we perceive and define our personal priorities. But it’s also true that the communities in which we grow up contribute in a major (and sometimes, unconscious) way to our own value system.
Schwartz’s work highlights 10 main categories that are “universal” and comprehend many other items that people would consider “values”:
Power (social status, prestige, control over other people and resources);
Achievement (personal success, demonstrating competence according to social standards);
Hedonism (pleasure or gratification for themselves);
Stimulation (excitement, novelty, challenges in life);
Self-direction (independent thought and action, choosing, creating, exploring);
Universalism (understanding, tolerance, appreciation and protection of all people and nature);
Benevolence (preservation and enhancement of the welfare of people with whom we are in frequent 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, or violate social norms and expectations);
Security (safety, harmony and stability of society, of relationships, and of self).
It has to be said at this point that we cannot divide values in “good” versus “bad” (or right and wrong).
They all originate as response to personal or social tensions, and are an answer to a need. Their importance is relative, and their relative importance to one another guides action. They are also pancultural, meaning that the same values can be found (maybe in different shapes) across very different cultures in the world.
The dominant values in a given community or group will determine how it evolves over time, and how it defines relationships with external groups and challenges.
For example, a society driven by “universalism” will have a very different reaction towards a sudden wave of immigrants, than one rooted in “tradition”.
And it’s also clear that the dominant values in any given society are not fixed in time, but change dynamically.
Schwartz’s approach notes that all values are present in any society, but they grow over time according to how much (or often) they are stimulated, or “activated”. Not unlikely an athlete’s muscles.
This is the most important aspect for an educator’s work – and communication in general: the dominant values in a society are determined through the stimulation they receive. The most activated values, get more developed. And with the passing of time, they become dominant.
If we think that, every given day, we are actively and passively engaged in thousand of messages, this becomes very interesting: which values are promoted by the communication we receive? And what do we communicate?
Do we want to build a society based on mutual respect, justice and honesty? We need to promote the corresponding values of universalism and benevolence. Simple! (Or is it?)
And it’s not over. Schwartz wrote in 1992 (An Overview of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values): “if values are meant as goals, then their achievement have to serve the interest of individuals or of a collective. Values that are functional to individual interests are […] in opposition to those that serve collective interests”.
As a result of his extensive study, Schwartz represented the Universal Values on a wheel (“circumplex”), since they form rather a continuum, than a line.
This model helps to understand two of the main characteristics due of how a value system is developed. When a particular sector is activated (for example, Security), two effects can be observed over time:
“bleed over”: the promotion of one value has positive effects also on the adjacent ones, to the right and left (so, activating Security we have a synergic effect also on Power and Tradition/Conformity);
“see-saw”: as in a playground, when a value gets activated, it produces an opposite effect on the values on the far side of the wheel (so, activating Hedonism we reduce Benevolence, and vice versa).
This study has had an important impact on social and political communication, and on marketing.
In particular, many NGOs and organizations active in promoting human rights or dealing with social issues have noticed that through their communication they were activating values exactly opposite to the desired ones.
Consider this example (source):
What values does it promote? Equality (Universalism), or rather its opposite?
And this? (source)
Is it promoting Nature (also in Universalism), or Social Power? Following this logic, it becomes easy to understand that often, messages we send with the best of intentions end up having mixed (or harmful) effects.
If a certain value is activated often enough, it becomes dominant in society. No wonder then if at the next elections, the political parties that identify with it will get more and more votes.
And so on.
A famous case study is centred on the “Live Aid”, the mega concert organized in 1985 to collect funds as a response to a terrible Ethiopian famine.
At the time, it was a huge thing. But its legacy is controversial to say the least.
First of all, we should scrutinize the way the story of the famine was told to the western audience (the shocking, sensationalist reports from Michael Buerk on BBC, rooted in the “white savior” narrative and that ended up reinforcing it);
and secondly, let’s talk also about the mega-concert itself: two giant parallel events took place in Philadelphia and London, with secondary concerts all over the world, from Moscow to Sidney.
They gathered an enormous number of celebrities (and the expected corollary of vanity and polemics), but ended to promote the message “donate, and let celebrities save the day”. It’s a narrative more centered on ideas of authority and success, rather than altruism and self-responsibility.
On this, the words of Frank Zappa (who refused to join the event) sound eerily prophetic: according to him, the event was doing nothing to solve the developing world’s problems, and actually [with its concentration of celebrities] it represented “the biggest cocaine money laundering scheme of all times”.
This story serves well to illustrate the point. It’s certainly admirable that such a huge response was organized in such a short span of time, and £ 150m are said to have been collected as a result of the “
give us the fucking money!” collective effort.
But this came with a large shadow. A substantial part of the funds “disappeared” into the pockets of corrupt politicians in Ethiopia and their militia; furthermore, that huge influx of money and NGOs generated tensions and controversies that are still hugely debated today. It is possible that the effort saved as many as half a million lives, but “ended up causing just as many victims”.
NGOs suffered from a backlash in their support from public opinion, many dangerous and sticky stereotypes were created, and the fashion of “celebrity activism” was launched. Again, the question stands: which values were promoted ?
Today, Schwartz’s work is used to analyze the way in which organizations promote their objectives, especially if their communication is too aggressive or based on guilt.
Research shows that these examples, activating values such as “success” or “power” – produce the desired effects only in the short term, while they become counter productive in the long term.
You can try to examine your communication, and your work as educators, through the same lens.
Try this simple exercise: choose a message, or a slogan – one of your social media posts, or from a company or other institution – and try to break it down. Which values does it promote? How can you change it?
Deepest gratitude and respect to Bobby Mc Cormack (@BobbyMc2014) for introducing me to the topic. All the inspiration and the credit goes to him; all the mistakes and the confusion is mine.