Beware Value Talk

Decisions depend on both values and facts. Values are about us and what we want, while (beliefs about) facts are about everything else, especially the way everything else changes how what we get depends on what we do. Both values and facts are relevant to decisions.

But honestly, facts usually matter far more. Yes, sometimes we err by mistaking our values, and sometimes our values are more complex than we realize. But for the vast majority of our decisions, we have a good rough idea of what we value, and most of our decision problem (on the margin) is to figure out relevant facts. (If you review the last ten decisions you made, I think you’ll see this is obvious.)

Even when learning values is important, talking values with others usually helps less. To learn what we value, we mostly just need to try different things out and see how we feel about them. So compared to thinking about values, talking values seems even less useful for informing decisions. That is, we have better ways to coordinate to discover the world we share than to coordinate to learn our individual values. Yet we seem to spend an awful lot of time discussing values. Especially on grand topics like politics, religion, charity, sex/love, the arts, the future, etc., we seem to spend more time talking values than facts. (We also love to drop names on these topics.) Why?

Such topics tend to put us in a far mental mode, and far modes focus us on basic values relative to practical constraints. Which makes sense if far modes function more to manage our social impressions. That is, value-focused talk makes sense if such talk functions less to advise decisions, and more to help us look good. By talking values we can signal our loyalties and the norms we support, and we can covertly hint about norm violations we might overlook. (Dropping names also lets us covertly signal our loyalties.)

This is what bugs me personally about most discussions of grand topics — they are so full of value affirmations (and name dropping), and so empty of info to improve decisions. The modes that we prefer for such topics, such as stories, music, testimonials, and inspirational speeches, are much better for transmitting values than facts. Worse, people love to revisit the same value topics over and over, even though their values rarely change; it is info about facts that change, and so justify revising topics often. Also, the “experts” we prefer on these grand topics are mostly those whose main celebrated credentials are about their values and their abilities to move values, not about their understanding of facts.

I’m glad to be an academic, since our standard mode of talk is better suited to discerning and sharing facts than values. And I’m especially glad to be an economist, since our using a standard value metric lets us focus most of our disagreement on differing views about facts. Of course even so most academic discussion isn’t very well targeted at improving decisions; we are far more interested in getting better credentialed as being impressive. But at least we mostly talk facts.

If you think you are one of the rare folks who actually cares more about making better decisions than about signaling loyalties, and if you wanted to find other like minded folks to work with, I’d think you’d tend to avoid talking values, as that would be a bad sign about your interests. But in fact most folks who say they are the rare ones who care mainly about better decisions, and who take lots of personal time talk about it, seem in fact to spend most of their time talking values. They even tend to prefer the value focused modes and experts. Why are so few folks willing to even pretend to focus on facts?

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  • arch1

    Most people -like affirmation of their views (especially when definitive)

    -dislike refutation of their views (especially when definitive)
    -find it easier to construe affirmation as definitive, and refutation as non-definitive, when the subject is values vs facts

    The above suggests that all else equal, people would tend to discuss values over facts (and, within values, tend to shy away from topics on which the discussants have strong disagreements). Which seems pretty consistent w/ what we observe.

  • Doug

    I don’t disagree with what you’re saying, but a thorny piece of counter-evidence is that the most prestigious stories often focus on inverting traditional values or creating moral ambiguity. TV dramas like Breaking Bad, The Wire and Sopranos are considered high-brow largely because they focus on anti-heroes, blur the line between good and bad, and create sympathy for people that in real-life would normally be written off as evil.

    Stories that focus more on a black-and-white morality, a mode of story-telling that’s better suited for affirming widely shared values, are not as respected. TV dramas like CSI, Law and Order, or NCIS get many more viewers and make a lot more money but have much lower social status.

    The site TV-Tropes has done a good job categorizing the building blocks of morality (as well as pretty much everything else) in story-telling. It’s quite interesting to go through their trope list on this topic, and the complexity suggests that something beyond simple value-affirmation is going on.

