• Spencer Greenberg and Amber Dawn Ace

Understand how other people think: a theory of worldviews.

Updated: Jul 22

A libertarian, a socialist, an environmentalist, and a pro-development YIMBY watch an apartment complex being built. The libertarian is pleased - ‘the hand of the market at work!’ - whereas the socialist worries that the building is a harbinger of gentrification; the YIMBY sees progress, but the environmentalist is concerned about the building’s carbon footprint. They’re all seeing the same thing, but they understand it differently, because they inhabit different worldviews.


We can think of worldviews as snow globes. We each occupy our own snow globe and, when we’re inside it, it can seem like the whole world. If it’s snowing in our snow globe, we think it’s snowing everywhere; if our snow globe is made of green glass, everything looks green to us. We might not even realize that there’s anything beyond our snow globe! But if we can step outside, we see that our view from inside was only part of a much larger picture. If you can step outside your snow globe - and visit other people’s - you’ll be able to see a more accurate representation of the world and communicate better with others. For every snow globe you master, you’ll gain a powerful new lens through which to see the world - and you’ll see that no single snow globe has all the answers.


Image generated using the AI DALL•E 2


What makes a worldview?


Worldviews are a type of story we learn about how the world works and about what things matter and why. In this post, we put forward a theory of worldviews that will help you understand how different worldviews work. We call this "Snow Globe Theory." Every worldview includes many beliefs, but after reflecting on a wide variety of worldviews, we believe that almost every one has four central components. There are other common elements that some worldviews have but others don’t - for example, a strong culture, or a theory about trustworthy sources of knowledge – but this article will focus on these four central elements:

  1. What is good?

  2. Where do good and bad come from?

  3. Who deserves the good?

  4. How can you do good or be good?

You can understand a worldview quite well if you know what thoughtful people with that worldview would all answer in response to these four questions. While each individual member of a group will have somewhat different answers to the questions above, it is the portions of their answers that most members of that group share with each other that compose the group's worldview. Let's explore Snow Globe Theory, and the four components it assigns to worldviews.


Component 1: What is good?

Different worldviews come with different primary intrinsic values. Intrinsic values (as opposed to "instrumental values") are things that people care about as an end in and of themselves, not merely as a means to other ends. They are the traits and states of the world that people who share the worldview treasure and want to promote. People who hold the worldview don’t just think that these things are good - they care about them deeply and feel strongly motivated to pursue them. Examples:

  • Some libertarian intrinsic values are freedom, personal choice, and individualism.

  • Some intrinsic values of social justice advocates are justice, equity, and protecting the vulnerable and oppressed.


Here is our categorization of intrinsic values. You can find out your own with our Intrinsic Values Test.











Component 2: Where do good and bad come from?

Worldviews usually have a simple causal explanation for the origin of good and bad things. Examples:

  • Christian conservatives think that God grants good things to people who obey him and follow his will. Bad things come from the Devil, from humans’ failure to trust God, or from humanity's flawed and sinful nature.

  • Effective altruists have intrinsic values of increasing happiness and reducing suffering. They think that people can make the world better by using reason and evidence to figure out which actions will create the most happiness and reduce the most suffering. Suffering comes from a combination of nature and human foibles and biases, which present obstacles to improving the world.

Component 3: Who deserves the good?

Worldviews tend to include beliefs about who deserves good things (or who most deserves them). Examples:

  • Socialists think that most people deserve good things, but workers in particular deserve to reap the rewards of their labor; capitalists who exploit others are less deserving.

  • Libertarians think that hard-working and ingenious people particularly deserve to be rewarded, since they create value. If you create a successful business then you deserve the wealth that comes from that business.

Component 4: How can you do good or be good?

Worldviews often include beliefs about what people should do to be good, or to cause good things to happen. Examples:

  • Conservatives think that to be good we should fulfill our obligations to our family and community.

  • Social justice advocates think that to be good we should try to understand our privilege and implicit prejudices, and stop contributing to oppressive systems, such as white supremacy.

Other elements

There are other elements that worldviews commonly have, but that are not near-universal like the four components described above are.

Culture

Worldviews don’t exist in a vacuum. People who share a worldview cluster together, either because the worldview spreads within existing communities, or because believers in the worldview seek each other out. This means that worldviews develop their own unique cultures. Some parts of a worldview’s culture are related to its intrinsic values and stories about where good and bad come from. For example, libertarians are more likely than socialists to work in finance, at least in part because they believe that the financial sector is a force for good. However, some aspects of these cultures are more arbitrary, and arise due to coincidences about where a worldview happened to take root. For example, Christian conservatives in the U.S. often live in the countryside and own guns. These aspects of Christian conservative culture aren’t directly related to the Christian conservative worldview - the Bible doesn’t forbid people from living in cities and, based on the pacifist content of the New Testament, you wouldn't necessarily expect that Christians would own weapons. But for historical reasons, there is a demographic link between Christian conservatism in the U.S. and gun ownership.

