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Thought Thursdays
Intrinsic – not extrinsic – values underpin Gordhan’s call for active citizenship


In his mini-budget speech last week, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan called on all South Africans to step up and work together to meet the many challenges facing the country.

“What we seek to achieve, and more, can be done if we collectively make the right choices ... and put the national interest first,” he said.

It’s been a while since South Africans have seen and heard one of their leaders articulating so coherently a compelling vision for the country – and it was uplifting. 

What Gordhan was doing was appealing to our intrinsic values – that innermost part of ourselves that encourages us to be engaged citizens who are concerned about each other and our environment. And he understands that values, which influence what we think and believe, can positively influence our behaviour.

Much has been said and written about values and values-based leadership, but the truth is that, outside of a Demartini or Anthony Robbins workshop, few people have taken the time to consider what their values are, or how these shape the way they think and act; or, further, how they shape the well-being of society and the environment in general. But values are important because they have (an often unconscious) power over us.

There is a large body of peer-reviewed research which demonstrates this; specifically, how and which values stimulate greater engagement in bettering the world (called intrinsic or compassionate or self-transcendence values), and, conversely, those which encourage us to be more individualistic and image-conscious (often called extrinsic or materialistic or self-enhancement values).

It makes for fascinating reading – in part, because it is so close to home for all of us. These two intrinsic and extrinsic values groups exist in a see-saw dynamic, mostly in the subconscious recesses of the human brain. This means that if a person is more motivated by extrinsic values such as wealth, status, image, success or ambition, they will tend to deprioritise care for social and environmental issues. If a person prioritises intrinsic values such as equality, nature, wisdom, creativity and meaning in life, they will express more care for and be more engaged in addressing the issues of our time. These findings are intuitively obvious.

Digging deeper into some values studies, some other interesting facts emerge in our increasingly materialistic and individualistic society. For example, the more people watch TV, the more they will demonstrate materialistic tendencies – mostly owing to the large amount of extrinsic advertising. And other, related research is equally fascinating: those who have studied law or business tend to be more materialistically motivated – and are thus less likely to care about social and environmental issues. 

Here is another bit of research that illustrates how impressionable our minds are: two identical studies were conducted, with the only difference being that the one was titled a ‘consumer study’, while the other was labelled a ‘citizen study’. This subtle difference in how the mind is primed leads to less caring attitudes and behaviours in those labelled ‘consumers’ (which implies a more apathetic, self-serving and “I am only a shopper” mindset) and more caring attitudes and behaviours in those labelled ‘citizens’ (which implies a more engaged-in-society mindset).

Reading an article about social injustices and the devastating effects on poverty will cause a reader, who is tested immediately afterwards, to be more inclined not only to speak out about social issues, but also to indicate more caring thinking and behaviour in other areas, such as the environment. This is because of the so-called bleed-over effect where – if a given value is engaged or primed – closely related values will also be engaged. 

If, on the other hand, readers become absorbed by an advert depicting a piece of bling which they (now) urgently desire, they will immediately afterwards test to be less inclined to do something about social or environmental issues. 

All this research makes it apparent that values are an important factor in shaping our future. And, rather fortunately, values are not fixed, but keep evolving over time, depending on what values, thoughts and actions humans are exposed to. 

So, the words and actions of someone like Pravin Gordhan might actually result in a shift towards a better future for all of us. Unfortunately, the dominant discourse in the world at the moment is extrinsic. As George Monbiot, rather depressingly, pointed out in a recent Guardian column, Trump’s rise in the US is largely the product of a society that is massively extrinsically motivated.

But we do not have to sit by passively and let this discourse shape us and our organisations. Anyone with a deep desire to improve the collective well-being of society can take steps to stimulate and strengthen intrinsic values wherever they can. 

And now is a good time in South Africa. The Fourth King Governance Report has just been launched. Its objective is to instil more ethical and responsible ways of operating and stimulating business and other organisations to become more engaged in addressing social and environmental ills.  

For those of us that take the objectives of the King Report and other similar sustainability initiatives to heart, it is important, if not essential, to internalise and champion intrinsic or compassionate values. 

The King Report does in fact highlight intrinsic values such as honesty, integrity, transparency, respect, fairness and sustainability. But simply stating values, or capturing them in a policy, or pinning framed ethics statements on the wall, or even introducing a comprehensive governance process is not nearly enough if the underlying organisational culture is not changed.

Values, through repeated effort, like an exercised muscle, can be strengthened. And this is not a new idea – over 2 000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle observed that “we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts”.

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Robert Zipplies is a part-time USB-ED faculty member and the co-founder of Common Cause South Africa​, which works to rebalance cultural values and catalyse greater engagement in the big issues of our time. 

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