    • I agree that stories do a lot more than affirm commonly held values. But the motives for creating sympathy for people who are widely seen as bad are still usually value-focused motives; they want changes in who is seen as good or bad.

  • oldoddjobs

    “especially the way everything else changes how
    what we get depends on what we do”


    • arch1

      I think Robin meant “especially the way (everything else) changes (how (what we get) depends on (what we do))”

  • Ari

    What does Tyler think about this?

    I do agree that a lot of talk about values can be kind of a signaling mess, but I think too much ivory tower thinking can sometimes bias a person in many ways. The truth, and what is important, is always hard to see.

    Like in my country, I think responsibility is a missing a value causing havoc both in politics and especially in relationships. The more I understand about the world, the more this makes sense to me. Sure a lot of institutions could be fixed with efficiency analysis, but I just don’t see it happening before responsibility becomes a value again, and its not happening anytime soon.

    But yeah facts are nice. I support.

    • guest

      Only somewhat related to your question, here’s Tyler saying (contrary to Hanson) that economic methods are not themselves value neutral.

      • I didn’t economic methods are value neutral. I said using standard values lets economists focus on talking about facts, because values are known and held constant.

  • Silent Cal

    Hypothesis: People most often devote themselves to promoting better decisions when they disagree very strongly with society’s decisions. Variance is higher, or at least the tails are fatter, with value than info because people are more persuadable in matters of info. Thus, most decision-devotees are focused mainly on value.

    My impression is that those who claim to care mainly about better decisions tend to be (or view themselves as) value contrarians. They believe that society has accepted the wrong values and is making a whole slew of wrong decisions as a result. Are there people who spend their time ostensibly promoting better decisions by repeatedly affirming accepted values?

    Now, as for why we form the values we do in the first place, I suspect signalling plays a leading role. But once these disparate, hard-to-move values are in place, the amount of value talk we see isn’t surprising.

  • Hooray for this post!

    Tangentially-related tidbit: some people associated with the effective altruism movement (like Peter Singer) make a big deal about philosophical arguments designed to get people to care more about distant people in need. But I’ve found such arguments have much less of an impact on my behavior than factual information about what someone like me can do to help others.

  • Perhaps solid facts are hard to come by on some of the grand topics you mention. I find that in real life I rarely discuss those grand topics and I typically discuss facts. I can’t remember attending a business meeting that was mostly about values rather than facts. Blogs and internet discussions seem to be a better medium for discussing values since they are more about showing off/intellectual masturbation than actual decision making.

    Given that you have a blog and mostly devote yourself to thinking about grand topics like “the future” I think your preference for facts over values is implausible. Even this post is all about what you value (facts) and what you don’t value (values) and doesn’t present any actual facts that I can see. This post seems like a Cowenesque joke to me but honestly I can’t tell.

    • Matt

      Good points. The entire post could in fact be summarized as “Look at how much I value truth-seeking.”


    Having values is not as simple as it sounds. Values are abstract, to translate them into guidelines for real life situations is difficult and that is an important reason to discuss values often, it’s not just about signalling. Think about it: most people share similar values deep down but they translate them into very diverse guidelines. Socialists and libertarians both want people to be free of coercion/aggression, yet when push comes to shove they choose different definitions of what coercion/aggression exactly is, if you see values as simple and unrelated to facts than you are acting like differences like socialists and libertarians do not exist, in addition to a whole lot of other “big things” in the real world.

  • Sam Dangremond

    In this post, I see a lot about valueing facts over values… I don’t see too many facts.

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  • Marc Geddes

    The way the human brain is set up, facts are dull and boring, values are sparkly and sexy, basically. No one is particularly interested in listening to nerds droning on about the facts, what the crowd wants to see is dashing heroes, devious villains and spectacular contests. The crowd wants sound and fury, not intellectual discourse.

    • kodiakbear

      Now THAT’S what I’m Talking About !!!

      (my favorite line from the Social Network). But yeah, exactly right, and well put.

