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Ethics and morality, Social and behavioural

‘I’ve built a good mousetrap and people come to use it’

Bec Sanderson talks to social psychologist Shalom Schwartz about his life’s work on values.

28 November 2017

I meet Shalom Schwartz in his new home in New Paltz, New York. There's a lot of 'new' in this address, which becomes more apparent when we sit down for coffee. 'In our old home in Israel', his wife Penina says, looking out of the window, 'we could see all the way out to Jordan.' She says this again, after our interview, so I know it is a significant move for the family.

Schwartz is in his eighties and bright as a button. It's a warm June afternoon and he is relaxed. We sit on a covered balcony, looking over at the Shawangunk Range, or The Gunks as he calls them – 'they're full of ticks, swarming!' (Schwartz was recently treated for Lyme disease) – and I ask him my first question, the question I have asked hundreds of activists and campaigners at the start of workshops, and the thing I am burning to know about Shalom Schwartz: What do you value in life? 

He smiles. 'Freedom to think what I want to think, and develop my own ideas. Warm social relationships. Those are the two biggies. Me, like the vast majority of people in the world...'  Schwartz has spent much of his career emphasising the shared, universal nature of values and in one paper with Anat Bardi, he demonstrates that Benevolence, Universalism and Self-direction values are consistently rated most important to most people across different cultures. The answers he has just given map pretty neatly onto Self-direction and Benevolence.

The Schwartz model shows that values have neighbours and opposites, that values close together (e.g. Humble, Honest) tend to have similar importance to people, that values far away (e.g. Equality, Social Power) act more like a seesaw – as one rises in importance, the other falls. When you add to this that values connect to behaviour (that Universalism and Benevolence are associated with cooperation, sustainable behaviour, civic engagement and acceptance of diversity – that Achievement and Power are most emphatically not), and that values can be engaged, you have more than a model: you have an imperative for all the activists and campaigners scrabbling around for the messages and tactics that are going to change the world.

At least, that's how I feel about it. So I want to know what it felt like to develop the model in the first place. It's clear that Schwartz sees his theory as being heavily influenced by Milton Rokeach: 'Most of the items he had, I used. And then I added to them, trying to expand to fill in what was missing. The whole Tradition area he had left out, like a good American in the 1970s… When I went to college, who believed that tradition was going to be important? We were sure religion was dying. But it became very clear later that we were dead wrong!'

Schwartz had a hunch that there was some coherence, some continuum, between the different sorts of values motivations, and this was confirmed when he looked at the multidimensional scaling (MDS) analysis he had run on Rokeach data. 'Oh, it was a phenomenal moment. It was a Saturday night and I don't work on the Jewish Sabbath, but I had brought home the computer output – you know, big fat paper outputs that we got in those days – and it was sitting on my desk waiting for me, and I hadn't looked at the results. When the sun went down and it got dark, I went into my room, sat at the table, opened it up and started looking. Then I ran into the kitchen saying "Eureka! It really works! It's there!"' 

It was a 'total shock', he says. 'Things like that happen once in a lifetime. I mean, I've been living off that ever since.' And he has. The 1992 chapter in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, where he first laid out his theory for the universal structure of values, has been cited over 12,000 times to date. Schwartz has since published prolifically, in the region of 300 academic articles and book chapters, and his value questionnaires have been translated into 54 languages.

But it took several years for that success to be felt. 'I remember saying to Penina in '87, when we first presented the idea of the circle, either this is going to fall flat on its face, or it may be a breakthrough.' It partly hung on Louis Guttman's new MDS method, a method of visualising similarities and differences in data, which was treated with some suspicion by the peer review panel. As a young academic somewhat out of his depth, Schwartz responded by asking Guttman directly for help. Messages went back and forth between Guttman, Schwartz, the Advances editor and the reviewer. 'I was in the middle, I didn't know enough about the statistics and the method. Eventually the reviewer wrote back and said "He's right" and let it go. And that was how the first study got published and that was how I fell into it, basically.'

Schwartz talks about 'falling into it' several times over our conversation – 'I often ask myself, did I just fall into it or was there some long-term trend that brought me there?' – and he resists portraying himself as deliberately pursuing this path. He seems most comfortable talking about himself as a scientist driven by curiosity – 'I always have more questions, there is always something else to ask', and he is happy to remain agnostic about why he got hooked on values in particular. When he thinks back to first coming across Rokeach he remembers feeling doubt about his methods of changing behaviours through values: 'I was very sceptical about it, but it stayed with me.' He shakes his head, laughing, and addresses himself in the second person: 'Really, why are you so interested in this?!'

I suggest that part of the draw is that values matter: they matter in the sense that they help us understand and change behaviour. But Schwartz seems curiously on the fence about this. 'I still tend to be sceptical about relations between values and behaviour. I think they exist, and I've built a lot of my work on that assumption. In fact, I never would have gone into the field if I didn't think there was a relationship to behaviour.'

