Values going viral

A recent meme going round Facebook was: “Ten years ago, we had Steve Jobs, Johnny Cash and Bob Hope. Now we have No Jobs, No Cash and No Hope.”

But we do still have values.

At the Sustainability in Crisis conference, which I attended at the end of September, Tom Crompton spoke about his work on Common Cause. People don’t make decisions based on rational assessment of facts; they make decisions according to how they fit with their values and identity. Psychologists classify values as either extrinsic, which concern status and success, or intrinsic, which concern relationships and benevolence.

People don’t tend to have exclusively extrinsic or intrinsic values, but to be on a scale. Engaging one type of value tends to mean that other similar values are engaged. So, to quote from the Common Cause Handbook:

People reminded of generosity, self-direction and family, for example, have been found to be more likely to support pro-environmental policies than those reminded of financial success and status – without any mention of the environment being made.

Similarly, engaging one type of value tends to mean that opposing values are suppressed. So:

people asked to sort words related to achievement values (such as ‘ambition’ and ‘success’) from other words were less likely to volunteer their time to help a researcher (a behaviour associated with benevolence values).

This also means that we can move up and down the extrinsic-intrinsic scale. Over to George Monbiot:

The sharp rightward shift which began with Margaret Thatcher and persisted under Blair and Brown, all of whose governments emphasised the virtues of competition, the market and financial success, has changed our values… This shift [to extrinsic values] has been reinforced by advertising and the media… By generating feelings of insecurity and inadequacy – which means reducing self-acceptance – they also suppress intrinsic goals.

Therefore, if, in seeking to promote our environmental and social justice goals, we also appeal to extrinsic values, we will also reinforce those extrinsic values, further undermine intrinsic values, and make our work increasingly difficult. So we must avoid, for example, selling environmental behaviour change via ‘eco-chic’ for status-conscious people, or opportunities to make money for the bottom-line-oriented. And instead, we must align our work with the values that are likely to spur lasting change. This is much less likely to be a quick or easy process. Unfortunately, we have little time.

Another theme at the conference, picked up in the talks and discussions, was the need to accelerate – vastly accelerate – the move to a more sustainable economy, lifestyle, you name it, for the sake of the human race and the rest of the biosphere.

And I found myself contrasting the very slow diffusion of green electricity, ethical banking, sustainable anything with the almost instantaneous market saturation of the iPhone and iPad.Apple under Steve Jobs was phenomenally successful at marketing, appealing to extrinsic values of being seen to have the latest gadget and to appreciate good design.Wouldn’t it be great if green products and campaigns had the same uptake as the iPhone? But is it possible? Can a marketing campaign appeal to intrinsic values and be so phenomenally successful?

And then I remembered this TEDx video of Simon Sinek talking about “How great leaders inspire action”, and about the Why-How-What of inspiration. He uses Apple as one of his positive case studies, but he also uses Martin Luther King. Here’s what he has to say about Apple, from the video transcript (my italics):

If Apple were like everyone else, a marketing message from them might sound like this. “[Points to What] We make great computers. [How] They’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. Want to buy one?” Neh. And that’s how most of us communicate. That’s how most marketing is done… But it’s uninspiring.

Here’s how Apple actually communicates. “[Points to Why] Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. [How] The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. [What] We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?” Totally different right? You’re ready to buy a computer from me. All I did was reverse the order of information. What it proves to us is that people don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it.

And what about Martin Luther King?

In the summer of 1963, 250,000 people showed up on the mall in Washington to hear [him] speak. They sent out no invitations, and there was no website to check the date. How do you do that? Well… He didn’t go around telling people what needed to change in America. He went around and told people what he believed. “I believe. I believe. I believe,” he told people. And people who believed what he believed took his cause, and they made it their own, and they told people. And some of those people created structures to get the word out to even more people. And low and behold, 250,000 people showed up on the right day, at the right time, to hear him speak.

How many of them showed up for him? Zero. They showed up for themselves… And, by the way, he gave the “I have a dream” speech, not the “I have a plan” speech.

Dr. King was appealing to intrinsic values. He was appealing for self-transcendence and justice under a higher authority. What are our intrinsic values today? What do we believe? How can we mobilise people like Martin Luther King still mobilises people? What did 10:10 do right in 2010, and why did it stall in 2011? What is the Occupy Together movement doing right? I would be happy to visit the camp outside St Paul’s, but what would make me want to stay there overnight or longer?

How can we make intrinsic values go viral?