  • Brienne Strohl

    Do you distinguish values from goals? Most of the people I know who believe they care much at all about making better decisions spend an awful lot more time talking about how to accomplish their goals, whatever those happen to be, than about why their top-level goals are what they are (which is what I usually mean when I say “value”). But a “goal” can be anything from “remember to go to the store on the way home from work” to “convert the reachable universe into quality adjusted life years”.

    • More stuff

      Values and goals are related but not identical.

      In my mind:

      1. A value describes what you want to optimize
      2. The goal is the result of the measurement you are seeking
      3. The unit of measure (units, magnitude, sign) describe how you want to measure your value … (it links your values with your goals)

      For example, body weight is a value, its is measured in pounds, but a goal would be to have a body weight of less than 200 pounds … value, body weight, goal < 200, unit pounds

      fuel economy would be a value, measured in miles per gallon units, while greater than 20 miles per gallon would be a goal, being wealthy is a value measured in dollars, having more than 100,000 could be a goal … so there is a value, a measure, and a point on the measure, a goal/state if you will …

      Your goal: remembering to go to the store would be measured by binary units with Y/N values …

      Your goal: convert the reachable universe … is missing the value and the units that's why its such a meaningless statement …

      We often confuse these terms and or leave one out …

    • Yes one strategy to achieving top goals is to generate subgoals recursively, and this generation needs to consider facts as well as values. But even then we can ask whether folks talk more about facts or values in that case.

  • Professor Russ

    The question you raised is: when making decisions why do people focus on values more than they do facts?

    The answer is that values are easier to identify and more relevant to decision making. “facts” per se are harder to identify and less relevant.

    So the net result is that it is easier and more helpful to talk about values than facts … which is why people tend to do it.

    Those that study decisions tell us that a decision is the selection of an alternative intended to deliver a preferred outcome, using information available at the time of the decision. One seeks to select the alternative most likely to deliver the outcome the decision maker “values” the most based on ones state of information at the time of making the decision.

    Notice that the role of TIME is important.

    Notice further that the “decision basis” has three components: alternatives, information, values …in a nutshell pick the alternative you expect to maximize your values based on what you believe.

    Facts … are only a sub component of information … they aren’t highly relevant in terms of predicting the future outcome … facts are about the past and decision makers are interested in the future. and this link between facts (now) and outcomes (future) is highly tenuous because of uncertainty …so facts (as people generally understand them) are not very useful in predicting outcomes. You know this from your research. Give people the identical facts and their predictions vary wildly.

    When one digs really deep into the definition of a fact, the picture gets even murkier… the notion of a fact is more of a concept than one expects.

    Had you asked a better question: when making decisions why do people focus on values more than they do INFORMATION?

    The answer to that would have been that very very very few people actually understand what information is in the context of decision making … based on your post, you seem to confuse these terms and I consider you to be extremely well educated.

    That in a nutshell is the problem with decision making generally, people don’t know what decisions are, what they are comprised of, how they work, how to improve them, or how to measure them?

    So the question you should have asked: why do people focus on the wrong elements when making decisions? And I have already answered that for you.

    I should start charging you tuition Professor Hanson!! 🙂

  • Values are about us and what we want… But for the vast majority of our decisions, we have a good rough idea of what we value, and most of our decision problem (on the margin) is to figure out relevant facts… To learn what we value, we mostly just need to try different things out and see how we feel about them.

    The collective pronoun conceals a fatal equivocation. In political and social discussions, “our” wants refers to what’s good for other people, not just for “us,” personally, and those wants are insusceptible to gross experimentation.

    The voicing of “values” (dreary as it may be) is part of the process of social coordination, an inevitable part of democratic process.

    And I’m especially glad to be an economist, since our using a standard value metric lets us focus most of our disagreement on differing views about facts.

    Incorporating a “standard value metric” is surely inappropriate in a field that purports to be scientific. Only the most pseudo-scientific fields of psychology, for example, contain tacit value metrics. Science is value free—honestly.

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