Outgroups

Some worldviews also have an outgroup. This doesn’t just mean “everyone who doesn’t share the worldview” - rather, the outgroup is a specific group (or sometimes groups) of people who are seen as the particular enemies or adversaries of a worldview. For example, the outgroup for social justice advocates might be the alt-right.

Theories of knowledge

Worldviews often privilege certain sources of information over others. It’s intuitive that people who hold a certain worldview seek out media produced by those who share that worldview - we’re familiar with the fact that liberals prefer liberal media while conservatives favor conservative media. Some worldviews also involve the belief that certain kinds of information or sources of knowledge have a stronger connection to the truth than others. For example:

  • Adherents of religious worldviews often see holy texts as an important source of knowledge.

  • Social justice advocates believe that it’s important to pay attention to people’s lived experiences, particularly if they belong to a marginalized group.


Historical Narratives

Worldviews are often associated with specific historical narratives (narratives about what the past was like and what future may have in store). Other important elements of a worldview can be linked to these historical narratives. For example, as many American social justice advocates see it, current racial inequalities in the US are intimately related to slavery and other atrocities committed by white Americans in the past. Other worldviews foresee humanity’s future trajectory by extrapolating from the past: for example, techno-optimists look at past rapid technological progress and envisage similar progress continuing into the future. Or, consider communists and libertarians: both see the advent of capitalism as incredibly historically significant, but communists see it as a suboptimal step on the path towards utopia, whereas libertarians view it as a source of great human flourishing.



Worldviews within worldviews

Worldviews exist at many levels. Many worldviews contain smaller, more granular worldviews within them - for example, American Christian conservatives share a broad worldview, but you could also sketch the worldviews of individual denominations with Christianity. Similarly, there are broad overarching worldviews that unify some of the different worldviews we’ve listed below - for example, democratic socialists, communists and social justice advocates all share a broad ‘progressive’ or ‘left-wing’ worldview. The broader you get, the less specific a worldview tends to be.

Why it's important to understand worldviews


The truth lies outside any one worldview


Most of us are taught a worldview growing up, or we pick up one in college or from media that we consume. It can be tempting to stay in that snow globe forever. However, being stuck in just one worldview limits our ability to see the world as it truly is. Worldviews tend to be simplistic, which has some advantages - it’s easier to understand the world and relate to other people if you share simple stories about good and bad, right and wrong. But because worldviews are simple, and the world is complex, any one worldview necessarily misses a lot of nuance. Just about every worldview has some truths that it is good at seeing accurately, and some truths that it is systematically blind to. But you don't have to be stuck in just one worldview. The more worldviews you understand, the more accurately you'll see the world.

Occupying many snow globes lets you better understand the world and communicate more effectively


You might think, ‘Ok, but I know that my worldview is correct - otherwise, it wouldn’t be my worldview! Why should I waste my time understanding people whose beliefs are flawed or toxic?’ For instance, if you’re strongly committed to one of the progressive worldviews, you might not see the value in understanding the point of view of one of the conservative worldviews, and vice versa. However, it’s useful to know how other people think even if you believe that their worldview is deeply wrong. Governments, corporations, non-profits, religions, political parties, and other powerful groups are often guided by a particular worldview. If you don’t understand that worldview, then you’ll be unable to predict what these groups will do. You will also struggle to communicate with them in a way that they care about, or persuade them to do things differently. When people engage with others who have a different worldview, they frequently make the mistake of relying too much on the stories and assumptions of their own worldview. But this is unlikely to work well, because the person they are talking to does not share these assumptions. To be really convincing to one another, you have to be able to see things from their perspective. To give a topical example: in abortion debates, pro-choice progressives often misunderstand the worldview of pro-life conservatives. We’re publishing this article only a few days after Roe v Wade was overturned; since then, abortion has been banned or restricted in several U.S. states.


We originally drafted this section before the overturning, and know that some of our readers will be feeling immense grief or distress at this ruling, and that abortion is an exceptionally fraught and emotionally-charged issue at the best of times. No matter how much you believe that the overturning of Roe v. Wade was harmful and wrong, and even if your only goal is to win a political victory, we believe it’s still going to be useful to understand what pro-lifers really think: that way, you’ll be better placed to predict what they’ll do, or persuade them of your own point of view.


