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Blog Post | 06 Dec 2022

Understanding values for policymaking: the challenges

Values are everywhere, but at the same time difficult to fully grasp. They build the foundation for what people want from politics and it is high time that we understand them better. Knowledge on how to take values into account in policy design and communication is crucial to build a trusting relationship with citizens.

(Reposted from UK World Values Survey)

Values are everywhere in political debates. In the discussion on climate change, for example, we often hear that we need urgent action to save the planet or people, to keep us safe or to ensure growth and competitiveness of the economy.

At the same time, people often disagree about whether we really behave in line with the values we argue for in debate. We argue about whether protecting the environment would limit individual freedom or increase it, whether it’s compatible with our traditions (in this case “traditions” like having a regular barbecue, driving cars and flying to vacation destinations) or whether it is an opportunity or roadblock for economic development.

Yet our actions are not determined by our values. Many people complain that others are sacrificing their values out of greed, fun, laziness, or… imperial dreams. The relation between our “values” and the way we behave seems modest, at best. So, what are values and why do we need to understand them?

A cynic would say that values are just window dressing and that politicians use them as rhetorical justification for self-serving goals. It is essentially “cheap talk”, as economists call it. There is no way to verify them, they are ambiguous and not binding and can therefore be ignored. There is certainly some truth to this. We are all prone to justify our own actions in the best way possible. Values are truisms, designed to uphold our self and social image.

However, the frequent appeals to values by politicians suggest they can persuade. There is evidence that they do change opinions, attitudes, and behaviour.

For example, one study shows that, when presented with leaky and dirty pens, subtly making security values salient increased the frequency in which people wanted to clean their workplace. In the same study, when confronted with the values priorities of their peers, people adjusted their own values to fit the group. Both findings suggest that values matter and that people care about how they are debated in society. This sounds like potentially good news, but can we dress up any position by any value to persuade people? 

Some method to the madness

The answer is thankfully no. There is method to the madness. Values, or more specifically personal values, relate systematically to each other, to policies and our behaviour. Making one value more salient decreases the importance of other values that are in conflict. In the leaky pen study, when participants were primed with stimulation values (“curiosity”, “freedom”, “choosing your own goals”), they cared less about being clean relative to a control group (and even less compared to the security frame group). Exciting and being safe usually do not have much in common.

But what do leaky pens and wipes have to do with politics? Well, the same principles that apply to our personal behaviour also apply to policies and speeches. Arguments are more convincing if they use consistent values. One study looked at the persuasiveness of arguments based on the similarity of values and policies mentioned. They find that using a universalist value (“educating on broadmindedness”) to promote social justice and tolerance worked better than if they used power values (“free pursuit of wealth”).

The advantage of this approach is that it predicts those relationships even for less obvious conflicts. We can use this as a compass for understanding people’s reactions. In our recent report, we have synthesised the literature and produced an infographic that shows the general relation of values to each other, how to communicate and how they relate to political hot button issues around migration and climate change.

The core claim is that values are grouped along four directions: On the one hand, conservation, which has a tension with openness to change. The conflict presented in the study above between security and stimulation falls into this dimension. On the other hand, self-enhancement values, which entail caring about success or wealth, conflict with values of self-transcendence like universalism, caring about equality and nature. These relations are also universal across the globe, not only a phenomenon of the West.

Values identities infographic


Explore the interactive version of the report >

So what? Applying the knowledge on values

There are two obvious ways this knowledge can be applied. On the one hand, we should take this as evidence that people really do want different things, also from policies. Governing institutions in democracies should understand the importance of taking this diversity into account. This is possibly one reason why democracy itself is the best among all bad governance systems. Even if we were all equally well-off, we would still want different things in the same situation.

In order for this to work, we “just” need to make sure that our democracies are able to handle the disagreements that arise from wanting different things. How to do that in our social-media-instant-polarisation-world, is something we need more research on. For example, reaching out and really listening to citizens, through citizen engagement and deliberative democracy methods, is one such way. We also propose other tools.

On the other hand, once different perspectives are properly taken into account in our policies, we can use this knowledge to make sure that citizens understand their wishes have really been listened to.  One strand of research suggests using the priority values of those who are not yet convinced as a framing for communicating better. This is more likely to work on those in the middle, rather than the extremes, of the debate.

While these methods seem promising, we are only at the beginning of understanding them. The personal values model is a gold standard in social psychology, but there are other types of values models that are useful too: cultural values one, two, and three, political values, religious values, relational values, moral foundations and different moral foundations, even a values atlas and many more.

The evidence on the functioning of values is also often primarily drawn from the US, which is in many ways particular. There are even arguments that values framing might only work because it signals party rhetoric rather than the underlying values, which would mean the effect comes from social identity rather than values.

Finally, it is also questionable whether values framing is always appropriate. If we take them at face value, then these values represent the things that people care about deeply. Using this to convince them to support something not in their interest would be deeply unethical. At the very least, a thorough check on whether a policy is indeed in line with the claimed values is needed. Otherwise, we would risk undermining the trust of citizens in a democracy, which seems like a bad idea.

What should we take away from all this?

Values really matter. And they can be used for more than simply to “communicate in shared values”. We can use that knowledge to better understand what citizens really want in order to design better policies, and then to communicate them better in values terms.

We should ask: Has this policy truly improved security and for whom? Has it improved or worsened inequality, hurt or helped nature, improved or curtailed freedom? We should check before communicating a policy, and only after that devise a communication strategy.

Further research on the ethics of those communication practices and citizens perspectives on these issue is necessary to have a final say on the best way forward. Similarly, more research is needed to find out which values truly matter. The JRC will continue to work on those questions and look forward to the next waves of the World Value Survey and European Values Study, which provide researchers around the world with the public good of high-quality survey evidence.