Values and Political Persuasion

 In the last email I wrote about Moral Foundations Theory as a lens for viewing the Lincoln Project’s critiques of the President. These videos of Republicans attacking their leader are effective because they stress Trump’s violation of basic moral values that define conservative Republicans – respect for real authority, tribal loyalty and an appreciation for the sacred.

Another Values Theory[1] advanced by social psychologist Shalom Schwartz deserves mention during this rare moment when America is grappling with our history of racial injustice. Schwartz maintains that there are 10 basic values, listed below, that can be distilled down to two fundamental questions:

How do I balance my own interests vs. the welfare of others?

What are the limits of my independence vs. my obligations of obedience?

More recent research[2] by five political scientists from three countries presents this theory in a format useful for political practitioners.  After years of testing, they confirmed that certain values scores predict voter opinions on everything from economic policy to foreign policy to race.    

At this point in your reading you might ask, How does this help me win an election?” Here’s my shorthand take on a very complicated subject.

  • Because most elections are left/right binary choices, the Schwartz model is helpful in framing messaging.
  • Not all 10 values have equal impact — one’s openness to change or desire for self-enhancement doesn’t drive voter opinion as much as concerns about self-transcendence or conservation of the status quo.
  •  The circular model shown here is a great visual representation of the concept and useful in wordsmithing on a difficult topic.

We lack the space here to do the subject justice and offer this cheat sheet for considering the flow of public discourse and how we might direct these currents in the coming election season.

Openness to change

  • Self-Direction- Independent thought and action — choosing, creating, exploring.
  • Stimulation- Excitement, novelty and challenge in life.


  • Hedonism- Pleasure or sensuous gratification for oneself.
  • Achievement- Personal success through demonstrating competence according to social standards.
  • Power- Social status and prestige, control or dominance over people and resources.


  • Security- Safety, harmony and stability of society, of relationships and of self.
  • Conformity- Restraint of actions, inclinations and impulses likely to upset or harm others and violate social expectations or norms.
  • Tradition- Respect, commitment and acceptance of the customs and ideas one's culture or religion provides.


  • Benevolence- Preserving and enhancing the welfare of those with whom one is in frequent personal contact (the ‘in-group’).
  • Universalism- Understanding, appreciation, tolerance and protection of the welfare of all people and of nature. 

[1] Scwhartz. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: 58: 878-891

[2] Goren, etal. Journal of Political Behavior: 38:977-997


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  1. Russell Granger's avatar
    Russell Granger
    | Permalink
    Super interesting and insightful post. In neuro-persuasion terms, we consider these kinds of value categories to be part of the emotional brain's Consistency Trigger, which is about how we assess choices or decisions (e.g. candidates) against our own self-identity, established patterns of thought and action, and favored peer associations. When messages are crafted in such a way as to show alignment with how we are already inclined to think, believe, behave, and act, it is much easier to get support and a "yes decision." As this article emphasizes, these values can shift in priority based on circumstances and other (e.g. cultural) influences, and smart candidates will connect with prevailing incidence of self interest even and perhaps especially when that means a newly amplified interest in the greater good. Check out this terrific PSA from TV2 Denmark for a great example of this
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