Art and Life Essay: Provocation

By Tim Kasser

The potential of engagement in arts & culture to encourage values that support well-being, social justice, and ecological sustainability

Over the last three decades, psychologists have conducted studies on thousands of people in dozens of nations around the world in an attempt to understand what humans value and how they prioritise different aims in life. These studies converge on the conclusion that the human value system is composed of about a dozen basic types of values, including aims such as having fun, understanding one’s place in the universe, being healthy, and having close relationships. People in every corner of the globe appear to care about and be motivated by each of these basic values, although of course to varying extents.  

The Organisation of Values  

Not only is it the case that people have the same fundamental types of values, but these values are organised in similar ways in people’s minds. Specifically, the data strongly suggest that the organisation of the human value system is such that some values are relatively consistent with each other (and easy to pursue simultaneously), whereas other values are in relative conflict (and relatively difficult to pursue at the same time). Psychologists have statistically represented the extent of compatibility or conflict between values via circumplex models such as the one presented in Figure 1. When the pursuit of one value facilitates success at another value, those two values are placed adjacent to each other; thus, the values of image and status are nearby each other, as buying an in-fashion handbag or automobile is quite compatible with the enhancement of both one’s image and status. When the pursuit of one value interferes with success at another, those values are placed on opposite sides of the circumplex; thus, the values of spirituality and hedonism are due north and south, respectively, as it is rather difficult to party late on Saturday night and then pray early on Sunday morning.

Additional evidence that the human value system is organised in this circumplex fashion comes from studies which show that briefly mentioning one set of values creates ripple effects on other values. For example, if a person thinks about the importance of image, then there is likely to be a bleed-over effect, such that popularity and financial success will become more important (as such pursuits are compatible with the desire for an appealing image). Further, thinking about image is also likely to cause a suppression effect, such that being self-accepting will become less of a priority (as that aim generally conflicts with the desire to have an image that depends on appealing to others).

Values, Well-being, Civility, and Sustainability

The scientific evidence also shows that people’s values bear consistent relationships with outcomes such as people’s well-being, the care with which they treat others, and the extent to which they live in an ecologically sustainable fashion. Two sets of values in the circumplex are especially relevant here. First there are the extrinsic values of financial success, image, and popularity, each of which involves a strong focus on rewards and other people’s opinions. Second there are the intrinsic values of self-acceptance, affiliation, and community feeling, which tend to be more focused on helping to satisfy people’s inherent psychological needs.

Dozens of studies now make it clear that people’s prioritization of extrinsic values is associated with lower levels of well-being and higher levels of distress. As extrinsic values for money, image, and status rise in importance, people experience less happiness and life satisfaction; fewer pleasant emotions (like joy and contentment), and more unpleasant emotions (like anger and anxiety) in their day-to-day lives. They also tend to be more anxious and depressed, to experience more physical problems (like headaches, stomachaches, and backaches) and to use substances like cigarettes and alcohol more often. Placing higher importance on intrinsic values (and successfully pursuing these values) is, in contrast, consistently associated with being happier and healthier.

People’s relative focus on extrinsic versus intrinsic values also influences their social behaviour. For example, people act in more empathic, cooperative, and caring ways when they prioritise intrinsic values, whereas an emphasis on extrinsic concerns is associated with being more manipulative and competitive, and with acting in more unethical and antisocial ways. In addition, those who consider material belongings and image as relatively important more often express prejudice toward other ethnicities and believe that disadvantaged groups deserve what they have (or don’t have). The “suppression” effect on values noted above also occurs here. One set of studies showed that very brief and very subtle reminders of the extrinsic value of money lead people to behave less helpfully and generously moments later.  Put in terms of the dynamics of the circumplex, the activation of the extrinsic value of financial success suppressed the value of caring for others, which lies in the intrinsic quadrant on the opposite side of the circumplex.

Similar dynamics occur for ecological behaviours and attitudes. People who prioritise extrinsic values have been shown to care less about the environment and other species, whereas a focus on intrinsic values promotes more ecologically sustainable attitudes and behaviours. As with social behaviours and attitudes, brief reminders of values can affect ecological behaviours and attitudes. One study that focused particularly on people for whom material possessions and social status were quite important found that thinking fora few minutes about the intrinsic values of affiliation and being broadminded caused these individuals to express stronger care for the environment.  Put in terms of the dynamics of the circumplex, activating intrinsic values caused a “bleed-over” which led them to express stronger desires to support the larger community of people, other species, and future generations.

How Arts and Culture might Encourage Intrinsic Values

Given the consistent and robust relationships between people’s relative prioritization of intrinsic vs. extrinsic values and their well-being, social behaviour, and ecological behaviour, strategies which attempt to encourage intrinsic values and discourage extrinsic values may hold promise for addressing many of the problems contemporary humans face. Elsewhere I have reviewed a variety of personal interventions, civil society campaigns, and policy approaches that derive from a values-based perspective. For the remainder of this essay, I would like to suggest that engagement in arts and culture might also be a way to help people orient away from extrinsic values and focus more on intrinsic values. There are three main reasons for suggesting that arts and culture may contribute successfully to this effort, and each of these rationales has both theoretical and empirical support.

