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It's easy to feel despair at the state of our current world and, by extension, to feel despondent about human nature.

A cursory look around our world gives the impression human beings are driven more by fear, hatred and selfishness than by love, compassion and care for nature. Whether it is Australian politicians throwing lumps of coal around parliament as the Great Barrier Reef dies, US President Donald Trump’s views on climate change, or the almost endless spate of wars and famine wreaking havoc with people’s lives around the world — the evidence is damning.

But science tells us a different story of our humanity. It’s a story that flies in the face of our current broken politics and collective obsession with economic growth over all else. It’s a story about what we really value as human beings.

Over the past three decades social psychologists have made incredible advances in understanding how the human value system works and why it matters. What they’ve discovered is that people around the world share at least 58 universal values. These values range from honesty, loyalty and unity with nature, to pleasure, wealth and social recognition.

And while these values are universal, the difference between people is the degree to which they prioritise each value. These ‘values priorities’, in turn, influence the goals we set ourselves in life, the attitudes we hold and the behaviours we exhibit.

Science tells us a different story of our humanity. It’s a story that flies in the face of our current broken politics and collective obsession with economic growth over all else.

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People around the world share at least 58 universal values – ranging from honesty, loyalty and unity with nature, to pleasure, wealth and social recognition. Photo: Julia Rau

Hundreds of studies from around the world have now mapped the way in which different groups of values are associated with different types of attitudes and behaviours. In short, some values make us act in more selfish and competitive ways, while others are associated with more cooperative and altruistic behaviour.

It turns out that people who prioritise a broad group of values known as intrinsic values — which includes a range of self-directed and compassionate values such as creativity, broadmindedness, unity with nature, responsibility and loyalty — are more likely to act in pro-social and environmentally responsible ways. For example, people who prioritise intrinsic values are more likely to volunteer, buy ethical products, reduce their environmental footprint and even pick up other people’s litter.

People often think about values as abstract and subjective ideals that rarely translate into people’s actual behaviour. Nothing could be further from the truth.

On the other hand, people who prioritise a competing set of so-called extrinsic values — which include wealth, public image, social power, ambition and success — are more likely to act in anti-social and environmentally destructive ways. For example, they are more likely to be sexist and racist, more likely take advantage of others, and less likely to recycle or support environmental policies.

People often think about values as abstract and subjective ideals that rarely translate into people’s actual behaviour. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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Some values make us act in more selfish and competitive ways, while others are associated with more cooperative and altruistic behaviour. 

The good news is that in Australia, as well as in more than 60 other countries for which we have data, we know that the majority of people prioritise intrinsic values. They are more motivated by the internal rewards of pursuing ideals such as honesty, broadmindedness and curiosity than they are by external rewards such as money, fame or power. As it turns out, however, most people assume the opposite to be true.

For example, a recent study conducted by Common Cause Foundation in the United Kingdom and the United States found a wide gap between people’s perceptions of their own values, versus the values of others in their society.

When surveyed on their personal values, the vast majority of people were found to prioritise compassionate values like honesty, love, equality and unity with nature over selfish values like wealth, power, public image and success.

However, when participants were asked to fill out the exact same survey, but this time reflecting on the values of the average British or US citizen, a clear majority thought other people were more driven by selfish values than they were. In short, most people think that other people do not share their values.

When surveyed on their personal values, the vast majority of people were found to prioritise compassionate values like honesty, love, equality and unity with nature over selfish values like wealth, power, public image and success.

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Most of us are driven far more by love for our fellow humans and a deep connection to the rest of nature. Photo: James Thomas

This perception gap was significantly greater for politically progressive people than it was for politically conservative people. In other words, conservatives are better at judging the values of their fellow citizens than progressives.

What’s more, this perception gap really matters, because it turns out that the more people think that others in their community do not share their values, the less likely they are to think that engaging in civic behaviours such as attending rallies, signing petitions and meeting with politicians actually makes a difference. And the less likely people were to have actually voted in the previous five years.

