Value Priorities Definition
Value priorities are principles that provide people with a way of knowing what they must do and what type of person they must be so that they can live the best way possible, taking into account their environment and personal attributes. Value priorities therefore provide people with a way of knowing what is important and less important to being happy and getting along in their worlds. Because what these principles mean in people’s lives develops as a result of experience, they operate like analogies (in an analogy, one thing is compared to another). When people encounter new situations, new people, or new objects, they can use their value principles to see similarity and therefore respond according to those principles. People often are not aware that these principles are operating, but even when they are unaware, these principles provide the basis for judging and responding in everyday life. For example, if people have equality as a very important value priority and they live in an environment in which equality means treating people fairly, then if they believe another person is being treated unfairly they will feel a real need to repair this situation; they may or may not know why they are responding this way.
Value priorities are central to a person’s sense of self. People use their value priorities not only as standards for self-evaluation but also as standards for evaluating other people, things, actions, and activities. Because value priorities provide a structure for knowing what is important and less important to living the best way possible, they assist people in making choices. Perhaps the most important feature of value theory—past and present—is the assumption (which is supported by research) that all people, everywhere, have the same values but differ in terms of the relative importance they place on each value. This means that to be accurate, discussion should be about people’s value priorities (and not just, e.g., “values”) or should emphasize the existence of relations among value priorities, their value systems.
Important Distinctions in Value Priorities
When value priorities are discussed, focus is generally on people’s personal value priorities. However, not only do people have a personal value system, but they also have perceptions of others’ value systems (these are sometimes referred to as social value systems). Others can be other people, groups, organizations, or institutions, and their value priorities are transmitted implicitly through both overt and covert behavior. It is assumed that perceptions of others’ value priorities have the same organization as the personal value system, although there is very little research in this area.
Not only can personal value priorities be distinguished from perceptions of others’ value priorities, but they also can be distinguished from what can be referred to as ideological value systems. Because such promotions are often explicitly created to provide a particular image (e.g., for an organization’s mission statement), they may not have the same implicit structure as personal value systems in which there are predictable relations among value types. Again, there is very little theory-directed research into ideological value systems.
The concept of value priorities can be distinguished from the concepts of attitude (an evaluation of a specific entity), worldview (a collection of conscious beliefs about how the world is or should be), and ideology (a rhetorical—i.e., language-based— association or set of associations between things, people, actions or activities and value priorities). Nevertheless, in past research these distinctions are not always clear, and the term value has been used in referring to each of these concepts.
Discussion of the huge amount of theory concerning human values typically includes Milton Rokeach’s influential work. Shalom Schwartz built on and extended Rokeach’s work and developed a values inventory to measure value priorities. A version of this inventory has also been developed for use with younger people. Currently, Schwartz’s theory is the most influential and respected in the field.
Schwartz provided evidence in support of the assumption (made by all previous theorists) that important human values can be understood in terms of a relatively small set of value types that would be important to all people throughout the world. Schwartz’s theory includes 10 value types: Universal-ism (understanding, appreciating, tolerating, and protecting people and nature); Benevolence (preserving and enhancing the welfare of those with whom we have frequent contact); Tradition (respecting, being committed to, and accepting traditional customs and ideas); Conformity (also known as Dutifulness; having the self-control required to ensure behavior does not upset or harm others or violate social expectations or norms); Security (maintaining stability to ensure safety and harmony within the self, relationships, and society); Power ( having control and dominance over people and resources that results in social status and prestige); Achievement (gaining personal success that results from demonstrating competence according to social standards); Hedonism (indulging one’s own pleasure and having sensuous gratification); Stimulation (having excitement, experiencing novelty, and feeling challenged); and Self-Direction (being able to think and behave independently and creatively). For each value type, Schwartz described representative values. For example, creativity and independence are two of the values that represent the Self-Direction value; politeness and self-discipline are two that represent the Conformity value type.
