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Values Clarification

By Jurriaan Plesman BA(Psych), Post Grad Dip Clin Nutr


We seldom hear people walking around saying they are happy. Unhappy people are usually aware of their unhappiness.
Values clarification tries to answer questions such as: what am I trying to achieve? What would make me happy? What do I really want out of life? What is important to me? What are my values? What do I want from my husband or wife? What kind of career do I want?
Values can of course mean many things, but in motivational terms we are speaking of things that we need, require, want, aspire, set on’s heart on and so on.
When we buy a car we unwittingly use a means of choosing an object that has values, that we have thought about before, or clarified. A decision to buy a certain car is chosen among other possible cars that we might have looked at. So there must be a choice.
The characteristics of this car consists of desirable attributes (values) such as the colour, whether it is a four seater or two seater, whether it is a sports car, or sedan; it has a certain engine capacity, fall within a certain price-range and a myriad of other values that we consider to be important.
In fact, values are not values unless it implies importance, thus all values comprise of things that we deem important!
But the colour of car may be of lesser importance than the engine capacity, thus values clarification requires some ranking in importance. Furthermore, we must be able to afford to buy the car, which means we must test values against reality.
We do not own many of our values; that is to say we have never been in position to ‘evaluate’ our values, because many of these have been inherited – not through genes – but by simply being a member of some social group or culture that has determined what these values ought to be. In the Western culture one’s house has to conform to certain standards (values), which are different from those of another culture. These cultural values have a long history of development, which may offer survival values to that culture, such as that standards requiring minimization of fire hazards, building codes, standards of safety etc.
So far we have been talking about ‘concrete values’, that is values attached to concrete object, that can be touched or observed through our senses.
What about abstract values such as ‘love’, ‘loyalty’, ‘courage’, ‘respect of other human beings’, ‘respect for animals’, ‘love of science, or music’, the kind of things we may or may not want, which are important to us and yet cannot be defined in terms of our senses. Many of these values are taught in the family, the church or the school. We may admire competition as a cultural value, others see cooperation among members of a community to be more important. But many values are also arrived at through personal meditation or reflection.

There is a saying in Christian philosophy that says: “People who pray together, stay together”, in other words sharing common or compatible values establishes a lasting bond between people.

Sharing one’s value is an important factor in the stability of intimate relationships such as marriage or cooperative actions among people.

If we want to own these values, that is be responsible for what we believe in – we will have to re-choose those values.

Some principles appear to emerge;

1. Values are chosen and this implies that we can either accept or reject values.

2. We choose values from alternatives. Choice (free will) is impossible if we have no alternatives, hence such choosing requires an open mind.

3. Values need to be realistic. They need to be capable of realization in the world we live in. This in itself is often a matter of value judgment.

4. Values need to be specific and positive. “I value life” or “I value freedom” tells us little what action I should take now. Thus values need to be clarified or defined. Here subjecting values to the “W” questions may help us to get a clearer picture. For example: “Freedom to do what?”

5. We need to think about our values before we can accept them as our own. “Are the values I believe in mine or do they derive from other people or sources?” If so, we do not necessarily need to reject them, provided we feel comfortable with these values.

6. Values need to be felt as being important to the person. When values lack the quality of ‘importance’, they could be merely “prized” and perhaps talked about, but rarely acted upon.

7. Ideally, values should be consistent with our behaviour. When our behaviour is in conflict with our expressed values, we may not have much commitment to those values. Of course, being imperfect human beings our behaviour will not always coincide with our belief systems; they may overlap! Sometimes it is not prudent to act in accordance with our values; in America it may be dangerous to express communist ideas. In China it is not wise to speak of democracy. This goes to show that one’s values may be in conflict with the prevailing values of society or the political system.

8. Values tend to be goal directed. In psychology it is difficult to define what is and is not goal-directed behaviour. But is is clear that without a values system, humans would be the victim of his circumstances, a ship without a rudder.

