Social Value Orientation

People differ in how they approach others. Some people tend to approach others in a cooperative manner, whereas other people tend to approach others in a more self-centered manner. Such social dispositions have been demonstrated to be quite important in various contexts and are often examined under the heading of social value orientation. This concept refers to preferences for particular distributions of outcomes for self and others. One could discriminate among various social value orientations, such as altruism, equality, cooperation, individualism, competition, aggression, and the like. However, research has supported a three-category typology that discriminates among three orientations—prosocial orientation, individualistic orientations, and competitive orientation.

Social Value OrientationProsocial orientation is defined in terms of enhancing one’s own and another’s outcomes (“doing well together”) as well as equality in outcomes (“each receiving an equal share”), individualistic orientation is defined in terms of enhancing outcomes for self and being largely indifferent to outcomes for another person (“doing well for oneself), and competitive orientation is defined in terms of enhancing the difference between outcomes for self and another in favor of oneself (“doing better— or less worse—than another person”).

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Measurement of Social Value Orientation

The concept of social value orientation is rooted in classic research on cooperation and competition, which revealed (largely unexpected, at that time) a good deal of individual stability in behavior over a series of interactions and across situations. These considerations, as well as the aim of disentangling (or decomposing) interpersonal goals underlying behavior in experimental games, have inspired researchers to design a measure that is closely linked to game behavior. Rather than focusing on a 2-by-2 matrix game, such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma Game, the instrument represents decompositions of game situations, capturing consequences of one’s behavior for oneself and another person. A frequently used instrument is the Triple-Dominance Measure of Social Values. In this instrument, outcomes are presented in terms of points said to be valuable to self and the other, and the other person is described as someone the person does not know and that he or she will never knowingly meet in the future (in an effort to exclude the role of considerations relevant to the future interactions).

An example of a decomposed game is the choice among three options:

  1. Option A: 480 points for self and 80 points for the other person
  2. Option B: 540 points for self and 280 points for the other person
  3. Option C: 480 points for self and 480 points for the other person

In this example, option A represents the competitive choice because it yields the greatest outcomes for self relative to the other (480 – 80 = 400 points); option B represents the individualistic choice because it yields the greatest absolute outcomes for self (540 points); and option C represents the prosocial choice because it yields the greatest joint outcomes (480 + 480 = 960 points) as well as the smallest absolute difference between outcomes for self and other (480 – 480 = 0 points). In research using this instrument, most individuals are classified as prosocial (about 60%-65%), followed by individualists (about 25%), and only a small minority is classified as competitive (about 10%-15%). Of course, these percentages might differ as a function of the sample, depending on variables such as (sub)cultural differences, gender, number of siblings, and age. For example, prosocial orientation is more likely to be observed in collectivistic cultures (as opposed to individualistic cultures), in women (as opposed to men), and among people with a large number of siblings, especially sisters. And prosocial orientations are more commons among older people (at least up to 65 years) than among younger people.

Social Value Orientation Research

Research revealed that social value orientation exhibited considerable ability to predict actual behavior in a variety of different experiment games, with prosocial exhibiting greater cooperation than individualists and competitors. Moreover, social value orientations often exert their influence not only in terms of independent effects but also in combination with several variables, such as personality impressions of the partner, or the strategy pursued by the interaction partner. Also, social value orientation is associated with several cognitive processes, including the use of morality (good versus bad) versus competence (intelligent versus stupid, weak versus strong) in person judgment and impression formation. For example, whereas prosocials tend to judge cooperative and noncooperative others in terms of good and bad (e.g., fair or unfair), individualists and competitors tend to judge these people in terms of strong versus weak or smart versus dumb.

Recent research has also examined how individual differences in social value orientation could have an impact on cognition, affect, and behavior in contexts outside of the laboratory, that is, in everyday life. Evidence increasingly reveals that prosocials and individualists report a greater willingness to sacrifice for their partners than do competitors. Prosocials also report working harder for their housemates (to maintain a clean apartment), which is an interesting finding because prosocials were judged by their roommates and friends as more philosophical than individualists and competitors. Also, prosocials are more likely than individualists and competitors to volunteer in participating in psychological experiments. Last but not least, social value orientation is also very important at the large societal level, showing that prosocials are more likely to make donations to noble causes than are individualists and competitors, and prosocials are more likely to hold a left-wing political orientation (valuing equality and solidarity), whereas individualists and competitors are more likely to hold a right-wing political orientation.

Implications of Social Value Orientation

In short, what is fascinating about social value orientation is that only a small number of games (which can be assessed in only a couple of minutes) appear to be useful tools for understanding prosocial behavior as diverse as sacrifice in ongoing relationships, citizenship in groups, participation in experiments, and donations to help the poor and the ill. This is remarkable from a measurement perspective and from the theoretical perspective. Recall that many theories tend to portray individuals as self-interested individuals, calculated or not. This view on human nature appears to be incomplete, and therefore partially inaccurate, so it is good to realize that some people may be quite prone to value good (and equal) outcomes for all, whereas others want to make sure that they do not get less than others. Outcomes are inherently social.


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