Updated: Oct 6
What do you value most fundamentally? Today, we're going to tell you why we believe you should answer this question, and then we’re going to help you answer it!
Your intrinsic values are the things you value for their own sake, regardless of whether they bring you anything else. This means they are the things you value most fundamentally. For instance, consider the following conversation:
Alex: “Hey Jordan, I've noticed you spend a lot of time practicing the violin. Why do you value it so much?”
Jordan: “Because playing the violin allows me to express emotions that I can't put into words.”
Alex: “That's interesting. But why do you value expressing your emotions like that?”
Jordan: “Because it leads to a deeper connection with myself and provides a cathartic release.”
Alex: “Okay, but why do you value having that deeper connection and catharsis?”
Jordan: “Because it brings me a profound sense of happiness and inner peace.”
Alex: “And why do you value that happiness and inner peace?”
Jordan: “For their own sake - not because they lead to anything else. Happiness and inner peace are just intrinsically good. They're fundamental to who I am and how I want to experience life.”
In that exchange, Jordan mentions valuing all sorts of things (playing the violin, expressing emotion, connection with oneself, and more) but the only things Jordan discusses valuing intrinsically are happiness and peace.
We’ve conducted several studies to learn about what people value intrinsically. Here are some examples of common intrinsic values, based on the responses of 2106 people who finished our Intrinsic Values Test:
We also ran a study to investigate whether particular intrinsic values are more associated with particular demographics. To be clear, we weren’t looking to see which intrinsic values were most common in those groups; the most common intrinsic values (e.g., “That I feel happy”) were very common across all demographics, which is not very interesting. Instead, we were looking to see which intrinsic values were most predictive of being a member of particular groups. We found the following:
Intrinsic values most associated with being right wing / conservative in the U.S:
1. That god is pleased with me
2. That humanity worships god
3. That those who do bad things are punished
4. That people are religious
5. That humanity is not replaced by another, more intelligent life form
6. That my values do not change to something different than they are right now
7. That I have children
Intrinsic values most associated with being left wing / progressive / liberal in the U.S.:
1. That animals (non-humans) feel happy
2. That animals (non-humans) suffer less than they do normally
3. That nature is protected from damage by humans
4. That people I don't know feel happy
5. That the world is a fair place
6. That there are lots of different kinds of humans
7. That animals (non-humans) experience more pleasure than they do normally
Intrinsic values most associated with being female:
1. That humans are kind to each other
2. That there are lots of different kinds of humans
3. That humans have the freedom to pursue what they choose to pursue
4. That I get to experience a wide variety of different things during my life
5. That I continue to care about other people
6. That I love other people
7. That not all humans have the same experiences as each other
Intrinsic values most associated with being male:
1. That I myself experience more pleasure than I do normally
2. That I myself am able to get the things that I want
3. That the people I know personally are able to get the things that they want
4. That the people I know personally experience more pleasure than they do normally
5. That people I don't know experience more pleasure than they do normally
6. That animals (non-humans) feel happy
7. That those who do bad things are punished
Intrinsic values most associated with being older:
1. That other people continue to care about me
2. That humanity becomes more moral than it is right now
3. That people trust me
4. That I avoid saying things that are false
5. That the world is a fair place
6. That I believe true things rather than false things
7. That the nature of what humans are is not one day radically altered by advanced technology
Intrinsic values most associated with being younger:
1. That the animals that are currently alive live longer than they normally would
2. That I am admired by other people
3. That the people I know personally experience more pleasure than they do normally
4. That people I don't know are able to get the things that they want
5. That I myself am able to get the things that I want
6. That I myself suffer less than I do normally
7. That I myself experience more pleasure than I do normally
We’ve developed the following categorization of intrinsic values, based on our findings across our research on the topic:
Ok, but why should you identify your intrinsic values?
Why should you care about these values? Well, there is evidence that they affect you in all sorts of ways! We’ve listed just a few, below.
Note: Psychological research on values often does not differentiate between intrinsic and non-intrinsic/instrumental values (this distinction is much more popular in philosophy, and we think it’s an important one!); instead, it tends to focus on broad values that our studies have found it is very common for people to count among their intrinsic values (e.g., justice or happiness), just as we have in our wheel above! For this reason, although some of the research discussed below doesn’t explicitly use the phrase ‘intrinsic values’, we think that it’s reasonably accurate to characterize it in those terms.
1️⃣ Romantic Relationships: Research indicates that romantic partners often harbor similar intrinsic values. There is some evidence that the alignment of these values contributes to interpersonal attraction and might also play a role in overall relationship satisfaction.
2️⃣ Boosting Feelings of Acceptance and Closeness: There is some evidence that, for individuals grappling with lower self-esteem, reflecting upon shared values with a partner can foster a heightened sense of acceptance and emotional intimacy.
3️⃣ Motivation: Theories in psychology and philosophy both independently argue that intrinsic values are a key source of motivation and reasons for action. Knowing what yours are could help you make decisions and help you better understand your relationship with motivation.
4️⃣ Grit: The points about motivation are taken even further by work on ‘grit’. Grit is a trait that combines perseverance and passion for long-term goals. It's the ability to persistently pursue challenging objectives over extended periods, even in the face of adversity, setbacks, or failures. Work on this trait emphasizes that it is easier to achieve when your long-term goals are deeply connected with your deepest values.
5️⃣ Advocacy: Historically, environmental conservationists have relied on the significance of intrinsic values in their advocacy. They have argued that natural environments should be preserved for their own sake, rather than because they serve some other (usually human) purpose. In doing so, those conservationists encourage you to include natural environments among the things you value intrinsically. This is a strategy that can be applied to anything that you value intrinsically and want to advocate for! Though keep in mind it’s very unlikely you’ll change people’s intrinsic values, but you can tap into latent values they already have.
And this only scratches the surface! There are plenty of benefits to knowing your intrinsic values, but how do you find out what they are?
How can you find out your intrinsic values?
We’ve devised an interactive tool, based on the studies we’ve conducted, that will help you uncover your intrinsic values and compare them with others’:
Also, if you want to do a deep dive on intrinsic values and how they relate to different areas of life, please check our series on Valuism.