Ever since the new year, I've been researching personal values with the goal of understanding what they mean and which ones I have. I've been doing some reading about them here and there, ever so often either on Wikipedia or on the internet as a whole, looking at different articles, and discussions.

Nevertheless I have been stuck on a question and didn't manage to really find a compelling answer, so, as a last resort, I'm asking it here on StackExchange, since I have a pretty good opinion about this community and the people that form it.

What are personal values actually? By this question I mean: are those values the values you have, like for instance if someone considers honesty to be one of his core values, does it mean that he is always honest? Or, on the other hand, does it mean that he values honesty, and wants the people around him to be honest, but it is more or less optional for him to be honest (of course it's just an example for the sake of understanding the question). Or even further, does it mean that he wants both him and others to be honest? Finally, and least likely, could it mean that he values honesty as a guideline, but he doesn't really regard it as "mandatory", for neither him or others?

An answer would be very much appreciated.

3 Answers 3


Your values are mental attitudes of approval or disapproval towards actions, codes of behavior, outcomes, methods of social organization, ways of thinking, and so on. Values are what you like or don't like, among the things that you consider generally important and significant for life as a whole.

We could think of your values as "the list of things that you value," except that there is no reason to think a definitive list of everything you value exists or can be written down. For one thing, your values change over time; some people become more socially conservative as they age, for example. For another thing, individuals typically don't have fully consistent and coherent values that can be queried. A person's answer to a survey question about their values can depend highly on how the question is worded, or on the social context, or on what topic they were just thinking about before being asked the question.

Your values influence your behavior but do not fully determine it. It is possible to act contrary to your values; you may strongly value industriousness, but lazily binge-watch a TV series anyway. Still, if you strongly value industriousness, you can usually be expected to work harder than someone else who lacks this value but is otherwise similar to you.

  • So you say it's something that can be relative to the context, but usually are regarded as something that influences your behavior, not the expectations that I have from others. Am I right? Apr 19, 2022 at 11:38
  • 1
    @MarcusRost It influences the expectations you have from others as well. Your values are what you want life to be like in general, either from your own behavior or from the behavior of others.
    – causative
    Apr 19, 2022 at 16:06

are those values the values you have, like for instance if someone considers honesty to be one of his core values, does it mean that he is always honest?

There is no reason why values show be flat and simple like a single word. If you are visiting a dating app profile maybe you could see something like "My name is John Doe and my top values are honesty, punctuality, fun". But that's not detailed enough philosophically or psychologically.

A value can be quite differentiated like: you value honesty at work and when it comes to money, but you abhor honesty when it comes to looks, you accept some cheating in games, having affairs, and accept not fully disclosing your tax report and medical exam results.

Ands obviously multiple values can conflict with each other, most people value both safety and freedom, both progress and continuity, liberty and responsibility, having company and having time for oneself, compassion and honesty, humility and ambition, luxury and frugality, spirituality and reason. Those need not be in conflict all the time, they are not direct opposites, but are classic examples of being in conflict often. And obviously when in conflict, one of the two (or more) values in the conflict does not always need to win, it can depend on a variety of factors, and change over time.

But when being asked a question like "What are your values, what should my values be?", then the single-word answers like "Honesty" typically declare a "topic" that's more relevant to a person that to another, without being explicit about what is expected of all humans in that topic. "Honesty" as an example means that a person pays a lot of attention to that in some contexts but not others, and might very well pay more attention to it for the behaviors of others than for their own. So if two people both say that honesty is their most important value, we still don't know much about what they actually expect of others or how they behave themselves, only that this topic is something they will pay a lot of attention to, each in their own way.

I personally believe that whether a value has the form "it is generally better to do X than Y", this would mostly influence the holder of the value, not their request of others. Whereas a value of the form "it is generally forbidden/unacceptable to do Y" would also strongly shape their requests of others. People resent others taking liberties that they deny themselves out of an imperative. But people adore others taking liberties that they deny themselves out of fear/caution. So the shape of the same value can determine how people react when observing others with different behaviors.

