A Field Guide to Social Choices
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A Field Guide to Social Choices

Summary

Values are often defined as "things" that an individual "finds important". And when it comes to defining their values, most people can't be more specific than saying that they value kindness or community. Concepts like these do, of course, guide our social choices. But at that level of abstraction, our concepts are usually bundles of motivations. Kindness and community look very different when seen through different lenses:

📈 Goals / Fears: strategy

🛃 Setting Expectations: social modelling / ideological commitments

💍 Meeting Expectations: social roles / social norms

🌳 Personal Values: inspiration / appreciation

This field guide will help you begin to unbundle the concepts that guide social choices, and recognize when 📈 goals/fears or 🛃💍 expectations are crowding out 🌳 personal values.

🌳 Personal Values (Inspiration)

🧔🏾Meet Ayodele. From the outside, his life looks spectacular. He has a high-status job. He and his wife Claire (a district attorney) own their own home. Their daughter Naija is an accomplished pianist and does very well in school. But even though Ayodele's life runs smoothly, it often leaves him rather sad. If you ask him about it, he just says that things feel a bit clinical. It's almost like something is getting lost, but he can't put his finger on it. It's as if all of his success were tinged with a vague sense of grief.

In his job as an investment banker, Ayodele relies on reams of data and facts to make well-informed decisions. In fact, he approaches things with rational calculation in nearly all aspects of his life. That includes how he goes about raising his daughter, Naija. Ayodele has read over 100 books about the best way to meet her needs, frequently scans the r/Parenting forum, started a local child-rearing research meetup, and even attends a bi-annual conference on developmental psychology at a nearby university to stay on top of the latest theories. What could Superdad possibly be missing?

One evening (dilligently following best practices), Ayodele is reading to Naija before bed. They are cuddled up together on the couch with Roald Dahl's Mathilda, a novel about a five-year-old girl who is incredibly intelligent and mature for her age. Ayodele becomes captivated by Matilda's ability to let intuition take the lead in deciding what to do next. It moves him deeply. As he tucks little Naija into bed, Ayodele feels a question forming somewhere deep in his body: is being »data-driven« really the best approach to life?

Over the course of the next few days, the story of Mathilda starts to inspire Ayodele more and more. His mind is churning with ways to begin putting this new inspiration into practice. Rather than eating his carefully portioned salad for lunch, Ayodele drops into a chinese restaurant because it »looks interesting«. And during father-daughter time on the weekend, he notices it's a very sunny day... So instead of going to the natural history museum as planned, Ayodele and Naija take a long walk in the woods.

This new approach to life feels right, like a deeper expression of himself. Ayodele even starts to consider letting his intuition guide his investment banking decisions. But would that be too risky? Maybe he could find a lower-stakes role at work in which he could practice intuitive decision making? Or maybe he could find a way of combining data-driven and intuitive decision making? His exploration continues...

Personal Values are ideas about which way of approaching things will guide our choices well. As we saw in the story above, they are often discovered and developed via inspiration (from fictional or real-life role models) as well as experimentation and reflection.

And before you get the wrong idea, personal values are not just a collection of hippie-dippie esotericisms. The story above could just as easily have been about someone who approaches their life with naive whimsy being inspired by Marcus Aurelius to shift toward living with a great sense of responsibility. The range of personal values is incredibly broad.

But you might still be asking yourself: If personal values are so important to us, why don't they guide all of our decisions?

One reason that we don't always live by our personal values is that they can be crowded out by external considerations. Rather than putting our inspirations into practice, like Ayodele, we might end up worrying about desired outcomes or expectations (our own or others'). So our second pass at examining what a personal value is will focus on what a personal value is not.

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If we don't pay close attention, it can look like a person is living by their personal values when they are actually doing something else. And seeing the difference is harder than you might think.

Honesty is a good example. If someone is being honest, it's clearly their personal value, right? Well... Honesty could be a personal value, but as we'll see, being guided by honesty does not necessarily mean putting inspiration into practice (like Ayodele did when he let intuition take the lead). Let's look at three other ways that honesty might be guiding a person's choices.

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🧑🏻 I believe that it will pay off for other people to think of me as honest.

← Click here for examples

👩🏾‍🦳 I am convinced that I'll get better outcomes if I am honest with myself.

← Click here for examples

Goals and fears can guide our choices, and that's alright. But sometimes we end up focusing on desired outcomes rather than on ways of being that inspire us. In other words:

📈 Goals and Fears can crowd out our 🌳 Personal Values.

Let's return for a moment to Ayodele. What if he were afraid that if he weren't data-driven, he would ruin his daughter's future? He'd likely make choices based on that fear, and end up neglecting his inspiration to follow intuitions.

Exercise: Try to find a few concepts that guide you as a goal/fear:

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Write your answers here:

🙋🏼‍♂️HELP! I don't understand... what I am supposed to do?!

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👩🏻‍💻 I am honest because I think my social role demands it.

← Click here for an example

🙎🏽‍♂️ I am honest because I want other people to like and accept me.

← Click here for an example

👨🏼‍🦳 I am honest because I need to like and accept myself.

← Click here for an example

Existing social norms (unwritten rules of behavior) can guide our choices, and that's alright. But sometimes we end up focusing on functioning/fitting in/some image of ourselves ourselves rather than on ways of being that inspire us. In other words:

💍 Meeting Expectations can crowd out our 🌳 Personal Values.

Let's return to Ayodele again. What if he were convinced that he had to be data-driven in order to be a good investment banker? He'd likely make choices based on that self-image, and end up neglecting his inspiration to follow intuitions.

Exercise: Try to find a few concepts that guide you in terms of meeting expectations:

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Write your answers here:

🙋🏾‍♂️HELP! I don't understand... what I am supposed to do?!

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👩🏿‍💼 I am honest in order to show you as an individual (or group) how to be.

← Click here for an example

👱🏻‍♀️ I am honest because I think that everyone needs to be that way.

← Click here for an example

Social modelling and ideological commitments can guide our choices, and that's alright. But sometimes we end up focusing on creating social pressure rather than on ways of being that inspire us. In other words:

🛃 Setting Expectations might crowd out our 🌳 Personal Values.

Let's return again one last time to to Ayodele. What if he were convinced that following his "spidey senses" would set a bad example for his daughter? He'd likely want to be a data-driven role model, and end up neglecting his inspiration to follow intuitions.

Exercise: Try to find a few concepts that guide you in terms of setting expectations:

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Write your answers here:

🙋🏽‍♀️HELP! I don't understand... what I am supposed to do?!

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🌳 Personal Values are intuitions or ideas about which way of approaching things will guide our lives and choices well. We can feel good about being guided by our personal values even if they don't result in the outcomes we expect, even if no one else changes their behavior, and even if people don’t like us for being that way. Personal values are chosen and developed via inspiration and admiration as well as experimentation and reflection. If we can »put into words« of our sense of what leads to a good life, we gain a very powerful tool for generating meaning for ourselves and others.

When users of social spaces and social technologies can live by their personal values, their experience usually feels meaningful, like »time well spent«. The opposite is often true when other considerations (goals/fears, meeting expectations, setting expectations) crowd out their personal values.

Exercise: Try to find a few concepts that guide you in terms of setting expectations:

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Write your answers here:

🙋🏼‍♀️ HELP! I don't understand... what I am supposed to do?!