Managing Partner Sonja Graham explores the relationship between values and behaviour change, and examines the power of values to change society and the future.


The term “values” gets banded about regularly – not least by businesses who often proudly plaster their “values” such as “above and beyond”, “fidelity” and “candour” across their foyers with cringe-worthy stock photos to match. We all have values – or Basic Human Values as they are known in the academic world - and one thing most researchers agree on is that these values are surprisingly consistent across ages, continents and cultures.


Values shape the way we see, feel and hear the world – a sort of internal compass. International research has identified 10 core values that we all hold. The thing that makes you - well you, is the importance you place on each of these values. For example, two individuals will both hold “Universalism” values (protection of all people and nature) but it is how strongly they hold these and also how strongly they hold other conflicting values like “Power” (power over people and resources) that ultimately determines their attitudes and behaviours.


Now obviously I am being simplistic here - there are many other things besides our values which dictate how we act. I can hold incredibly strong Universalism values but be acting against these due to many things; whether social pressure – it’s hard to swim against the tide; a lack of personal knowledge or ability – who knew peanut butter was laced with palm oil and responsible for destruction of rainforests until a few weeks back….and/or not having the necessary infrastructural or political support, don’t get me started…. among other things. These barriers to pro-environmental behaviour have been what GAP has tried to address over the last 23 years through its programmes. But we need more drastic change.


Given the increasingly divisive story presented by our politicians and the media and the mistrust for big business and the establishment expressed by large swathes of society; developing and strengthening values that will pave the way for a more harmonious and sustainable future is paramount.

Our thinking is that - if we can strengthen values that are known to promote the sorts of attitudes and behaviours we want to see - then we can create wider individual and societal change than we could through focusing purely on behaviour. This thinking isn’t rogue – Common Cause among others have done some great work in looking at how charities can tap into values to increase their impact. They show the importance of strengthening a group of 5 values, termed “intrinsic values” to encourage more pro social and environmental behaviour.

We know that values, are most easily influenced in childhood and so at GAP we are increasingly using values change techniques in our youth programmes. Rather than just focusing on the “what” – the activities/behaviours needed to reduce environmental impact, we are getting young people to consider the “how”. Together they think about the world they aspire to live in and the sorts of values that would create that world. They then work out what behaviours represent those values and practise them – showing equality by rotating team responsibilities, social justice by making sure all activities are inclusive of all groups etc. This small change is having quite a marked effect on our programme and on the values of the young people involved.


Since adopting this more values-focused approach in our Water Explorer programme we have been hearing the most incredible stories; of increased social inclusion with classes seeking to understand different cultural relationships with water to connect with the many refugee children joining their classes; of absenteeism reduced by 25% due to team focus on values such as respect and responsibility.

Although early days, we are already seeing increases in the importance of intrinsic values in the young people taking part. Will this lead to them practising more pro-environmental and social behaviours in the future? Is GAP helping to develop a healthy, happy and considerate society for the future, we hope so – watch this space!


Further reading: If you want to understand more about values I thoroughly recommend you read Common Cause’s handbook – which is written in plain English, uses beautiful illustrations and makes a compelling case for why all those in the Environmental space should all think more about values.