Think about this for a moment in the context of the two big political upsets of 2016 — Brexit in the UK and Trump in the US. In both cases, the winning campaign only won by a very slender percentage margin. In both cases, had the losing campaign managed to get more people to the polls, it would have changed world history.

So why do people, especially progressive people, have such a skewed view of other people’s values?

One explanation is the fact that people don’t always act in line with their dominant values. For example, we know that most Australians prioritise compassionate and environmentally responsible values over selfish values, yet continue to vote for politicians who choose to do very little about our climate pollution and prefer to torture people seeking asylum offshore
than provide them a safe home in Australia.

That’s not to say, however, that values aren’t important. It’s just to point out that our dominant values are only half of the story.

Most Australians prioritise compassionate and environmentally responsible values over selfish values.

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Most people already deeply care about nature and want to see it protected. Photo: James Thomas 

Over the past decade researchers have been exploring the extent to which our values are primed by our context — the things we see, hear, read or otherwise experience. This includes the way corporations, governments and non-profits frame their communications.

In fact, studies show that our context can be a lot more important than our normal values in determining which values guide our attitudes and behaviours in that moment.

For example, in one study researchers wanted to see if values priming could be used to influence people’s levels of helpfulness. To do this, they took 94 participants and split them into three groups. The first group was asked to write reasons for and against honesty and loyalty (intrinsic values). The second group to write about success and ambition (extrinsic values). A control group was asked to complete an unrelated task.

Then, one at a time, participants were told the study was complete and to proceed into a separate room to fill in a form before leaving. In the other room, a researcher pretended to knock over a cup of 10 pencils. The real test was to see how many pencils each unsuspecting participant picked up in the allocated time.

It turned out those primed with the intrinsic values of honesty and loyalty picked up more pencils than the control group. Not only that, but those who had been primed with the extrinsic values of success and ambition picked up less pencils than the control group. In other words, priming people’s extrinsic values doesn’t just fail to boost helpful behaviour, it actually supresses it.

Dozens of other studies have found the same effect using a variety of priming techniques and measures of pro-social and environmental behaviours.

Priming people’s extrinsic values doesn’t just fail to boost helpful behaviour, it actually supresses it.

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Thanks to your support, we'll be back in the Federal Court in March to challenge the government's approval of the Carmichael coal mine, which threatens the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: tchami, flickr

The take-away lesson for people who care about creating a more caring and environmentally sustainable world is that appealing to people’s compassionate values is a lot more effective than appealing to their selfish values. This might not sound particularly surprising, but if you look at the values often used to motivate support for social justice and environmental causes, you’ll quickly see how often we get it wrong.

A city council, for example, ran a campaign a few years back in which it posted oversized price tags on trees that read: “The trees in this street give back $10,613.80 worth of environmental benefits over the next 20 years”. The objective was to encourage people to value trees. Instead, the campaign further reinforced the idea that trees have no value unless they also contribute to the economy. In other words, trees are worth protecting because of extrinsic values not intrinsic ones.

This campaign approach is sadly not unique, but part of a growing global trend of putting a price on discrete elements of nature to show they have value. Of course, this ignores the mountains of evidence collected over decades that most people already deeply care about nature and want to see it protected. In fact, when they are reminded of the extrinsic benefits of nature, this serves to reduce pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours, not increase them.

So instead of reinforcing this unhelpful story about human selfishness and greed, what we should be doing is telling a different story — a more accurate story about human nature.

Yes, it is true that we can be selfish, but this is only one part of our motivational system and for most people it’s not the dominant one. Most of us are driven far more by love for our fellow humans and a deep connection to the rest of nature. The trick is to have faith in our shared humanity, appeal to our better natures and, in doing so, bring our intrinsic values to the fore.

The trick is to have faith in our shared humanity, appeal to our better natures and, in doing so, bring our intrinsic values to the fore.

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Mark Chenery

Co-founder of Common Cause Australia.

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