Exploring Values-led Communication

How Schwartz Theory helps us spark conversations on common ground.

In our algorithmically tailor-made social media bubbles, it can be easy to forget that everyone's timelines and influences are different.

Climate, biodiversity, social justice and stability... not everyone sees what we see, reads what we read, is interested in what we're interested in, or understands our references.

It's why so many of us scratch our heads when our conversation topics are met with blank faces - or worse, with hostility.

After all, to us, and to those who share our values and motivation, these topics are paramount - they are why we get up in the morning, and do the work we do.

But that's the crux of it: "to us, and to those who share our values and motivations". Because there are many more values and motivations in life than our own.

Nurture Human Nature: Schwartz Theory of Universal Values

In Doughnut Economics: 3 - Nurture Human Nature, pages 106-109, Kate Raworth touches on Schwartz Theory of Universal Values.
She explains how social psychologist Shalom H. Schwartz defined a set of ten universal human values that underpin much of what we do and what drives us: 

  • Self-direction
  • Stimulation
  • Hedonism
  • Achievement
  • Power
  • Security
  • Conformity
  • Tradition
  • Benevolence
  • Universalism


Schwartz Circumplex - Source: www.fdsd.org

Schwartz Values help us understand the common values that we humans all share, to varying degrees.

Exploring this idea further was the request of the Bath City Doughnut Learning Group on 4th May 2023 - 'How to have more positive conversations'.

Cross-referencing the Schwarz Values Circumplex with a plethora of advertising and media campaigns, we explored how verbal and visual communication can tap into and activate different values.

The group learned about Benevolence, Universalism, Stimulation and Self-Direction - the generally more intrinsic values of Openness to Change and Self-Transcendence (as in, the autonomy and will to change, and the concern about the wellbeing of others). And how these are broadly considered to be the most important values for positive change. 

Then about the opposing more extrinsic values; those which focus on Self-Enhancement (by way of personal Achievement and Power) and Conservation (Security, Tradition and Conformity).

We noted that we all do have all of these values at the same time.

And how some extrinsic values show up in us in certain circumstances, and are not necessarily bad - we all like to let off steam with a little Hedonism sometimes, for example. And, after all, Achievement gets things done.

We also saw how the Circumplex layout demonstrates the relationship and opportunities between the opposite and adjacent values.

But overall we could see that, where there's a big split in the overall emphasis (where some people are more weighted on one side of the Circumplex, and others on the other) that's where the communication gap shows up.

As sustainability practitioners, we tend to be weighted more towards Benevolence and Universalism (welfare of people and nature).

An example of an Oxfam campaign, tapping into Benevolence and Universalism values.

But, in our current growth/consumption-led and media landscape,  it's the extrinsic values that are continually activated, and tend to tip the balance. Self-Enhancement, Achievement, Power (personal success, social status and prestige) and so on. 

An example of a Rolex campaign, tapping into Power and Achievement values.

The outcome of the learning session was the recognition that a continued emphasis on Benevolence and Universalism (welfare of people and nature) as the default sustainability communication strategy speaks only to our values, not those of others. 

And simply can't stand up against the sheer weight of consumerist communication as it stands. (We learn how our values are often used against us on pg. 107 of the book, where Raworth refers to Sigmund Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, and the birth of PR to pull our strings towards sales).

This comparison enhanced our understanding of dominant extrinsic influences in communication to date, and sparked discussion on how reclaiming this knowledge could perhaps help us counteract those influences, with more effective communication that brings us together and brings out the best in us all. 

An example of a campaign stemming from Universalism/Benevolence, stretching out towards Hedonism values.

Overall, the theory showed us how all humans share the same values to some degree. And how we can approach certain topics with friends, colleagues, and across sectors, to best effect, and that conflict and miscommunication can be overcome when we shape conversations on what inspires us, using fresh ideas, stories, examples, images and imagination - like the Doughnut.

“Saving our planet is now a communications challenge. We know what to do, we just need the will.”
Sir David Attenborough





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