How Life Circumstances Influence Value Priorities

Typically, people adapt their values to their life circumstances. They upgrade the importance they attribute to values that they can readily attain, and downgrade the importance of those values whose pursuit is blocked [Schb97]. For example, people in jobs that afford freedom of choice increase the importance of self-direction values at the expense of conformity values [Koh83]. Upgrading attainable values and downgrading thwarted values applies to most but not to all values. The reverse occurs with values that concern material well-being (power) and security. When such values are blocked, their importance increases; when they are easily attained their importance drops. For example, people who suffer economic hardship and social upheaval attribute more importance to power and security values than do those who live in relative comfort and safety [Ing97].1

People’s age, education, gender, and other characteristics largely determine the life circumstances to which they are exposed. These include their socialization and learning experiences, the social roles they play, the expectations and sanctions they encounter, and the abilities they develop. Thus, differences in background characteristics represent differences in the life circumstances that affect value priorities.

The Pattern of Value Relations with Other Variables: An Integrated System

Most research on the antecedents or consequences of values has examined empirical relations between a few target values and a particular attitude, behaviour, or background variable.2 The value theory enables us to treat peoples’ value systems as coherent structures. The critical idea is that the ten values form a circular structure of motivationally opposed and compatible values. The structure derives from the conflicts people experience when they act on their values. Drawing on this structure, we can relate the full set of values to other variables in an organized, integrated manner; see Figure 1.1.

The structure of values has two implications for value relations:

For example, say voting for a party with a left-wing orientation correlates most positively with universalism values and most negatively with security values. Then, going from universalism round the circle to the right (benevolence, tradition, conformity, security), correlations are likely to become less positive and more negative. This is also likely going from universalism round the circle to the left. Thus, the order of associations for the whole set of ten values follows a predictable pattern. Specifically, if a trait, attitude, or behaviour correlates most positively with one value and most negatively with another, the expected pattern of associations with all other values follows from the circular value structure. This view of value systems as integrated structures makes it easier to generate systematic, coherent hypotheses that relate the full set of value priorities to any other variable. It also makes it easier to interpret the observed relations of sets of values to other variables.

The integrated structure of values makes it easier to theorize about relations of value priorities to other variables. Theorizing begins with reasoning about the particular values that are most and least positively related to a variable. The circular motivational structure of values then implies a specific pattern of positive, negative, and zero associations for the remaining values. The next step is to develop theoretical explanations for why or why not to expect these implied associations. The integrated structure serves as a template that can reveal “deviations” from the expected pattern. Deviations are especially interesting because they direct us to search for special conditions that enhance or weaken relations of a variable with values [Sch96].3