Analysis of the value priorities reported by many, many people from different countries around the world showed that the 10 value types can be arranged in a circular structure. This makes it possible to see how priorities on one value type have implications for priorities on other value types. Value types that are adjacent to the highest priority value type also will be held with high priority, whereas the value type positioned directly opposite to the highest priority value type will be held with the lowest priority. Underlying the relations among priorities are two motivational dimensions.
One dimension concerns whether focus is on individual outcomes or on social context outcomes (Schwartz referred to this as the Self-Enhancement-Self-Transcendence dimension). A focus on individual outcomes is thinking about the self and others in terms of achievements and successes. People may develop this focus because of a belief that others’ assistance is not dependable, and therefore they must develop expertise or dominance to enhance their survival; this type of focus will mean high priorities on Achievement and Power value types. A focus on social context outcomes refers to the acceptance of others and being concerned for others’ welfare. People may develop this focus as a result of a belief in a shared fate, and therefore they have the incentive to ensure others’ welfare and comfort (“to the extent others are doing well, so will I”); this type of focus will mean high priorities on Universalism and Benevolence value types.
The second dimension (Schwartz referred to this as the Openness to Change-Conservation dimension) concerns whether focus is on opportunity (that highlights independent thought and action as well as change) or on organization (that highlights stability and maintaining the status quo). A focus on opportunity will mean high priorities on Self-Direction and Stimulation value types, whereas a focus on organization will mean high priorities on Tradition, Conformity, and Security value types. High priorities on the Hedonism value type reflect both a focus on opportunity and a focus on individual outcomes.
Important Issues in Value Priorities
People’s value priorities are stable and relatively resistant to change, even though researchers have found that reports of value importance can be influenced temporarily. The success of such manipulations arises because human values have been shown to be universal—all humans, everywhere, believe that particular values are important, even though people differ in the relative importance placed on each of those values. For example, a person with highest value priorities on Benevolence values (e.g., honesty, loyalty, responsibility) will also say that Achievement values (e.g., success, ambition, influence) are important if attention is focused on these, even though in the value system, Benevolence and Achievement values are maximally different in terms of value priorities. Stability of reported value priorities also might not be observed in people who do not have explicit awareness of their value priorities or who confuse personal value priorities with their perceptions of important value priorities of others (so reliable measurement is difficult).
Value priorities transcend situations, and therefore it is difficult to interpret research in which distinctions are made between, for example, personal values, work values, and family values. The confusion that sometimes arises in this and related research may concern the distinction between personal value priorities, perceptions of others’ value priorities, and ideological values, as well as the focus on single values rather than on value systems in which priorities on one value has implications for priorities on other values. Confusion may also concern the recognition that different environments provide differing opportunities for satisfaction. In addition, people who differ in their value priorities may choose the same behavior to enable value satisfaction. For example, excellence in a university course for one person satisfies high Power value priorities because he or she gains status and recognition, whereas for another it satisfies high Self-Direction value priorities because he or she gains greater choice in future options for study or career.
The connection between people’s personal value priorities and their self-esteem has yet to be investigated fully, but there is growing recognition that people’s feelings of self-esteem implicitly signal how well they are getting along in their world. Because value priorities serve to indicate what living the best way possible means, then to the extent a person is satisfying his or her personal value priorities or working toward doing so, he or she is more likely to have optimal self-esteem. Complications arise because people have perceptions of others’ value priorities (and exposure to ideological value priorities), and others’ value priorities may be more salient to people than their own value priorities. As a result, attitudinal or behavioral decisions may be influenced by these salient perceptions rather than by personal value priorities. Because value systems often operate outside awareness, people also may misperceive their own value priorities and behave according to their misperceptions.
Failing to behave in line with one’s own value priorities will induce dissatisfaction—and chronic behavior of this type may lead to dissatisfaction that is reflected in self-esteem.
- Rohan, M. J. (2000). A rose by any name? The values construct. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 4, 255-277.
- Schwartz, S. (1996). Value priorities and behavior: Applying a theory of integrated value systems. In C. Seligman, J. M. Olson, & M. P. Zanna (Eds.), The Ontario symposium: The psychology of values (Vol. 8, pp. 1-24). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.