First, it is notable that some of the specific values that researchers include among the intrinsic aims are directly relevant to engagement in arts and culture. For example, the survey on which the circumplex in Figure 1 is based (i.e., the Aspiration Index1) includes among the “self-acceptance” values items such as “I will follow my interests and curiosity where they take me”, and “I will feel free.” Similarly, another well-validated value circumplex also reflects the fact that the extrinsic values of “power” and “status” stand in relative opposition to values such as “creativity,” being “curious”, and desiring “a world of beauty”. If we accept the sensible proposition that engagement in arts and culture activates values such as “curiosity” and “creativity,” then the implication from research on the value circumplex would be that the intrinsic portion of the human motivational system could be encouraged and strengthened, while the extrinsic portion could be suppressed, as a result of participating in arts and cultural activities.

Second, decades of research on the closely-related field of intrinsically vs. extrinsically motivated activities have shown that the feelings of flow, creativity, play, interest, and curiosity that characterize intrinsically motivated activity can be undermined when people become focused on extrinsic factors such as rewards, awards, and how one looks to others. Such studies are another way of documenting the fundamental opposition between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation that is reflected in the circumplex. But if extrinsic rewards can undermine intrinsic pursuits, it might also be that intrinsically- oriented, flow-conducive activities like arts and culture can suppress a strong focus on extrinsic concerns. After all, arts and cultural activity are realms of human life in which people frequently report strong feelings of flow and engagement, and in which people often engage for the solely intrinsic reasons of self-expression, creativity, and exploration. As such, it may be that the more that one engages in artistic activity for these kinds of intrinsic reasons, the more the intrinsic portion of the motivational system will be strengthened, and thus the weaker extrinsic values will become.

My third reason for believing in the potential of engagement in arts and culture is admittedly more complex and conjectural, but still rather intriguing, I think. One consistent set of findings shows that when people are reminded of their own death, they increase the priority they place on extrinsic aims such as wealth, image, and status. People seem to undergo this shift primarily as a defensive strategy to cope with the unpleasant thoughts that arise from considering their inevitable demise; by shifting awareness and values towards these extrinsic, culturally-sanctioned aims, they can at least temporarily feel that they have been successful in life. Interestingly, however, a second set of findings has shown that people shift towards intrinsic values and away from extrinsic values when they must continue to face thoughts about their own death and have little opportunity to be defensive. Such results have been obtained in laboratory studies where participants engage in deeper, more sustained reflections on their own deaths. What’s more, other studies show that when people who have undergone significant traumas (including near-death experiences) use such events as opportunities to reflect on their lives and reconsider their paths forward, they consistently reject values for money, image, and status (i.e., the extrinsic values) and instead focus their lives around their own personal growth, their family, and helping the world be a better place (i.e., the intrinsic values).  Thus, it seems that whereas brief reminders of death lead to a defensive stance, sustained reflection on death acts as a type of “disruptive experience” that shakes up an individual’s personality and value system. Although this shake-up may cause mental health problems for some, and while most people probably gravitate back to their baseline personality and values systems over time, such disruptive experiences can sometimes act as catalysts to help some people identify the truly meaningful and satisfying values around which to orient their lives.

While the types of disruptive experiences that research has examined thus far are rather extreme, the same principles may hold for milder (though still significant) disruptions. For example, WWF-Scotland has been experimenting with a “Natural Change” project in which individuals undergo several months of deep engagement in nature, culminating with a sunrise-to-sunset solo experience in the wilderness; fascinatingly, the participants seem to consistently orient away from extrinsic and towards intrinsic values after participating in the project. Could sustained engagement in arts and culture followed by deep reflections have a similar disruptive effect? After all, two of arts and culture’s primary purposes are to shake up one’s typical ways of perceiving the world and to encourage inward reflections on one’s own life. And therapeutic traditions that make use of engagement in arts and culture seem to be effective ways for some people to explore their psyches and improve their lives.


I hope to have shown that there is solid scientific evidence supporting the idea that encouraging intrinsic values and discouraging extrinsic values is a promising strategy for promoting personal well-being, a more just and civil society, and a more ecologically- sustainable world. There are a number of admittedly speculative but potentially tantalizing reasons why engagement in arts and culture may be able to contribute to such efforts, and my further hope is that this essay, combined with the commentaries that follow, will provide impetus for testing these ideas both empirically and practically.

imageFigure 1 – Circumplex Model of Goals (from Grouzet et al., 2005).

Reprinted from “The structure of goal contents across 15 cultures,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 800-816, with permission from the American Psychological Association. The figure is based on circular stochastic modeling procedures applied to the goal-importance ratings of approximately 1800 college students in 15 cultures. Values adjacent to each other on the circumplex are experienced as relatively compatible whereas values on opposite sides of the circumplex are experienced as in relative conflict.

Tim Kasser Ph.D.  is Professor & Chair of Psychology at Knox College, Illinois, USA

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