Values are guiding principles in life and represent what we consider to be important, whereas goals reflect aspects of life deemed worthy of striving for.
Studies show that the more strongly individuals subscribe to values and goals beyond their own immediate self-interest (self-transcendence, prosocial, altruistic or biospheric values, intrinsic goals) the more likely they are to engage in pro-environmental behaviour (Steg and Vlek, 2009). These values are to do with care and concern for others, and for the natural world. Conversely, values and goals to do with enhancing your own status and having power over others, acquiring financial wealth, material goods and other external rewards (self-enhancement values, extrinsic goals) are associated with lack of concern for the wellbeing of other people or the natural world, and with higher materialism (Kasser et al, 2004).
Anxiety-free or anxiety-based
Whereas self-transcendence values are anxiety free, self-enhancement values are anxiety based: they are pursued to cope with anxiety in situations of uncertainty or threat (Schwartz et al, 2012). Likewise, people may orient towards extrinsic goals as a way to enhance their self-esteem and/or sense of security and of being in control (Crompton and Kasser, 2009). Anxiety has been shown to reduce empathy because it is linked to egocentrism (Todd et al, 2015).
It is thought that we have the full range of values and goals available to us but we may have a dispositional tendency to prioritise some over others. These tendencies can change over time. The strength and salience of values in individuals is influenced by the relative strength of these values in wider society (Kasser et al, 2004). We can be influenced, or primed, into activating certain values without us even being consciously aware that this is happening e.g. through advertising, the media, political discourse, and through being influenced by our social networks and group affiliations. When values are repeatedly activated, they become strengthened in the mind relative to other values, and this strengthening makes them subsequently easier to activate.
Interaction with other psycho-social factors
Values and goals interact with other drivers of behaviour in complex ways. There are many other psycho-social factors that influence how we act in the world including identity, type of motivation, and how a person copes with psychological threat (Andrews, 2017). We also make trade offs between different values and goals, so that a pro-environmental behaviour may be in line with one value or goal but in conflict with others. Depending on how salient these other values and goals are in the mind, the behaviour may not then be enacted or may be cancelled out in a rebound effect. Rebound is when environmental benefits from one behaviour are cancelled out by changes in behaviour in other areas, e.g. money saved through home energy efficiency is used on flights abroad. Developing our understanding of the way that values, goals and other psych-social factors interact to influence our cognition and behaviour is critical for ensuring our responses to ecological crisis are adaptive rather than maladaptive.
Andrews, N. (2017). Psychosocial factors influencing the experience of sustainability professionals. Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy, 8(4), 445-469.
Crompton, T. and Kasser, T. (2009). Meeting environmental challenges: the role of human identity. Godalming, UK: WWF-UK.
Kasser, T., et al. (2004). Materialistic values: their causes and consequences. In Kasser, T. and Kanner, A.D. (Eds.). Psychology and consumer culture: the struggle for a good life in a materialistic world, pp.11-28. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
Schwartz, S. H., et al. (2012). Refining the theory of basic individual values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(4), 663–88.
Steg, L. and Vlek, C. (2009). Encouraging pro-environmental behaviour: an integrative review and research agenda. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29, 309-317.
Todd, A. R., et al. (2015). Anxious and egocentric: how specific emotions influence perspective taking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Generals, 144(2), 374-391.