Also as a general caution: Personal values in humans are most typically not logically consistent. A classical example is that we abhor eating the meat of pet animals, but happily eat meat of farm animals (with no single trait drawing a line between those species). Our values are created over our lifetime influenced by from many directions, parents, school, society, media, church... and each of those sources may equally already be logically inconsistent to start with. Our brain is usually very effective at dealing with this, cherry picking in each situation suitable fragments of values. Or in other words, our brains are very poor at detecting and preventing such logical inconsistencies. So only in rare cases typically do humans notice how inconsistent their own values are logically speaking.

  • Good. But there's an important point you didn't touch: regarding who is supposed to follow those values? If, for instance, value honesty, does it mean that I am trying to be honest, for simplicity sake always? Or do I expect others that are in my social circle to be be honest? Or both of me and them? Apr 19, 2022 at 9:15
  • I said it's not determined. Different people will interpret this differently. I don't know how to give a better answer than that. Some might say spirituality and faith is very important to them, but will be happy to accept others being atheist materialist. Some will want to wage religious wars to convert all humans to their faith.
    – tkruse
    Apr 19, 2022 at 9:30
  • I have added a section speculating a bit about how expectations of others can vary.
    – tkruse
    Apr 20, 2022 at 0:40

Part 1: Nature of Values

Values are those elements or phenomena in life whose presence is believed by an agent to bring or sustain happiness.

The necessary condition of belief here is important since obviously (a) something, say an addictive substance, may be valued by an agent despite causing suffering longer-term and (b) something else, say a hidden protective force, may support well-being without being in an agent's awareness and or understanding. Moreover, there may be elements that would bring happiness, but are wholly unknown to, and absent from, an agent's life.

Generally when we speak of values, we are talking about abstract elements like honesty, truth, and peace. This is not to say an agent cannot value a specific object or being; but rather values are usually viewed as categories from which, or principles by which, future amenities and decisions can be extracted.

Part 2: Origin of Values

Values come in two basic flavours:

  1. Innate, or intrinsic, values are those elements we desire by instinct;
  2. Acquired, or instrumental, values are learned or discerned by experience.

Both are driven by instinct, but the latter involves a process of instrumental abstraction, wherein an agent learns or discerns the real-world, concrete paths by which intrinsic values, or raw instincts, can be most effectively satisfied. These paths often utilise tools and amenities -- materials, methods, skills -- whose essence forms the basis of instrumental values.

Technically any meaningful experience or interaction can help to discover and refine one's acquired values; yet those experiences producing the most joy or suffering -- first or second hand -- can be expected to make the most lasting impressions.

Moreover, a person is substantially more sensitive to value-defining experiences during childhood. This phenomenon is at least partly why our personality is so heavily influenced by our early years. I have heard that emotional needs unmet during this period may become core values of the person. For example, someone who felt unloved may become codependent; someone who felt lack of control may become authoritarian.

Part 3: Mechanism of Values

Our framework of conceptual, semantic understanding operates through cognitive schemas. From Wikipedia:

In psychology and cognitive science, a schema (plural schemata or schemas) describes a pattern of thought or behavior that organizes categories of information and the relationships among them.[1][2] It can also be described as a mental structure of preconceived ideas, a framework representing some aspect of the world, or a system of organizing and perceiving new information,[3] such as a mental schema or conceptual model.

Examples of schemata include academic rubrics, social schemas, stereotypes, social roles, scripts, worldviews, and archetypes.

Those listed types of schemas perhaps most pertinent to this discussion are scripts and archetypes. Scripts are lists of behavioural actions, or steps, needed to accomplish some goal, such as making a sandwich. Archetypes are patterns of thought or behaviour which are innate, or instinctual.

As an example, animals may have an archetypal script which says, when thirsty, put water in mouth. Other archetypal schemas would "define" or help identify water, mouth, and thirsty.

The set of these innate schemas is what we call instinct. Those abstract objects and situations referenced in these archetypal schemas as desirable comprise one's set of intrinsic values. Together, these instincts and values comprise one's nature.

Higher values and schemas are then learned through nurture and experience. For example, the idea that water can be found at rivers and streams is a learned schema, from which the idea that streams are beneficial likely results in streams being held as instrumentally valuable. With time, one may generalise and abstract these findings and higher schemas into personal values such as living by bodies of water.