When talking about abortion, progressives sometimes say things like this tweet by @leilacohan which has been retweeted more than one hundred thousand times:


 

"If it was about babies, we’d have excellent and free universal maternal care. You wouldn’t be charged a cent to give birth, no matter how complicated your delivery was. If it was about babies, we’d have months and months of parental leave, for everyone.


If it was about babies, we’d have free lactation consultants, free diapers, free formula. If it was about babies, we’d have free and excellent childcare from newborns on. If it was about babies, we’d have universal preschool and pre-k and guaranteed after school placements."

 

From a progressive worldview, this tweet is powerful and persuasive; but it’s unlikely to be persuasive to U.S.-based Christian conservative pro-lifers - the group that it’s apparently discussing - because it misunderstands their worldview. The argument is that if conservatives cared about babies, they would support babies and children through funding and social programs. The subtext is that since conservatives don’t support those things, they are being dishonest about what they care about, and just pretending that they care about not letting fetuses die. But the idea that we should try to make good things happen through government intervention is itself a progressive belief. Conservatives tend to think that individual responsibility is more important, and to be skeptical that large government-run social programs produce good outcomes. While modern Christians have a variety of views on abortion (depending on factors such as their denomination), and the Bible doesn't address the topic directly, within the first few hundred years of Christianity there were Christian scholars arguing that life begins at conception (rather than birth). In the U.S., many Christian conservatives who oppose abortion believe that fetuses should have the same rights as born babies: we polled 49 people in the US who say that they’re “very happy” that Roe v Wade has been overturned. Of these, 90% said that they think abortion is wrong because it’s murder (i.e., similar to killing an adult human).


From within a U.S. Christian conservative worldview, there is no tension between (1) thinking that abortion is murder and (2) not supporting free diapers and childcare. If you momentarily step inside the snowglobe of this worldview, it becomes clear that you can oppose what you see as murder without believing that the government should fund large programs aimed at improving people’s quality of life. Another common misunderstanding (from the other side of the political spectrum) is that conservatives sometimes label anyone left-of-center as a “socialist”, and believe that liberals oppose capitalism (see the chart below which demonstrates the misunderstanding). But this is a misunderstanding of the average liberal’s worldview: in the U.S., most self-identified liberals (for example, Democrat voters) aren’t ‘socialists’ in the sense of ‘people who want to abolish capitalism and private ownership’. Most support capitalism, but they differ from conservatives in that they support an expanded social safety net and favor moderate wealth redistribution through progressive tax policies.

Image Source

If a popular argument seems irrational or evil, see if you understand the worldview behind it


When you read an argument that you know is popular but it seems clearly wrong to you, check with yourself: do you understand the worldview motivating it? Here are some questions you can ask to understand another person’s worldview:

  • What are this person’s intrinsic values?

  • What is their theory of what makes the world better?

  • What is their theory of what makes the world worse?

  • Can I understand why someone with their values would think this?

  • Can I understand why someone with their theories of what makes the world better and worse would hold the position they do?

If your answers would be insulting to the person holding that worldview, you probably haven’t understood your interlocutor’s worldview deeply. For example, if you think ‘this person’s intrinsic value is to oppress people’, it’s likely that you haven’t found what truly motivates them. All worldviews feel right from within their own snow globe. While some worldviews do lead people to do great harm, reality has few cartoon villains; worldviews make sense internally and are aimed at making things better, even if (from an outsider’s perspective) they can seem deeply misguided. If you want to understand how other people work, or even just persuade them more effectively, try leaving your snow globe and visiting theirs for a while.

Many worldviews at a glance


Every identity group label is somewhat ambiguous, and within each worldview there will be people with differing beliefs. But that being said, identity groups tend to have specific worldviews attached. As we've discussed, different worldviews have different causal theories of how good or bad things come about. Rarely are any of these causal theories totally correct or totally false. There are things to be learned from each worldview about why people behave the way they do, and how the world functions. We recommend trying to understand worldviews that are very different from your own - the more snow globes you master, the more clearly you'll see the world, and the more you'll understand others (even if you still think your snow globe is the best). Below we list what we think are the critical elements of various worldviews. If you notice any mistakes, please let us know so that we can correct them.



✟ American Christian Conservatives

​Intrinsic Values:

​Faith, piety, humility, self-sacrifice

Where does good come from?

​God; trust in God’s will

Where does bad come from?

The Devil; lack of trust in God’s goodness, leading to self-centredness; humanity's sinful nature

Who deserves good things?

The faithful (or, nobody deserves it, but through God's grace the faithful can be saved)

What should you do to be good?