Looking at some of these principles it is apparent that our “free will” may be severely restricted as when a man is in prison.
Some other factors that restrain our ability to choose are; poverty, lack of education, ill-health (hypoglycemia, endogenous depression, psychotic illness, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)), conditions of employment or unemployment, family circumstances and so on. Yet among all these restricting environments there remains often an area where we can exercise our free will.

Motivational Test

If we want to find out whether a person is motivated to change his behaviour, we could ask him to complete the sentence:

“I want to change because of X Y Z, and that is important to me!”

where “X Y Z” are the underlying reasons given for wanting to change. By using “W” questions, we can test the second layer of arguments in favour of his reasons.
For examples: “I want to change, because I don’t want to go to gaol” or “because I don’t want to lose my wife”. Note these reasons are in the negative and may not prompt the person to change his behaviour, were it not for the gaol or his wife walking out on him. The person may be at a loss to explain why it is important to him not to lose his wife. He may even hate her! These negative feelings need to be translated into positive values, which is one of the objects of values clarification.

If a person is unable to give any reason why he wants to change, perhaps we could ask him to fill up the following sentence;

“I don’t want to change because of X Y Z, and that is important to me!”

By using the “W” questions we should be able to analyze the reasons behind his lack of motivation. There could be a payoff for continuing the behaviour, such as “Everything is going alright….my mother is looking after me and I get regular meals….I am free to go the beach….and I receive my regular unemployment check…why change??”
Thus his motivation is intertwined with that of his mother and the question is “What motivates the mother to support his son unconditionally?” Are we dealing here with an arrangement that is satisfactory to both mother and son?

Daily Activities Pies

Another way of looking at motivation and values clarification is by studying the activities of people on a daily basis.



In Figure 1 the circle , representing 24 hours a day, may be divided into various activities. One third of the day – that is 8 hours – is devoted to sleep. Another third is spent working, and the last 8 hours may be used up in leisure time.
Studies have shown that about 80% of people do not enjoy their work, yet most keep on working year after year. Work appears to be a means to an end satisfying their needs for pleasure, and other interests. These in fact constitute important values, for example those related to family and children. The acceptance of work conditions is also bound up with their personal relations with fellow workers, which depend on social abilities and in turn on the self-image.


In Figure 2 we have an example where a person devotes a lot of time to his work. The question is: “Is he a workaholic?” and why? His values seems to be centered on his work situation.

On the other hand we have people, whose daily activities pies would look like that given in Figure 3.


Obviously such a person places a important value on his leisure time. The wealthy and the rich are likely to show such charts. But what about the person without an independent income? He may well be depending on others, and his values would suggest a strong belief in the “support culture” or the welfare state. Or again such a person values freedom highly so that he can fulfill perhaps his artistic or creative abilities and needs.

These Daily Activities Pies do not necessarily reflect value preferences, they could result from uncontrollable circumstances, personal disabilities, work pressures, the necessity to pay off mortgages. However if these activities are chosen, they do reflect values.

Values satisfy needs

The word “value” comes from the French “vouloir” which means wishing or wanting. Wanting food, shelter, or wanting a close human relationship, security, wanting respect, or wanting to help others seem to point to needs operating at different levels.

This is illustrated in Figure 4



It is clear that one’s needs and therefore one’s important values lie at different levels depending on circumstances often beyond the control of the individual. In poorer countries the needs for food, clothing and shelter may override all other values. In fact, values and customs at the social level may be subordinate to these basic needs. Marriage arrangements may fulfill economic necessities. There is a different priority of values.

Values orientation

Values can also be looked at from the point of how it affects our behaviour. For example, when values are positive we tend to act, when these values are negative we tend to avoid. This is illustrated in Figure 5.



Let us take an example of attitudes towards women.

When a person attaches positive values to women, he may either approach them or avoid them. If he tends to approach women for whom he has a positive regards, his values would likely be in the area in the graph anywhere marked “PAP Values”. (“PAP” stands for Positive + Approach.) He probably will be kind and considerate towards women.
If he has a high regard for women, but fears them, he is most likely to put them on a pedestal, but avoid them. That would place his values in the area of “PAV Values”. (PAV stands for Positive + Avoid).
If he harbours negative values about women and still approach them, his behaviour may be fraught with contempt or aggression and his values would be in the “NAP Values” part of the diagram.

