Values Definition

The term value has two related yet distinct meanings. The value of an object or activity is what the object or activity is worth to a person or community; this is the economic or decision-making meaning of value. In its social-psychological meaning, by contrast, a value is an abstract, desirable end state that people strive for or aim to uphold, such as freedom, loyalty, or tradition. Only this second meaning is used in the plural form values, and public and political discussions refer to such values in many ways, speaking of the decline of values, a clash of values, or an election being about values. This paper describes the ways in which human values in the second sense select for certain attitudes, goals, and preferences that in turn guide concrete actions. Although there is not yet a consensus on a taxonomy of human values, research is converging on a set of basic dimensions.

Nature of Values

ValuesMany theorists have pointed out that values are distinct from attitudes, norms, beliefs, goals, and needs. Values, such as equality, friendship, or courage, are more abstract and general, and they not only are directed at specific objects (as attitudes are), behaviors (as norms are), or states of reality (as beliefs are) but also represent very general, and at times vague, end states. The end states described by many values also benefit the community, unlike goals or needs, which typically benefit the individual. Compare such values as honesty, forgiveness, and democracy to the goals of wealth, fame, and healthiness. Finally, most values are never quite reached, such as equality, national security, or world peace. In sum, prototypical values refer to abstract states that typically benefit the community, not just the individual, and that people strive for without ever quite reaching them.

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Talking about values can be hard because the idea of value is so abstract. As long as people believe they share the same values, there is no need to define those values. But when people try to ascertain a definition of something like freedom or true friendship, heated debates can ensue. Likewise, the vagueness of many value concepts (consider the term familyvalues) subtly removes these concepts from open, shared discourse and can make them subject to arbitrary and rhetorical use in propaganda. For example, politicians can try to win votes by saying they stand for family values, even though they don’t have a very clear idea what family values are.

Even though all values are somehow represented in the individual, the more abstract among them are less likely to guide directly an individual’s concrete behaviors. How many decisions and actions can you recall from yesterday that were directly guided by your values of freedom, democracy, or salvation? Goals are more apt to influence behavior directly, as people are more aware of their goals, and goals are more imminent and context-specific than are values. Values that resemble goals, however, such as excitement, independence, or respect for tradition, can directly influence behaviors. These considerations are largely supported by empirical research, which shows lower correlations between concrete behavior and abstract values than between behavior and specific or goal-like values. Furthermore, values appear to relate to preferences and attitudes, which themselves predict behavior. So even highly abstract values can have an impact on concrete behavior when that impact is mediated by less abstract psychological forces. For example, the value of freedom might make someone study hard for a driver education test, because getting a driver’s license increases one’s freedom of movement. The broad, abstract value of freedom leads to the specific, concrete goal of getting a license, which guides behavior.

Values can strongly influence behavior when they are perceived to be threatened and are therefore defended. A threat can “activate” a value, and defending and fighting for it entails a number of concrete behaviors (though rarely of the prosocial variety). For example, many Americans considered the attacks on New York’s World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, as a threat to the value of freedom, and numerous actions following those attacks were directly motivated, and claimed to be justified, by the defense of that freedom.

Taxonomies of Values

A taxonomy is an organized list, especially a thorough list. A taxonomy of values would be a list of all the values that people hold, sorted into several sublists according to different types of values. Considerable effort has gone into trying to put together a taxonomy of values, and in this endeavor, researchers have drawn from varying sources: reviews of value-related constructs in the scholarly literature, interviews and questionnaires that assess ordinary people’s conception of values, and systematic analyses of value-related terms in lexicons. These sources show that individuals and groups can hold a wide range of values. However, researchers have tried to identify an underlying structure for this multitude of values. (The structure of the taxonomy would be what determines the different types of values.) They use statistical tools (e.g., factor analysis) to reduce the large number of specific values down to a small set of fundamental value dimensions, not unlike the effort that has led personality psychologists to the Five-Factor Theory of personality.

Different proposals exist regarding the number, specificity, importance, and content of human values. Milton Rokeach distinguished between 18 terminal values, which are desirable end states (e.g., self-respect, freedom), and 18 instrumental values, which refer to modes of conduct (e.g., helpful or forgiving). Contemporary researchers, such as Shalom Schwartz or Walter Renner, have proposed that both instrumental and terminal values fall into a smaller and more fundamental set of value orientations, such as power, achievement, tradition, and profit. Individuals differ reliably in these value orientations, but there is uncertainty over the particular orientations that make up the fundamental set. The inclusion of specific value words (test items) in value measures can change the discovered structures across data sets, and even though the value orientations from different data sets overlap, their numbers and content also vary. Thus, currently there is no consensus on the fundamental dimensions of values, but research is converging on these dimensions.

One complication is that when people get a chance to judge whether such concepts as power, achievement, or profit are values or goals, most people agree that they are goals. So the question arises whether the fundamental dimensions onto which research is converging depicts only values or actually mixes values with goals. It is currently not established whether goals and values are the same, both operating as motivational forces in the individual, or whether values have unique social functions and consequences that goals do not.

Function of Values

What are values for? In people’s own understanding, values regulate society and interpersonal relations, and they guide moral behavior, the distinction between right and wrong. In this sense, values are not just motives but socially shared concepts that serve a communal function. Evolutionary theorist David Sloan Wilson argues that values bind communities together, and those communities that agree on a value system (and on a system of sanctions in case the values are threatened) may be more successful over the course of human cultural history. Wilson shows through historic analysis that, for example, those religious groups that formed an agreed-upon value system became stronger than their competitors and outlived them. Values create a group bond at an abstract level that unifies individual actions into a group-level mind-set and organization. In this sense, values may be a uniquely human adaptation to the demands of a social reality in which not only individuals but also groups compete with each other. However, while values increase organization and cohesion within a group, they also sharpen boundaries to other groups (those who don’t share the same value system), and indeed, intergroup conflict is often motivated, or at least rationalized, by a clash of values.

If there is only a small set of human values, these values should be relatively constant across cultures and history. The reason for this limited and stable set may be the invariable demands on human survival to serve biological needs, succeed in social interaction, and negotiate conflicts between biological needs and social interaction. But the evidence on historic and cultural variations is only beginning to be available.

Historic and Cultural Differences in Values

Some values that communities uphold may have changed relatively little over documented history. In contrast to norms and laws, which have changed substantially, standards such as freedom, courage, fairness, and even honesty have remained the same at least since ancient Greece. Some values have been applied selectively to certain groups, such as equality and forgiveness, which are often extended only to members of the dominant group; other values have increased in importance in recent times, such as democracy and diversity.

Recent research by Schwartz, using questionnaires presented to people from different cultures, offers evidence for the universality of fundamental standards. Cultures differ, of course, in the extent to which they regard particular values as more or less important, but the set of fundamental dimensions within which cultures express their values may be universal. This evidence, however, is not without its critics. For one thing, translating words across languages such that their meaning stays truly constant is challenging. Moreover, the presentation of questionnaires, which fix the relevant value dimensions at the outset, does not establish which dimensions people would have picked as fundamental values if given no researcher-devised measure. To illustrate, gender equality is seen as an important value in many cultures. But highly patriarchic cultures not only may consider gender equality as less important but also may not even conceptualize it as a value. Future research will help clarify whether some of these dimensions operate more like goals and others constitute values “proper,” with their own unique social functions and consequences.


  1. Rohan, M. J. (2000). A rose by any name? The values construct. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 4, 255-277.
  2. Rokeach, M. (1973). The nature of human values. New York: Free Press.
  3. Schwartz, S. H. (1994). Are there universal aspects in the content and structure of values? Journal of Social Issues, 50, 19-45.