How To Understand The Values That Drive You


Tuesday, 8.07pm

Sheffield, U.K.

It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are. – Roy E. Disney

The way people think and what they believe in should drive the way they act – there should be a connection between values and behaviour. But before we can explore the link we first need to know what values are in the first place.

Shalom H. Schwartz came up with a theory of basic human values in 1992 that said there are 10 basic values people hold across countries and backgrounds – and these relate to the way they think, the beliefs they hold, what they do, their personality and the makeup of the societies they live in. In an updated paper (Schwartz et al 2012) the authors refine this list to create 19 values.

For the purposes of this post, however, let’s stick with the 10 values. In the theory the basic idea is that these values lie on a circle and the ones that are closer on the circle relate more closely to each other and ones that are further away are opposing ideas. In this post I want to look instead at the values using a bipolar construct – how does each one compare to the one that seems its polar opposite and does seeing that help you in any way?

Let’s start with security – the need for you and your family to be safe. The opposite of that might be stimulation. You could look at this as a choice to choose security rather than stimulation – a choice to go for a safe job rather than one in a different city, a choice to travel in safe countries rather than sail a boat in pirate infested waters.

What about hedonism – the desire to make the most of your life and enjoy everything, rather than settling for conformity and fitting in with what’s expected of you? Or opting for self-direction, deciding to do something that you enjoy for work rather than joining the family firm or going into a profession.

What about the need for achievement – to do the best you can, become the best surgeon, the best lawyer, rather than benevolence, working with Doctors without Borders or taking on a public defendant role. Which one would you go for?

Then there’s power, the need to get it for yourself, rather than universalism, feeling for, appreciating and working for the benefit of humanity as a whole.

These bipolar constructs, shown as X rather than Y, may not be accurate but they’re a good start to help you evaluate where you are in life and what’s important to you. You might be someone that values self-direction, security and benevolence – or you might be drawn towards tradition, power and conformity. It feels like you have to pick which values matter to you – some combinations work and others don’t – but you need to be clear on what you’re going after.

As important, perhaps, is knowing what others want. If you want to work with others and you know that they’re after one of these things then you can figure out how to arrange things so that they get what they want and you get what you want. There is always a conflict, for example, between power and self-direction. Terry Pratchett puts this nicely in one of his books when a character shows another some work he’s been doing that he’s interested in and the first says, annoyed, “In my time?” The implication is that the first person has bought the other person’s time and it now belongs to him. The second should have no thoughts that he controls his own time. How do you resolve this other than showing the first person how he benefits from the work?

Knowing someone else’s values tells you how you can work together – maybe it’s a handshake or perhaps it’s a iron-clad contract. You need what you need for the situation. And knowing how someone else ticks can tell you when it’s time to give up and go away – if someone you are with is far too interested in stimulation or hedonism for you then it’s worth knowing you can’t keep up as early as possible.

Values, it seems, are important. Knowing yours will help you make the right choices for you.


Karthik Suresh


Schwartz, S. H., Cieciuch, J., Vecchione, M., Davidov, E., Fischer, R., Beierlein, C., Ramos, A., Verkasalo, M., Lönnqvist, J.-E., Demirutku, K., Dirilen-Gumus, O., & Konty, M. (2012). Refining the theory of basic individual values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(4), 663–688.

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