Perceptions Matter

Dr Tom Crompton looks at how the values of people in Wales differ from those in the rest of the UK.

You’re emotionally attached to your car, you worry about paying the mortgage and you quite fancy your boss’s job. But if you’re typical of people living in Wales you’ll nonetheless value friendship, honesty and justice above image, money and success.

A report published by the Common Cause Foundation (Perceptions Matter: the Common Cause UK Values Survey) finds that across the UK people of all ages attach greater importance to compassionate values than selfish values. But this is particularly true of people living in Wales. People in Wales attach greater importance to compassionate values (and lower importance to selfish values) than people in Scotland or any other English region, with the exception of the north east England.

Overall, 76% of people living in Wales prioritise their values in this way. And this really does seem to be the case: the research, conducted by Ipsos MORI and psychologists at Cardiff University, ruled out the possibility that people are simply reluctant to own up to holding selfish values.

But people living in Wales are also remarkable in another way. They are the most likely to overestimate the importance that other people attach to selfish values. For example, when asked about the values that they think a typical fellow citizen holds to be important, people living in Wales are 1.4 times more likely than people living in Scotland to assume, wrongly, that a typical compatriot holds selfish values to be more important than compassionate values.

“There’s a focus on earning money,” one survey participant said. “There’s a culture of self, and not a culture of responsibility. It’s all about me, my needs, not society’s need.”

This is important because the study found that the more people underestimate the significance that others attach to compassionate values, the less likely they are to have voted in recent elections, the lower their intentions to volunteer or support the work of a charity, and the more alienated they are prone to feel. In other words, this misconception may be holding the people of Wales back from mounting collective responses to major challenges – from addressing health inequalities or accommodating the needs of future generations, for example.

Another participant, a woman from Wales, provided a clue as to why this might be. “It’s a very materialistic society that we live in,” she said. “I don’t like it very much. I try to express my values as much as possible but, to live with other people, you just try and play the roles as much as possible.”

Perhaps that’s the problem: people “play the roles”, reluctant to act in line with the compassionate values they hold to be most important, because this would leave them feeling out-of-kilter with what they think they know about wider society. This reluctance would in turn deepen the widespread misperception that most people care less for compassionate values than is actually the case.

As this spiral gathers energy, it seems that people are left tragically and needlessly less civically engaged and more socially alienated.

But our perceptions of what other people value does not just come from the people we bump into over the course of the day. They are also shaped by a tacit understanding conveyed by our experience of social institutions – the media, schools and colleges, business and government.

Participants in the survey were asked about the values that they felt were encouraged by different social institutions. Among these, government does not perform well – people see government as doing relatively little to encourage compassionate values.

This perception may contribute, inadvertently, to undermining public motivation for civic participation and worsening problems of social alienation. This is because, in being seen to offer relative encouragement to selfish values, government will tend to confirm people’s assumptions that others care more for selfish values (and less for compassionate values) than is actually the case. This, in turn, is likely to leave people more reluctant to express compassionate values – notwithstanding the fact that they personally hold these to be the most important. As a result, people aren’t seen to behave as though compassionate values matter to them – the ‘social proof’ of the importance of these values is weakened. And as we’ve seen, this impression may suppress civic participation and worsen feelings of cultural alienation.

Where are the opportunities for government to encourage compassionate values and thereby help to reverse this spiral?

One important step is to recognise the wider cultural impacts of legislation – extending beyond the immediate material impacts.

Think of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act. Regardless of its material success in tackling health inequalities or in promoting action on climate change, the Act itself sends a clear signal that, as a society, Wales holds compassionate values to be important.

On the other hand, government policies that are seen to promote economic growth over concerns for equality, social justice or community cohesion, will have the opposite effect. Such policies – irrespective of their material impact – are likely to worsen the existing tendency for people in Wales to imagine that most other people care more for selfish values than is actually the case. This, in turn, is likely to undermine motivation to become involved in various forms of civic participation, and to deepen cultural estrangement.

Any government department wanting to promote civic participation and reduce feelings of cultural estrangement, should find the courage to consistently model compassionate values – in the confidence that these are the values that most people in Wales hold to be particularly important.

Dr Tom Crompton is Director of Common Casue Foundation. He lives in Machynlleth. [[email protected]]

10 thoughts on “Perceptions Matter

  1. Many years ago I lived in New Zealand and was struck by their approach. A typical job interview would involve about a third of the time talking about your interests and specifically what you did within your community to improve it. Basically if you weren’t involved in organising some aspect of community life on a voluntary basis you were not considered a fully rounded human being and were unlikely to get the job. This attitude was found at all levels right up to CEOs. The further up the greasy pole you were the higher the level of expectation that you were also perhaps a trustee of a charity or a key organiser in some other voluntary organisation. The ‘gift’ of intelligence and education came with an unwritten obligation to put back into the society that had given you so much. Just writing a cheque to the Revenue service wasn’t enough ! We could learn from that approach here in Wales. Public sector, our biggest employer, could certainly give this more emphasis if HR managers revisited interview processes with this in mind.

