‘Values provide a social glue’

We got in touch with Professor Greg Maio (University of Bath) about his new book, The Psychology of Human Values (Psychology Press).

Why this book, why now?
Actually, the idea for the book began about 15 years ago, and the topic became even more timely as the years passed. The Editor of the European Monographs in Social Psychology Series, Professor Rupert Brown, asked if I would like to write a monograph related to my research. It seemed like an exciting opportunity. In particular, it was a great opportunity to write a book on human values. Milton Rokeach’s influential volume The Nature of Human Values was published in 1973, and the enormous amount of subsequent work on values had yet to be incorporated into a single book. I saw an opportunity to bring this exciting research to a wider audience in a simple and, hopefully, engaging way. But it took me much longer to write the book than I hoped, because I felt I couldn’t do the topic justice without reading broadly across other social sciences first (e.g. philosophy, political science). Even though I wasn’t intending to write a lot about values from the perspective of other social sciences, I wanted to be sufficiently familiar to signpost at least some areas of overlap for readers.

What came first for you – an interest in human values or in psychology?
The interest in values came very soon after my interest in psychology. Campus life as an undergraduate in psychology exposed me to diverse debates. In the midst of heated discussions of controversial issues, I noticed perplexing differences in how people would refer to the same abstract values (e.g. freedom, equality) in different ways, and I ended up wondering whether people really knew what they meant by these terms. I wondered if I knew what I meant by them. Over time, I discovered that social psychologists study values in connection with other closely related constructs,
like attitudes and goals.

The study of values has been the domain of philosophers for millennia. What does modern psychology bring to the table?
Modern psychology brings empiricism. We are pushing forward increasingly different and sophisticated methodologies to test theories of values and to understand the role of values in everyday life, while intermeshing this understanding with our growing understanding of basic psychological processes. Gradually, we can demystify values and better understand their privileged status in our thinking. At the same time, however, we need other disciplines. Philosophers have developed rigorous ways conceptualising related constructs, and other disciplines help to place values in a bigger context (e.g. societies, economies, historical contexts).

Can human values be said to be improving? Or are there no absolute benchmarks when it comes to values?
There are conflicting views on this issue. Some researchers in the USA point to increasing selfishness in values and motives in recent decades. Other researchers point to differences between nations, cultures and communities. Finding benchmarks is difficult, because the data we have available changes over time. Even if we use words published in newspapers, these media outlets, their users, their contexts, and their functions among other outlets (e.g. social media) have also changed over time. To me, the more tractable question is whether our immediate social contexts influence our values. By tracking situational influences, we can find out more about how values change, including changes over time (which beget changes in situations).

Conflicts in values – political, social, religious, and so on – underpin most, if not all, of the existential threats the world faces, including environmental threats. As a scholar of the psychology of values, are you optimistic?
I agree, but I am cautiously optimistic. The high degree of abstraction in values (e.g. What does equality mean? What exactly is national security?) is not just a problem, it is a functional asset. By using values in our expressed reasoning, we are using social devices that function as pledges of consistency. They are the assurances that we give to others that we cherish particular guiding principles, which enable us to be consistent across situations, and for people to catch us when we are not being consistent. People can judge us on these claims of upholding particular values and decide whether to trust us. We can use values to decide for ourselves whether we need to change. They provide a pivotal social glue in making large-scale societal change. The more we abandon using values, the more we make it harder for others to see what we are trying to achieve.

What’s next for you? Any more book projects in the pipeline?
I am currently finishing on the third edition of The Psychology of Attitudes and Attitude Change (with Geoff Haddock and Bas Verplanken). I am really excited about current multi-institutional ESRC- and Templeton-funded projects focusing on children and prosocial values, intellectual humility in debate, and the role of values in close relationships. These projects will take up most of my research time in the next five years, but they cover very important theoretical and practical issues (in my own biased estimation).

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