Perceptions Matter

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

Dr Tom Crompton is Director of Common Casue Foundation. He lives in Machynlleth. [tcrompton@commoncausefoundation.org]

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.

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