  2. How people respond in such surveys is more about how they want to think of themselves or how they want others to perceive them. The real test of ‘selfish’ or ‘compassionate’ values is action. Research into participation rates in giving to charity, contributing the community on a volunteer basis, donating blood, caring for sick or elderly relatives, etc, would give a more reliable of where compassion is really to be found.

    Brian’s comment is particularly interesting in this context. Personal experience suggests that people who are active in business are often the same people who are active in charitable and community work – there is a lot of truth in the old saying ‘If you want something done, ask a busy man.’ It is unusual to meet a successful executive without some non-commercial achievements on their curriculum vitae as well. So the Kiwis are not just being altruistic is asking about such things. It may also be good business sense.

  3. I’ve had a quick (for now) look at the full report, and it’s a fascinating read. Congratulations Tom and co-authors. There are elements which chime (reassuringly so) with values modes work of Cultural Dynamics, which were considered during initiatives like DECC’s Low Carbon Communities Challenge and the research undertaken to deliver Welsh Narratives for SD. It is a bit depressing that there are such negative attitudes about business, government, and of (the rest of) civic society. The overarching message is hopeful though. When we focus on people’s actual values, interests and needs rather than perceived values (and respond to our interpretation of other people’s /organisations position statements)we can find common ground and make better decisions for society as a whole. The requirement to create [political] spaces which enable deliberation and connection to take place and maintain these spaces for enough time to build trust, becomes important. This sort of deliberative democratic opportunity may require facilitation; it certainly requires enlightened conveners. Where are we with this?

  4. The survey on which this article is based questioned 1000 people across the UK. So that should be about 50 people in Wales. Dr Crompton concludes a great deal upon this very sparse evidence. Still if it tells you what you want to hear; who cares?

  5. Perceptions and reality as we all know are not the same – An interesting article but it appears to me to be based on far more fallacies than facts.

    I’d never dismiss any abstract writing but this article and the research links it uses seem to see Wales as a different world to the one on the other side of the Offa’s Dyke border?

    A long border with England and closeness of the populous communities on either side of the ‘dividing line’ makes Wales indistinguishable from England and the other way round.
    Some differences emerge further West one goes, especially within the Welsh hills or mountains where a Tribal minority different by its language and culture is found in some numbers!

    Perpetuating the myth that Wales is somehow different to England only serves the nationalist cause whose aim is to impose the Welsh language and its culture upon the majority – Self-granted exceptionalism often heard through ‘Our Country / Our Language’ and thus claiming the ownership of Wales (A relationship with reality – Absolutely None and most of these people wouldn’t know the meaning of compassion if they fell over it)!

    Suggest some further reading “Contemporary Wales’ Volume 23 (University of Wales Press) ‘The Welsh Assembly Government’s Social Cohesion Strategy: A World Without Sociology”.

  6. Similar to Brian above I spent a time with the European branch of an Illinois company, with around 200 staff, all recruited regionally and wth very much the same attitudes.

    Claims to national exceptionalism need to be scrutinised, even more so when they are within the portals of the IWA. I am no statistician but my reading of the Common Cause report has a base methodology, conducted by IPSOS-Mori, of N= 1000 which gives I think a margin of error plus or minus 2% for Britain as a whole. But then when it is broken down geographically that would give a sample of 50 respondents in Wales. The map on page 39 of the report comes with no footnotes on sample sizes or margin of error yet is the base for the whole thrust of the article. I may have misread or missed something but the jump from 50 to 76% of the population living in Wales looks fanciful. I would welcome refutation of my own error.

  7. Given the low number of those questioned in Wales (about 50 I imagine) and also other parts of the UK especially Northern Ireland the data surely only prompts further investigation rather than the drawing of conclusions about any actual differences.

  8. Jacques, your inability to discuss any topic without mentioning the Welsh language is, apart from infuriating other readers, embarrassing.

  9. “….mentioning the Welsh language is, apart from infuriating other readers, embarrassing.” Oh I don’t know Gethin; in a country where the Welsh language has a totemic and unquestioned place it’s quite refreshing to find someone with the cojones to say out loud what many people think. Regrettably, for Jacques, there is a personal price which only he pays.

  10. The WWF spawns another red-green organisation and the IWA can’t wait to give it a platform to promote its own agenda of division by trying to make out Wales is in some way different to the rest of the UK based on a survey of, what, 5% of 1,000 people?

    Just how anybody can take material like this seriously is beyond me?

    Just how this provides any charitable benefit to anybody is beyond me?

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