If he has negative feelings towards women and avoid them he would be in the “NAV Values” area.
People – such as many alcoholics and drug addicts – reside in the NAV area and are generally negatively motivated.

They know exactly what they don’t want, but have no idea what they do want. We say they are not motivated at all.

The values clarification program helps these people to get out of the NAV area and to place them in the PAP area of the program.

The systematic clarification of values.

The aim is to bring positive values to consciousness, although these values may be expressed in negative terms. There is an important principle in values clarification that says that negative values can be expressed in a positive manner, which is the equivalent of the negative.

Example: Fear of prison – a strong motivation in behaviour – may mean love of freedom. However the question is freedom for what?

I will describe a favoured technique often used in my therapy group in four steps.

Step 1: Generate positive and negative adjectives or clauses

Members are asked to complete the following sentence:

“I want my wife to be……, and that is important to me!”

I then ask members to generate as many adjectives as they can. If nothing comes to mind I will ask them to think in negative terms (which some people find much easier to do).

“I don’t want my wife to be……, and that is important to me!”

I then draw two columns on the board, one headed ‘Positive’ and the other ‘Negative’. The results might look as follows:



In this first step of values clarification much is be revealed about the person. Some cannot think of anything, indicating that they have not given much thought on at least this topic. Few adjectives are generated. Others may emphasize the physical features of women – the concrete thinkers – describing them as “sexy”, “beautiful”, “blond with blue eyes”, “slim”, “attractive”. Others can only think of negatives.
Fortunately, through values clarification most of them graduate quickly to more abstract thinking such as they prefer a woman to be “understanding”.

In Step 2 we translate negative adjectives into positives.

Remember that only positive values will tend to mobilize people into action. The art of translating negatives into positives requires some thinking. We are talking about popular opposites and not “logical” opposites. When people look for the opposite of “nagging” they might suggest, “always putting you down” or “not being helpful” and very soon a person comes up with the idea of “being helpful”, “being supportive”, “encouraging”. “Addicted to drugs” becomes “straight”, “in control”, “normal”.
“Lazy” becomes “not willing to work” which soon suggests “willing to work”, “not shy of work”, “hard worker”.
The opposite of “Slovenly” becomes “having self-respect”, “pride in the way she dresses” “proud”, “good sense of dress”, “well-dressed”.
“Hates going out” is translated into “loves people”, “loves socializing”, “easy to get on with”, “loves mixing with people”.
It helps consulting a thesaurus or a dictionary of synonyms – words with similar meanings.

The resulting list of positive values is now:

good cook
loves children
easy going
hard working
loves people
likes going out

In Step 3: we define and eliminate synonyms (same meanings) by means of “W” questions.

We have explained elsewhere that the “W” questions are questions that begin with a ‘w’, in it: “Why, What, When, Where, Who and How?”

What do we mean by ‘beautiful’, ‘considerate’, ‘loving’, and so on. “Why should we believe this to be important?”, “When or where did this occur to me?”, “How would that affect me?” are the kinds of questions that forces us to think in the ADULT ego state, and to become clear as to what we mean. One way of clearing up meanings is by deliberately generalizing (also known as universalizing) the meaning of a word. For example: “Do you want your wife to love all children?” “be friendly with all people?” “If not, what kind of people then?”
“Do you want your wife to be considerate, even if you hit her, or if you go out with another woman?”
When you use “always”, “all”, “every” “at any time”, etc. you tend to extend the question to situations that in fact you want to exclude. You don’t want your wife “to be lovely to every man”, “helpful to everybody”, “attractive all the time”. Thus your positve clauses have limits, and the question is where are the limits?
Here one has to think and refine meanings and point to actual circumstances and situations that delineate your meanings and needs. Having a low-esteem may lower your criteria by not insisting on qualities we feel are important, if we want to be happy.

in Step 4 a person is asked to rank-order his adjectives.

