Can Using Values Make a Better Society?

24/05/2016 15:02 | Updated 24 May 2016

Does catering to materialism breed more materialism or less? Does addressing concerns about immigration feed bigotry or forge liberalism?

These are big questions and they feed into an important debate about how people's values impact on their political and social attitudes. As the RSA blogged about in 2013, these questions create a schism within the parts of the behaviour change community who use 'values'.

On one side of the divide are environmental specialists Common Cause, who argue that by indulging people's less altruistic values you appease and encourage them. On the other side are CDSM, who say that by fulfilling needs - i.e. need for status - you help people move past those needs. Both parties use methodologies based on Shalom Schwartz's Theory of Basic Values and both draw upon the findings of the World Values Survey. But it's on this question of the legitimacy or otherwise of 'value judgements' where differences arise.

Common Cause deliberately distinguish between 'compassionate' values and 'selfish' values. Their recent report, Perceptions Matter, argues that most people are more altruistic than we give them credit for - and that you should fight the 'selfish' values and frame things using the 'compassionate' ones.

CDSM, on the other hand - along with the academic Chris Rose - argue that you'll alienate people by doing this. They incorporate Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, and segment the population into three values groups with different, equally valid needs:

• Resource-driven Settlers, who are socially conservative and crave belonging and security
• Esteem-driven Prospectors, who are individualistic, optimistic and competitive
• Inner-directed Pioneers, who are socially liberal, post-materialist and motivated by ethics

The CDSM approach says you must find overlap and 'align' the values of these different groups. As Chris Rose (another values user) puts it, when writing about climate change, "Where propositions match people's underlying values, people support them. Where they don't, people ignore...them." This rejects the binary of 'good' and 'bad' values, but rather says that people are at different socio-psychological life stages. And it argues that there's nothing intrinsically bad about fearing threats or caring about image - and nothing innately good about being cosmopolitan or post-materialist. CDSM argues that by doing this a virtuous circle is created; when people change their behaviour they subsequently change their attitudes.

The Common Cause retort is that you need to change attitudes first. They say that by adopting the type of framing CDSM use, you indulge and exacerbate self-interest. They contend that "selling people green behaviours and products on the basis of appeals to status, image, and money values" will not change attitudes. And they say people's 'good' values can only trump their 'bad' ones if you present things in 'ethical' or compassionate ways. Framing the NHS in "transactional terms" to encourage willingness to "put in", for example, would actually, Common Cause argue, be "corrosive". Rather you should frame it as a social good in itself.

This is a view also put forward by The Guardian's George Monbiot. Monbiot criticises what he calls the "values ratchet" - the process of speaking to people's values as they are, rather than guiding them to 'higher' values. He says we should "remind the country to care" and warns that our values are sliding towards "ever more selfishness". (This last claim, incidentally, is undermined by the fact the liberal and egalitarian 'Pioneer' proportion of the population has doubled from 19% to 38% since 1973 - outstripping Prospectors and dwarfing the shrinking Settler contingent).

At The Campaign Company we use Values a lot, to address the challenges councils and public health teams face. And our overwhelming sense is that the CDSM approach works best. Ultimately, we've found, you must meet people where they are or run the risk of making normative, Pioneer-centric judgements.

We became more certain of this after work we did a few years back for Barking & Dagenham Council. The aim of the project was to understand underlying causes of low cohesion - expressed by some residents in voting BNP. We went into communities, and found that the Far Right had been able to capitalise on poor cohesion in deprived areas. Left-leaning stakeholders had in many cases tried to advocate universalist, altruistic or internationalist values on topics like immigration, but this hadn't worked. Instead it had created an impasse, and led many councillors to take a step back, often wrongly characterising residents as racist. This left an open goal for those with a non-inclusive agenda.

The reality was that residents were not racist at all - they just had Settler values. They wanted more security and they mistrusted change. They needed to be reassured and listened to, and to feel their traditions were valued. Doing this did not mean a capitulation on things like immigration rhetoric. But it did mean using clear language and helping provide the perfectly valid things residents felt they lacked. An example was the effort the council made to target rubbish in people's front gardens, which helped challenge the narrative of decline.

Starting with the assumption that they cared about the exact things as we did deep down - or that they should do - would not have worked. And it would not have deserved to.

Ultimately the differences between these two sides of the values debate are overstated. Common Cause, for example, are as unwilling as CDSM to judge or dismiss right-wingers. But for my money, and in all of our experiences at The Campaign Company, the way of creating a happier, more progressive society is by understanding when and why people see the world differently and helping them fulfil the needs that those perspectives throw up - not by trying to win them over to the side of 'good'.