Kat French’s terrific post over at the Thoughtwrestling blog noted that, if you think of your brain in terms of programming, values and goals serve as the “data structure” upon which we hang our various daily activities.  Goals and values motivate, underlie, and shape our actions and our perception and evaluation of those actions.

I have written about goals, and especially about the need to setting clear goals.  But Kat’s post raises questions I have not yet addressed.  If values, as well as goals, determine (or at least influence) our brains’ fundamental cognitions, how do we use that to our advantage?  How do we identify our values?

More importantly, are we not only defined, but also confined, by our values?  Or can we set our values the way we can goals? Interesting questions – with potent answers for those who want to take charge of their lives. 

Answering those questions will take a couple of posts.  In this first one, I will describe what I mean by values and explain why they are vitally important to our thought processes.

What Values Are.  Values are usually defined as fundamental beliefs that certain actions (e.g., honesty) and end-states (e.g., equality) are preferable to their opposites.  For example, we might value creativity, integrity, empowerment, and interpersonal connection.

If you Google for lists of values, you will find many.  (For instance, look here and here, or for a list of “work values,” look here.) In his pioneering work on values, however, psychologist Milton Rokeach identified 18 core instrumental (action-related) and 18 core terminal (end-state related) values that he believed were the foundation of most peoples’ most important core beliefs.  These lists, compiled in his often-used Rokeach Value Survey, include the following:

Instrumental Values

– ambitious (hard-working, aspiring)

– broad-minded (open-minded)

– capable (competent, effective)

– cheerful (lighthearted, joyful)

– clean (neat, tidy)

– courageous (standing up for your beliefs)

– forgiving (willing to pardon others)

– helpful (working for the welfare of others)

– honest (sincere, truthful)

– imaginative (daring, creative)

– independent (self-reliance, self-sufficient)

– intellectual (intelligent, reflective)

– logical (consistent, rational)

– loving (affectionate, tender)

– obedient (dutiful, respectful)

– polite (courteous, well-mannered)

– responsible (dependable, reliable)

– self-controlled (restrained, self disciplined)

Terminal Values

– a comfortable life (a prosperous life)

– an exciting life (a stimulating, active life)

– a sense of accomplishment (lasting contribution)

– a world at peace (free of war and conflict)

­- a world of beauty (beauty of nature and the arts)

– equality (brotherhood, equal opportunity for all)

-family security (taking care of loved ones)

– freedom (Independence, free choice)

– happiness (contentedness)

-inner harmony (freedom from inner conflict)

– mature love (sexual and spiritual intimacy)

– national security (protection from attack)

– pleasure (and enjoyable, leisurely life)

– salvation (saved, eternal life)

– self-respect (self-esteem)

-social recognition (respect, admiration)

– true friendship (close companionship)

– wisdom (a mature understanding of life)

Rokeach, M., The Nature of Human Values (1973), at 28.  Researchers have largely confirmed that the RVS lists capture most core values expressed by research subjects in the United States.  Indeed, with some modifications, the RVS lists also capture the core values that tend to be expressed by subjects around the world.

Of course, the lists above are not ranked in any particular order. The column on the left, for example, is simply alphabetical.  The one on the right is alphabetical too, although it does not seem so at first glance.  As we will explore in a later post, different people would rank these values in different orders.  The point here is simply that research shows that, in whatever order, peoples’ instrumental values and terminal values tend to be captured in the RVS lists.

What Values Do.  It feels a little like noting that water is wet, but the point is so basic that it is often ignored:  values serve numerous important functions. Substantial research shows that values may dictate and motivate our personal behavior. They influence our social and political preferences. They guide the persona we attempt to project to the outside world. They filter our evaluation of life experiences. They influence the tools we use to persuade others. And they critically influence our self-justification and self-criticism –how we persuade ourselves that we are right, and under what circumstances we determine we are in the wrong.

Plainly, then, our values have enormous influence on our lives.  They serve as filters, initiators, and benchmarks.  Knowing their importance, we can turn in future posts to how this knowledge can be put to use.