One of the talks that really struck us at the last Pecha Kucha Cape Town event was delivered by Robert Zipplies, of Common Cause South Africa. He was talking about values, and here’s what he had to say – reproduced with permission.

What you value in life is important — not just for you personally, but all of us — because your choice of values influences what you think and do. And this, in turn, shapes our society and future.

Many people are worried about the state of the world and are dedicated to improving it. But do you think our efforts are turning the tide? Are we making things better? Are we improving the lives of all living creatures?

I am not so sure we are. While some social indicators are improving, many are not — or too slowly. And environmentally, well…  almost every indicator is going the wrong way, fast — and this of course undermines all the good social work being done.

So we need to do things differently.

But how do we think and act and work differently to make our change efforts more effective?  There are many good answers to this question and one essential component is to learn to work with the human mind and how humans make decisions.

Traditional approaches to improving the world focus very much on fixing the problems ‘out there’, but we largely ignore the ‘inner’ dimension – in other words how our current thinking creates and perpetuates the problems that we are working so hard to solve.

And here human values offer a useful, some would say essential, tool.  And this isn’t just my random opinion, but this approach is based on a large body of research.  The values we all prioritise shape our life goals, our attitudes and ultimately our behaviours.

How do the values we express in our personal words and actions — or those of our organisations — how do they influence our own attitudes and behaviours, and those of society around us? How do these values AND their effects ripple outwards into the world?

Two groups of values are particularly important in this regard: Intrinsic and extrinsic values – which we all have within us.  Intrinsic values are inherently rewarding to pursue:

  • like being with friends and family;
  • being creative, helpful and honest, and
  • championing thinks like equality, freedom and social justice.

Extrinsic values, on the other hand, are focused on external approval or rewards. So this would include pursuing wealth, success, status and social power.  So why are these two groups so important? This is quite obvious.

Peer-reviewed studies indicate that if we engage or strengthen extrinsic values — that is, the desire for wealth, success and social recognition — this makes people more self-centred and selfish, and less likely to support social and environmental causes.

Many places and activities can strengthen your extrinsic values:

  • your place of work might be a company with a narrow focus on profitability,
  • or some of your friends might be quite materialistic and status driven.
  • Even watching TV, with all its adverts that play on our insecurities and desires, will strengthen extrinsic values.

If, however, you choose to exercise your intrinsic values, you will then tend to more frequently express attitudes and behaviours that are more beneficial to us all.

You will become more engaged in solving the big issues of our time — something we urgently need.

So if you continuously prioritise intrinsic values in everything you do – at work and privately – you are strengthening these values in your own mind – and then,  through your words and actions, in society around you — and this improves your personal, as well as our collective well-being.

And, interestingly, these two value groups exist in a see-saw relationship in our minds. If you activate or exercise the one, the other weakens automatically — and this see-saw effect is happening in your minds right now. So if tonight I had talked at length about the thrill of owning a luxury car, or achieving fame and success, you would’ve, on average, tested a little more extrinsically motivated than at the start of the evening. Fortunately tonight, I am talking about the benefit of intrinsic values.

So, knowing all this, you may ask: how can I work with values for our common benefit?

The first step, is to assess what values are most important to you, and then explore how you can more effectively promote intrinsic values in everything that you say and do.  Take time to reflect on the values you would like to champion in your life.

To sum up: values shape what we think and do – individually and collectively. And your personal choice of values can either contribute to making us a more cohesive, collaborative and caring society, or they can work against that.

So think carefully about what you most value and which values you want to champion in the world.