Love God; care for the downtrodden; repent for your sins; have faith; obey the commandments of the Bible; love others as God has loved you; spread the word of Christ to save others

How should you learn the truth?

The Bible; preachers and Christian writings; through a direct connection with God

Cultural associations:

Lives in rural areas or suburbs, gun-owning, anti-abortion, pro-adoption, conservative-leaning

Notable people with this worldview:

Mike Pence, Jerry Falwell

View of history:

​God created the world. His son Jesus was born and died for our sins. The world will end on judgement day after Christ comes again.


✞ American Christian Leftists

Intrinsic values:

Love, mercy, tolerance, peace

Where does good come from?

God, Jesus

Where does bad come from?

​Satan, people's choices, the human heart, rebellion against God

Who deserves good things?

​None of us, but God is full of grace and mercy, especially toward His children

What should you do to be good?

Live like Jesus, love God and others, seek not to rebel against God

Cultural associations:

Cities or suburbs, pro-choice, pro gun control, pro social freedom, pro-environmental regulation

Notable people with this worldview:

Tony Campolo, Shane Claiborne, Randy Elkhorn, Jim Wallis, Greg Boyd


☭ American Communists

Intrinsic values:

Equality

Where does good come from?

Labor, and workers owning the means of production

Where does bad come from?

Capitalism and class systems

Who deserves good things?

Workers

What should you do to be good?

Try to abolish capitalism and support labor rights

How should you learn the truth?

Communist writings (e.g., those of Marx), the ideas of communist leaders

Notable people with this worldview:

Karl Marx, Slavoj Žižek, Angela Davis

​View of history:

Capitalism will lead to a series of ever-worsening crises. The proletariat will eventually seize the major means of production and the institutions of state power.


🧠+❤ Effective Altruists

Intrinsic values:

Utility (i.e., the sum of happiness minus suffering), truth

Where does good come from?

Smart, compassionate people using reason and evidence to figure out how to do the most good; science.

Where does bad come from?

The natural world; collective action problems; human foibles, partiality, and biases: when people rely too much on unhelpful intuitions, misleading emotions and faulty reasoning, this leads to suboptimal choices that, in turn, lead to less utility.

Who deserves good things?

All beings that can have or will have experiences (including animals, future/potential people, and sentient digital beings)

What should you do to be good?

Think about what actions will have the greatest impact or have the highest expected value, and devote your life to doing them; understand cognitive biases and try to avoid them.

How should you learn the truth?

By reading or conducting scientific research; by making forecasts and tracking their success; by thinking hard (e.g., about philosophical questions)

Cultural associations:

20s-30s, attended prestigious schools, philosophers and programmers, veganism

Notable people with this worldview:

Will MacAskill, Toby Ord, Peter Singer

View of history:

The industrial and scientific revolution changed the course of humanity, putting us on the path of exponentially accelerating economic and technological growth. With the continuing threat from nuclear weapons, and rapid progress occurring in artificial intelligence, neuroscience and biotechnology, we may be living in the most important century in history. Our choices today could alleviate or cause huge amounts of suffering, and could determine the fate of our species (including whether we go extinct).


🇺🇸 'Family Values' American Conservatives

Intrinsic values:

Family values, patriotism, tradition, self-reliance

Where does good come from?

Following tradition; hard work; people taking care of their family and responsibilities (e.g., being a good parent)

Where does bad come from?

Government interference; people following their own pleasures; laziness; excessive individualism; throwing away time-tested traditions; people shirking their responsibilities; drugs

Who deserves good things?

Hard-working American families

What should you do to be good?

Be a good father/mother/child; fulfill your obligations to your family and community; stand up for what you believe in (e.g., be willing to defend your family or country if threatened)

Cultural associations:

Living in suburbia, American flags

Notable people with this worldview:

Tucker Carlson

View of history:

​America, while still the greatest country in the world, has been going down hill. We've been giving up on our important traditions, and many Americans have started viewing our past and ancestors with disdain, instead of honoring our traditions and heritage.


🪙 Libertarians

Intrinsic values:

Freedom, personal choice, individualism, the non-aggression principle

Where does good come from?

People pursuing their goals and talented people exercising their skills without interference; markets; pursuit of one's own interests

Where does bad come from?

Regulation; top-down control; bureaucracy; the government overstepping its bounds

Who deserves good things?

People who work to produce value

What should you do to be good?

Work hard; do something that the market values; adhere to contracts; respect private property

Cultural associations:

Working in business and finance

Notable people with this worldview:

Ron Paul, Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand

View of history:

Capitalism was perhaps the greatest invention of humanity. It enabled the creation of the technology that benefits us all, and has vastly raised the standard of living for humankind. The fruits of capitalism have also has given us unprecedented choice in our lives. Unfortunately, capitalism has many opponents, and they weaken it with top down control and ever increasing regulation.