Again,the person is asked to carefully think about his values. The question basically is: “Which of the qualities are more important to one’s happiness?” “Is it more important for a wife to be beautiful or considerate?”
Rank-ordering is carried out by giving each adjective or quality a number in terms of importance and then placing them in numerical order. This may be done on a white board in the group.
An excellent way of rank-ordering is by using small cards. Members are asked to generate positive and negative adjectives on a topic and to write them on the cards. First, the negatives are translated into positives and written on the other side of the cards. The cards are laid in front of the person and he is then asked to define the qualities. Then he is to rank-order them by placing the most important qualities at the top.
The use of cards is an easy way of understanding the method of values clarification: it is on on-going process and we also discover that we change our values each day, sophisticating them and refining them.

An anecdote

The power of values clarification is illustrated by an experience of a young girl, who was severely brain-damaged after long period of drug-abuse. She was at one time a qualified dental nurse, when she started using first marijuana, then heroin. Her mother told me that she found her daughter lying on the lounge room floor with cards in front of her. She was writing things on cards, turning them around and putting them in some sort of order.
One day the young lady came to the group with a new boyfriend. The boy friend was ‘straight’ and she explained to the group that according to her exercise in values clarification at home she had placed ‘honesty’ on top of the list. Also her boy friend had to be straight that is not using drugs.
She had an agreement with her boyfriend to get off drugs and “please would the group accept her boy friend as one of the members”.
I met her mother a few years later and she told me that her daughter was married to the ‘boy friend’, they had a baby and she was an excellent mother!!

Matching couples

Another useful application of the values clarification is to assess how compatible two people are in their values; an important factor that would affect their relationship.
A married couple – parents of a group member – was asked to values clarify their ideal partner. They were required to do this separately. The results could then be compared. The group was astounded about the similarity of responses. Thus values clarification helps two people to ascertain whether they have compatible values. How often do two people meet, fall in love and then after a while split with traumatic consequences to either one or both partners. They did not realize that they had different expectations in their relationship; one was interested to travel around the world, the other wanted to settle down in a job and a home!

Creating a shopping list

A married couple can go through a series of crisis situations. Personalities are dynamic – not static – one partner may finally outgrow a low self-esteem, or may develop a new interest in life. They are then said to pull into different directions, yet the bonds of love are strong. Often children become victims. Conflict may rekindle a fragile self-image in one or both partners. Communication breaks down.
In such a situation ‘creating a shopping list’ may be of assistance to sort out the problems.
Each partner is asked to ‘list’ the things they want out of a relationship.

“I want …………… and this is important to me!” or

“I don’t want …………… and this is important to me!”

Again the ‘clauses’ are 1) listed under ‘postives’ and ‘negatives’ 2) negatives translated to positives, 3) defined and evaluated, 4) Rank-ordered.

These are then compared. Then, negotiations and compromises are discussed between the partners.

Filling up value sentences

There are many ways of tapping into one’s values, by simply completing sentences:

I have learned that…………..
I have discovered that…………..
I now know that………….
I was surprised to find that………
My hero is…………….
One day I hope to………….
My greatest ambition is to…………
My favourite place in the world is………….
My goal is life is……………
My father always taught me that…………..
My family likes to……………..
My greatest wish is …………

Evaluate your friends

Think of your friends and ask yourself a series of value laden questions;

Would this person keep a secret?
Does this person always keep appointments?
Could you tell your friend about your problems? What kind of problem?
Would you ask this person for advice in respect of what….?
How does your friend relate to other friends?
What do my friends have in common?
What do I expect from friends?
Friends are for ……….

Fantasy trips

Another favourite technique to uncover your values is by going on what I call FANTASY TRIPS.
They are all of the form: “If I am….. then…….”.

What would you do if you were a billionaire, if your were a dictator, the director of a big corporation, etc.

By allowing a person to dream the impossible, very often what appears to be impossible becomes achievable with a few compromises.

