The Science Behind: Values
How neuroscience can help us to align our behaviours with our beliefs.
Personal values are at the core of who we are and influence every aspect of our lives. They help us navigate the world by guiding us toward what we believe is important and worthwhile. In this blog post, we will delve into the science behind personal values, why they are essential, and how they can contribute to a happier and more fulfilling life.
Research has shown that living in accordance with our personal values can lead to a greater sense of meaning and purpose, lower levels of stress and anxiety, increased motivation and drive, and more fulfilling relationships with others. By understanding the neuroscience and psychology of values, we can better identify and prioritize our values, and align our decisions and behaviors with them.
The Role of Dopamine in the Brain's Reward System
To understand how values work, it's helpful to start with the brain's reward system. This system is centered around the neurochemical dopamine, which plays a critical role in determining what the brain values. Dopamine is found throughout the brain, but two regions in particular, the nucleus accumbens and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, are important for studying how value is processed.
This system of value in the brain is an old and all-purpose one that evolved to help us seek out primary rewards like food and shelter. Over time, it has been adapted to other things that we find rewarding, like money, chocolate, and even the feeling of being part of a cohesive team. When we have to make complex decisions that involve weighing the value of different options, dopamine helps us by allowing us to measure the relative value we place on each choice. Neuroscientists refer to this as a common neuro-currency of value.
How Context Shapes What We Value
While the brain's reward system provides a foundation for understanding value, it's important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all definition of what constitutes a "valuable" thing or experience. What we value depends on a range of factors, including our social context, our personal history, and our current circumstances.
For example, people's values may change depending on the norms of the group they are in. In a work setting, people may value things like productivity and efficiency, while in a social setting, they may place more value on having fun and being social. Similarly, our values may shift over time and in response to different situations. Things that we once found valuable, like trendy clothing or high heels, may lose their appeal as we age or as our priorities change.
Another interesting aspect of values is how they can be contagious. Research by Jamil Zaki at Stanford University has shown that when people adopt the values of a group that they care about, their own values can shift as well. In one study, participants were asked to rate the attractiveness of various faces and were then shown how their peers had rated the same faces.
When participants were asked to re-rate the faces later on, their ratings shifted to match those of their peers. Brain scans showed that this shift in values was not just a matter of social conformity, but that the brain was actually placing more value on the faces that had been rated highly by the group.
The Contagion of Values
The Three Dimensions of Values
Dr. Jamil Zaki has created a three-dimensional model to explain how people's values are shaped by different factors.
The first dimension is the balance between risk and safety, which is important for both humans and animals. Humans tend to avoid risk and choose known values over unknown possibilities. When we choose a known value, it activates the dopamine system in the brain. When we take a risk, it engages the anterior cingulate cortex, which helps control conflicts.
The second dimension is social connection versus social disconnection. People like to value what their group values, and being liked by others is rewarding. When people agree with their group, it activates the reward system in the brain. Disagreement with the group leads to negative activity in the reward system and may lead to people trying harder to connect with the group.
The third dimension is social comparison, where we derive value from being good and from being better than others. Studies show that people's happiness after achieving success depends on who they compare themselves with. Money is only valuable if it positively impacts our social status.
These dimensions can interrelate, leading to conflicts between different values. For example, someone may want to be socially connected to their colleagues but also wants to receive a promotion, which may require them to be better than their colleagues. In such cases, the values that win out will determine our behavior.
Personal values are a fundamental aspect of our lives that guide our decisions, behaviors, and relationships. Ultimately, living in accordance with our personal values can lead to a happier and more fulfilling life.
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