Psychologically, these values are implemented as schema-valence associations, where a positive valence, or affect, is attached to a schema, resulting in a personal value. When schemas are activated, their affect is also activated. Since words are tied to schemas, encountering certain words activates certain schemas, which can evoke their associated emotions. Poetry often takes advantage of this phenomenon.

The strongest values, with the strongest valence, will be those found through the most emotionally significant experiences, especially during formative years.

Part 4: Expectations and Actions

Personal values, being based on emotion, will naturally act as drivers of action. As a process, currently active schemas -- pertaining to values, circumstances, and general feelings -- will compete with one another in terms of priority while further activating auxiliary schemas. Sometimes an instrumentally convergent path can be found to satisfy multiple desires simultaneously; but if not, the most positively activated action schema (script) will have to suffice -- assuming it reaches the volition threshold, or the point where desire exceeds resistance.

Because of these competing motivations, a personal value, particularly in certain circumstances and emotional states, may not result in appreciable action. A person may even choose an opposing action, should an opposing schema have higher activation at that time. Naturally, more strongly held values are likely to retain higher activation, so being more likely followed.

Expectations for the actions of others are more of a social matter. Factors such as social norms, prior social experiences, and an agent's current stage of moral development, are likely big players here. These factors should influence the priority given to group and interpersonal values, as well as any expectations for others. By Lawrence Kohlberg's stages (as linked above), a person at stage three would likely have higher expectations of personal values being respected interpersonally; yet someone at stage four would probably place higher priority on group values; one at stage five were more likely to consider prior agreements; a six-goer might or might not expect anything, depending on ideology; and a seven-stager may expect others to act by their respective natures, or may hold no expectations at all.

Overall, values are emotional creatures while personal actions, and expectations for actions of others, are imperative ideas. Unless a value pertains specifically to actions, rather than to results, one should expect emotions and imperatives to remain distinct. Two people may share the same feeling about the same situation, but have completely separate handlings. Each person probably has a unique set of auxiliary priorities and strategies.

Part 5: Communication and Labels

When someone expresses, even if only to oneself, to hold a certain value, by a simple label like "honesty", the actual thing valued is not fully described thereby. Words are placeholders for, or references to, ideas. And one person's honest is perhaps another person's deception, and vice versa. A word is attached to various schemas, or concepts; and each person can be expected to activate differentially a set of schemas for a given word in a given context. One might even say that every mind is operating under a different implicit context, wherein the only overlap of communication is that of intersubjectivity.

As a rule of thumb, one should not assume labels, as expressed by others, necessarily to have the exact same meaning and connotations between any two persons, or even necessarily between two points in time for a given person.

  • So... I don't think you answered the question... Apr 18, 2022 at 7:14
  • This is from the question: if someone considers honesty to be one of his core values, does it mean that he is always honest? Or, on the other hand, does it mean that he values honesty, and wants the people around him to be honest, but it is more or less optional for him to be honest (of course it's just an example for the sake of understanding the question). Or does it mean that he wants both him and others to be honest? Finally, and least likely, could it mean that he values honesty as a guideline, but he doesn't really regard it as "mandatory", for neither him or others? Apr 18, 2022 at 7:30
  • @MarcusRost -- On the sub-question about a person acting consistently with held values, I would say a person may value something without partaking in it. For example, a person may value having children but be unable to conceive. On the sub-question of who is to partake, I would say preferably anyone in a position to do so. For example, if one values clean air, then as long as the air is clean, that value is satisfied, regardless who or what does it. Overall, values are generally about the result, not the agent -- unless the value is specifically about actions instead of states.
    – Michael
    Apr 18, 2022 at 7:33
  • @MarcusRost -- Another point to consider is that values derive from instincts, so even if a person currently holds a rather specific value -- like claiming that only a certain object or circumstance would bring happiness -- should that person experience another, perhaps new solution, the person's previous value schema may be accommodated based on the new information.
    – Michael
    Apr 18, 2022 at 7:50
  • @MarcusRost -- Like the common expression, x doesn't really know what it wants, our set of instrumental values is often misaligned with what, in practice, would best satisfy our instincts. Sometimes we ought to try new things to find what truly pleases us. Instrumental values are learned, and proper learning takes experience.
    – Michael
    Apr 18, 2022 at 8:20

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