An anecdote

One client was a fervent surf-board rider. He spent most of the day on the beach. He was on welfare and had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. So now and again he applied for jobs in a factory, and frankly was glad when unsuccessful.
Asking him what he really was interested in he said, surf boards!!
He knew all about surf boards, what shape they should have, how they were built and so on. He was proud of his knowledge about surf board.
I ask him whether he would be interested in selling surf boards.
Would he ever!
So instead of applying for advertised jobs we made up a list of all firms selling surf boards. We collected some 20 firms. His job was to visit these firms daily and talk to the managers. He was to sell his skills and knowledge about surf boards. If the result was negative he would ask the person if he knew of any other firm that would be interested in employing him as a salesman. He was instructed to get the personal names and telephone numbers of potential employers!
It was not long and he landed himself a job in a shop selling sports equipment. He sold a few surf boards and his boss was very happy. But he had to learn about other sports products available in the shop. He gradually became an expert in most of the equipments for sale. He was happy to meet young people of his own kind, the same language, the same enthusiasm. I met him a few years later in the street, and yes….he was now a manager of one of a department stores, charged with increasing the sale of all sorts of sports equipment and ……. he had just finished a tech course in management! He was now learning about accountancy. He had a girlfriend. He was as happy as Larry.


Values clarification helps you to get a clear picture of where you are going, what choices to make, what friends to have or avoid, what to look for in relationships and what career to choose and how to get there.
Values are closely related to motivation. Counsellors avoid the danger of passing on a his/her own values on to their clients when teaching the values clarification program – clients discover their own values.
Most important of all, values clarification helps a person to fulfill his needs and find true happiness.

This chapter can also be found in Getting Off The Hook.

Further reading

Ayer,A.J.(1958), LANGUAGE,TRUTH AND LOGIC, Victor Gollancz Ltd.,London
Berofsky,B.(Ed.)(1966), FREE WILL AND DETERMINISM, Harper & Row,Pubs,N.Y.
Feinberg,J.(1969), MORAL CONCEPTS, Oxford University Press
Fletcher,J.(1967), MORAL RESPONSIBILITY, SCM Press Ltd.,London
Foot,P.(Ed.)(1967), THEORIES OF ETHICS, Oxford University Press
Hare,R.M.(1952), THE LANGUAGE OF MORALS, Oxford University Press
Hare,R.M.(1963), FREEDOM AND REASON, Oxford University Press,London
Hemming,J.(1969), INDIVIDUAL MORALITY, A Panther |Book,London.
Kirschenbaum,H.(1977), ADVANCED VALUE CLARIFICATION, University Associates, Inc. La Jolla, Calif.
Margolis,J.(1966), CONTEMPORARY ETHICAL THEORY, Random House, N.Y.
Maslow,A.H.(1970), NEW KNOWLEDGE IN HUMAN VALUES, Henry Regnery Co.Chicago
McCance RA (1994), THE COMPOSITION OF FOOD, The Royal Society of Chemistry and Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
Moore,G.E.(1968), PRINCIPIA ETHICA, Cambridge University Press
Peters,R.S.(1966), ETHICS AND EDUCATION, George Allen & Unwwin Ltd.,London
Piaget,J.(1932), THE MORAL JUDGMENT OF THE CHILD, Routledge & Kegan Paul,London
Plesman, J (1986), GETTING OFF THE HOOK, Shepson Printing, Sydney
Reid,L.A.(1962), PHILOSOPHY AND EDUCATION, Heinemann,London
Roubiczek,Paul,(1969), ETHICAL VALUES IN THE AGE OF SCIENCE, Cambridge University Press
Smith,B.O. & Ennis,R.H.(1961), LANGUAGE AND CONCEPTS IN EDUCATION, Rand McNally & Co. Chicago
Smith,M. (1977), A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO VALUE CLARIFICATION, University Associates,Inc. La Jolla, Calif.
Steele,S.(1979), VALUES CLARIFICATION IN NURSING, Appleton-Century-Crofts, N.Y.
Warnock,G.J.(1967), CONTEMPORARY MORAL PHILOSOPHY, St.Martin’s Press,London
White,A.R.(1968), THE PHILOSOPHY OF ACTION, Oxford University Press

One Response

  1. david Buckley says:

    Excellent! i will pass this on to the head of the National Council on Drug Abuse here in Jamaica

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