But? There's clearly a 'but'. For one, he says:values do not mean the same thing to everyone. People can associate different behaviours with the same value. So even if two people can agree that justice is important, they might not apply this value to behaviour in the same way. They might not have the same 'instantiation' of justice. Instantiations can also vary across culture. Greg Maio, Head of Psychology at Bath University, gives the example of family security, which is universally valued but will give rise to different behaviours for people in Brazil compared with people in the UK. Schwartz seems hopeful about this avenue of research. 'Greg Maio has a very important argument when he says the instantiations are critical, and when you change people's instantiations you can anchor change in values.'

Another question he raises is about priming studies, which demonstrate that behaviour can be manipulated through exposure to messages or symbols. Few psychologists need reminding about the replication crisis. During this crisis, a number of famous, now notorious, priming studies have failed to replicate and Schwartz is understandably sceptical about the method: 'I think they're very nice for demonstrating causality, but whether that priming really continues, whether it has any lasting effect…' He gives a long shrug.

Schwartz then cites an argument from Rokeach that gets to the heart of the matter: You can't get people to change, except in the direction that they want to change. This is partly an argument about what is possible, given the nature of values. In Schwartz's own words, values are 'conceptions of the desirable that influence the way people select action and evaluate events' (Schwartz & Bilsky, 1987). So for a person to change their values and behaviour, they need to think the change is desirable: they must want to change.

But surely this is manipulated all the time? I think about all the money spent on advertising, vying for this prime real estate of the human mind. And that's where it becomes an ethical maxim. Schwartz is uneasy about values being used in social engineering, or 'nudging', to deceive and manipulate. 'The attempts to change values are fine but people should understand what you are doing, they should be free to resist and it should be in directions that they really want to go.'

I get the sense that the application of his theory to the real world seems, at the same time, the subject that matters to him the most and the subject he is most uncomfortable talking about. It is clear that Schwartz is concerned about the ends as well as the means. While the 'don't manipulate' argument should hold across the board, he is very supportive of campaigners using his work to build concern for issues like human rights and climate change: 'Let me put it this way. I am constantly delighted when I see people applying it in ways that matter, because I don't feel very good about my ability to do that. So if people can do that I just think that's terrific.'

I've spent years trying to apply this theory, helping campaigners examine the values they stand for. Quite often, campaigners are completely unaware of the values they promote. Greenpeace will run climate change campaigns on the platform of conspicuous consumption: 'Save the world while you shop!' and happily promote the very values that suppress concern for the environment. I've come to a similar conclusion to Schwartz, that instantiation is the key. We know that most people hold Universalism and Benevolence to be very important. We know these values are associated with more sustainable, progressive behaviours. The job of campaigners is to help people see their values as being relevant to climate change, poverty, human rights.

Was Schwartz ever tempted to step outside academia, to get more engaged with the ways his theory is applied? 'No, pure science is much more my orientation, and I've never been very much of an applied person.' He talks of having a charmed life as an academic and seems to have never entertained the possibility of doing anything else. When I ask him what he is most proud of, he doesn't hesitate for a second: 'My students.' He is animated in his descriptions of the mentoring system he developed in Israel. 'The most gratification I get is from just watching what my students can do, and seeing how they have continued a similar kind of atmosphere with their own students, and are producing first-rate scientists themselves. I would say that's what I'm most proud of.'

How about the strangest things other people have done with the theory? His eyes shine with mirth. 'Oh there have been some strange ones! Somebody was trying to develop a way to use values in dance and they had dancers with lights on different parts of their bodies. You would look at the dancers and they would be exemplifying a value through the way they moved their bodies. I scratched my head and thought: What are they doing?'

I am sheepish when I tell him that we have done something similar as an exercise, to help people understand the theory. 'Oh yeah? Great! I'll give you one that you can't have done in workshops that is also strange. An archaeologist contacted me. He was doing an archaeology of ancient cities in Italy and he was trying to infer the value priorities of the people from the architecture.' Schwartz catches the look on my face and laughs. 'Yes… In particular he was interested in power and hierarchy, how close things were to the road, how tall they were, how small or large things were around them. Again, I don't know what happened with it. People contact me with all kinds of ideas and they ask me "Do you think it's relevant?". My reaction is "I don't know! If it interests you, go ahead. Let me know what you find!".' He opens his hands, palms to the sky. 

'Penina always says that I've built a good mousetrap and people come to use it, that's all.  Let them use it any way they want. My sense is that it's out there, and if anybody can get something out of it, fine. The Arabic word tfaldl captures my feeling about it: Please, be my guest, do whatever you want!'

As we make our way down to his apartment, we bump into an elderly Jewish lady with a neat perm and red lipstick. 'Marge!' smiles Schwartz. 'It's Mary' she fires back in no-nonsense New York drawl, then brushes it off to launch straight into her news. He cringes as we get into the lift, but reflects: 'Here, it's almost more suspicious if you get it right'. 

Back in his home, I am given drinks and sweets, and he talks me through a photograph album of his 80th birthday. 'You know, in our old home in Israel…', Penina says again, gazing out of the window. But I think they will be happy here. They are closer to their children and surrounded by friends. They have 'freedom to think' and 'warm social relationships': two of the values that matter most.

- Shalom Schwartz and Bec Sanderson have both authored chapters in Values and Behavior: Taking a Cross-Cultural Perspective, Roccas, S. & Sagiv, L. (Eds.), available from Springer.