🔭 New Atheists

Intrinsic values:

Science, truth, freedom of thought, freedom of speech

Where does good come from?

Knowledge, reason

Where does bad come from?

Blind faith, dogma, (mainstream) religions, cancel culture

Who deserves good things?

All people who don't harm others

What should you do to be good?

Think critically and use reason

How should you learn the truth?

Thinking critically about what you hear; trust science

Cultural associations:

Formerly religious people who had bad experiences

Notable people with this worldview:

Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins

View of history:

For thousands of years, humanity was under the spell of religious belief. With the discovery of evolution and the scientific revolution more broadly, humanity finally had an alternative, much more accurate way of understanding the world. Despite this, there are many who cling to religious dogma (both in the form of literal religions, and in religion-like ideologies) who want to exert control over society and pull us back to a pre-scientific understanding.


🤖 Silicon Valley Techno-Optimists

Intrinsic values:

Progress, innovation

Where does good come from?

Scrappy start-up founders, clever inventors, and scientists making new things and disrupting the existing systems

Where does bad come from?

Excessive caution and adherence to old ways of doing things; regulation; bureaucracy; lack of technological solutions

Who deserves good things?

All people, but people who contribute a lot should be rewarded for it

What should you do to be good?

Create a company; become a scientist and try to make great discoveries; invent a new way of doing things

Cultural associations:

Meal replacements like Huel or Soylent; nootropics; wearing a t-shirt and jeans; living in San Francisco

Notable people with this worldview:

Larry Page, Ray Kurzweil

View of history:

Progress has been accelerating exponentially since the industrial revolution, and this trend hasn't stopped. Our lives are incomparably different and better than the lives of our ancestors, and the lives of people hundreds of years from now will also incomparably different and better than ours.


⚖️ Social Justice Advocates

Intrinsic values:

Justice, equity, protecting the vulnerable and oppressed

Where does good come from?

Recognizing yet respecting people’s differences; empowering everyone, especially oppressed groups; recognizing our privileges

Where does bad come from?

Bias against specific groups or types of people; prejudice; internalized oppressive attitudes such as sexism, white supremacy and homophobia; institutions and laws that disadvantage certain groups

Who deserves good things?

All people, though we should especially focus on helping oppressed groups

What should you do to be good?

Understand your privilege; understand your implicit prejudices; stop contributing to structures that oppress people, such as white supremacy

How should you learn the truth?

Lived experience, and listening to others’ descriptions of their lived experience

Cultural associations:

Being a college student at a top US liberal arts college

Notable people with this worldview:

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ijeoma Oluo, Contrapoints, Anita Sarkeesian

View of history:

America was founded on a bedrock of racism (involving exploiting Indigenous Americans and the enslavement of African people for monetary gain) and sexism (denying women basic rights, such as the ability to vote). We must turn America into a more equitable place by combatting individual and institutional prejudice, and by beginning to make up for America's past wrongs.


💪 Trumpers (fervent Donald Trump supporters)

Intrinsic values:

Patriotism, American prosperity, freedom of speech

Where does good come from?

Looking out for our own country; a strong leader that won't let America get taken advantage of; American ingenuity and American businesses

Where does bad come from?

Excessive immigration; political corruption and dishonesty; globalization; government interference; fake "experts" and the political establishment

Who deserves good things?

U.S. citizens

What should you do to be good?

Support strong, patriotic leaders; call out lies from the media and from corrupt politicians and elites

Cultural associations:

MAGA hats, U.S. flags, being white

View of history:

​America is the greatest country in the world, but it has increasingly been taken over by corrupt elites (especially from the Democratic party) and biased institutions (like the New York Times) who promote policies that are self-serving or that harm the majority of Americans while benefiting small groups. We need a strong leader like Donald Trump to "drain the swamp" and restore our country to its full potential for greatness.



Further reading and listening


See this article and spreadsheet for the idea of "memetic tribes" - a slightly different framing that partially overlaps with ours.


Thanks


Thanks to Elizabeth Kim for helping Spencer develop the ‘snow globes’ metaphor for worldviews. You can listen to their conversation on this topic here.


Thanks to Lovkush Agarwal, Corinne Clinch Gray and Lisa Greer for helping us write our infoboxes on (respectively) New Atheists, American Christian Conservatives, and American Christian Leftists.


And thanks to Richard Ngo for suggesting that we add a "view of history" to our article for each worldview.


Thanks to Holly Muir and Adam Binks for helpful edits and comments.