Value Conflicts and Key Terms

Overview: This page offers a few different ways to use values to explore conflict. Understanding the values that motivate people in various situations helps students avoid oversimplification, damaging vilification, and undue self-congratulation. Building these habits of analysis can help students move away from a “good vs. evil” worldview and to begin seeking and evaluating the enormously complex variables of human behavior.


1. To give students a vocabulary and protocol to recognize motivating values and anti-values and to dissect conflicts into their component values.

2. To give students tools to analyze value conflicts, to evaluate the assumptions involved, and to generate predictive inferences and concrete steps towards a resolution.

3. Student will be able to recognize and avoid the fundamental attribution error, in which we habitually project personality flaws in others when they struggle, and look for situation-based explanations when we struggle. In short, students will practice perspective-taking, and be better able to put themselves in other people’s shoes.

4. Students will learn to recognize conflicting values within themselves, and to balance and prioritize their needs, goals, and desires.

In General:

1. It’s difficult to pull values out of the air when evaluating a situation. There are a lot of them, and they can mean very different things to different people. I regularly use list of values and anti-values to help with the recognition process. (Even after using this list often, I still have a hard time generating more than five or six values off the top of my head.) The list is by no means meant to be exhaustive. I place it on the back of related assignment sheets, and I like to have the list very visible on the wall of the classroom.

(Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind is an excellent exploration of the psychology of values. Steven Pinker’s article The Moral Instinct gives a great, quick overview.)

2. A simple value-conflict diagram can help students visualize basic value conflicts. It can help illustrate how conflicts can quickly escalate to anger, name-calling, and cruelty.

Take a common scenario: A student wants to relax and enjoy her evening. Her parents would like her to do her homework. Instead of quietly discussing the underlying goals and needs of the situation, the parents order their daughter to study, and the daughter screams, “It’s my life!” and spits on the new carpet. The value conflict is between freedom and success, and a diagram of this scenario might look like this:


3. Once underlying values are identified, the next step is to work towards a resolution. Students might use the predictive inference continuum to generate some possible scenarios and then look for ways to work towards the best outcome. The vocabulary of conflict negotiation is particularly useful here, including Positions vs. Needs, Intention vs. Impact, and Mapping the Contribution System, from Getting to Yes by Patton, Fisher, and Ury, and Difficult Conversations by Patton, Fisher, and Heen.

4. In addition to listing values, there are Anti-Values which fulfill the same motivational role but have predictably negative outcomes. Anti-values are likely to create a number of conflicts, and these will likely require a more one-sided resolution (the party motivated by an anti-value will be far less sympathetic). Steven Pinker lists psychological roots of violence in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, and I have found his list and his analysis to be extraordinarily useful:

a. Dominance – The desire to be above and more powerful than others. A culture centered on winning rather than on growth or positive achievement is indicative of a dominant mindset. My high school football team fits this model.

“Dominance is an adaptation to anarchy, and it serves no purpose in a society that has undergone a civilizing process or in an international system regulated by agreements and norms. Anything that deflates the concept of dominance is likely to drive down the frequency of fights between individuals and wars between groups. That doesn’t mean that the emotions behind dominance will go away – they are very much a part of our biology, especially in a certain gender- but they can be marginalized.”  – Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, pg. 528.

b. Revenge – The desire to exact retributive justice on someone who has wronged you. Unfortunately, they psychology of revenge tends to work on a “more-is-better” reward system. Revenge Cycles occur when conflicting individuals or groups keep increasing the stakes of retributive justice: Your dogs are loud, so I’m going to key your car, so you throw a brick through my window, so I burn down your house, so you shoot me.

c. Sadism – The enjoyment of seeing others in pain. This anti-value may seem to be the exclusive realm of psychopaths, but much of our culture is awash in sadistic psychology; think of the big hit in football replayed ad naseum, shoot-’em-up video games, and the extraordinarily entertaining films of Quentin Tarantino.

d. Ideology – We might define belief systems as a broad term for clusters of values that have evolved into a coherent dogma. Ideology is when these belief systems become exclusive and utopian, thus justifying the persecution of non-believers.

Note: The anti-values stand alone are not the same as a deficiency or excess of any given value. For example, cowardice is a deficiency of courage, but no one is motivated by cowardice. Whereas many people are motivated by dominance, which is not synonymous with an excess of authority, nor is revenge simply an excess of justice.

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