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Guest post: Daniel Krawczyk, Ph.D.

Political candidates frequently invoke values as the basis for their candidacy. They claim to share cherished American values with the voters, while their opponent deeply opposes those values and seeks to purge them from our democracy. Stirring words indeed. What else do you really need to know at that point? Your vote is all but signed, sealed, and delivered.

Commentators and pundits speak of “conservative values” or “liberal values”. There is a widespread belief that the two are fundamentally different. Such a view suggests that Americans must pick a side and stick to it, because it’s the only game in town representing their most closely held views in life.

If you believe that the Democrats and Republicans have divided up “American values” with each party laying sole claim to unique sets of them, then perhaps you feel there really is no point in trying to talk to individuals who do not share your party preference. Worse, you may have reached the conclusion that we are destined to become even more polarized, as there is no common ground to be sought.

Fortunately, the science of human values tells us that this dire scenario is wrong. Shalom H. Schwartz, an eminent values scholar for the past five decades described ten basic human values that unite our species. He and his colleagues have conducted survey research on thousands of people around the globe. Their main finding is that human beings in over ninety cultures share a core set of approximately ten core values. These ten values group into four main sets (Self-Enhancement, Self-Transcendence, Conservation, and Openness to Change). Note that some of these value sets mirror concepts discussed in the field of personality research.

Schwartz represents this set of values in a pie chart with each slice representing one of the ten values organized into the four major values groupings. Values that are adjacent in the chart are highly interrelated (e.g. Power and Achievement), while values across from one another often stand in opposition (e.g. Security and Self-Direction). You can think of the ten core values as a set of dials that can be adjusted up or down within our minds as we contemplate the news of the day or our views on the world around us.

All of us probably represent all ten of Schwartz’ human values most of the time, but we do so to different degrees to suit our needs. We can emphasize one value more than another, or one set more than another set as we navigate our political landscape determining what we wish to see from ourselves, our fellow Americans, and our government.

To see where your ten values dials are set go ahead and take this brief quiz ( inspired by Schwartz and his colleagues’ research. At the end of the quiz, you get to see a graphical pie chart displaying a readout of your values settings based on your survey data. Like a radio volume knob, we set each of our values to reflect different volume levels dependent upon the circumstances. In times of scarcity, most of us will turn up the gain on our Security value and reduce our Benevolence level. We are then better prepared to act in our own personal best interests to ensure survival under the harsh circumstances. In times of plenty, we may dial up our Benevolence and Universalism values to share the wealth, while downgrading our personal Security due to the lack of threat.

We find this research to be both useful and inspiring. It is incredibly heartening to realize that all human beings around the world share a core set of basic values. This offers immense opportunity to bond with our fellow homo sapiens. If you incorporate knowledge of the ten values into your life, then you have a realistic opportunity to bond with any other individual inhabiting our planet right now. If you find yourself having trouble relating to someone who seems very different from you, then you need only to dig a bit deeper. Pivot to one of the other values and find the common ground. Surely at least one of your values is dialed in at roughly the same setting as the other party. If you disagree with someone, then you can do so constructively by reminding yourself that you are merely reflecting different aspects of values you both share. Knowledge of the ten values plus a good-faith attitude can act as a social catalyst enabling you to bond with even the most unlikely people in your life.

The practical value for America is clear. No party has exclusive ownership of any of the core human values. The basic human values transcend national identity, culture, political party, and even the individual. All people share in each value and the intensity of their expression can be adjusted to suit the context. This offers Americans ten areas within-which to explore deep, core synergies with their fellow citizens. These can lay the foundation for remarkable relationships.

So, the next time someone tries to bait you into a polarized Red-versus-Blue argument about American politics don’t shy away. Engage the person and seek to find one of the core human values that you both share (Security and Self-Direction are conversational gold!). Seek common ground, transcend party-line divisions, and explore the deeper human values that we all share. You might just be surprised what can happen.

We deserve leaders who stand for principal, who unite us all behind shared values, who cast aside anger for love. That is the standard we should expect from everybody.

-Ted Cruz

Our values are what unite us. That has always been true -- and it always will be.

-Nancy Pelosi

Our values displayed as a pie-chart

Shalom H. Schwartz (right) receives the Distinguished Scholar Award in 2020 from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.


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