ValuesValues constitute a pervasive and comprehensive concept, variously defined and elusive to comprehend. Philosophers and social and behavioral scientists have long considered values across the broad spectrum of human experience as overarching life goals and guiding principles for determining what constitutes desirable outcomes and modes of behavior. Together with attitudes, needs, norms, interests, and traits, values reside within a constellation of psychological constructs posited to affect individual adjustment to the social world. Applied psychologists in the early part of the twentieth century turned to studying values as a primary element motivating human behavior and developed psychometric instruments to operationally define the construct.

Beginning with the efforts of developmental vocational psychologists in the 1950s, notably Donald E. Super, and fueled by advances in work adjustment theory led by Rene Dawis and Lloyd Lofquist, general human values have been examined within the specific domain of occupations in the form of work values. Values in this regard have been promoted as principal guideposts of vocational behavior and career development, as well as one of the four preeminent individual differences variables involved in work motivation, along with the “big three” of abilities, interests, and personality traits. The present analysis considers the nature of values and their use in career development, assessment, and counseling.

The Nature of Values

Broadly construed, values represent beliefs about qualities of human life or modes of behavior that individuals deem important and worthy of attaining, upholding, and pursuing. As evaluative beliefs, values indirectly guide selection and appraisal of behaviors and events. Narrower in conceptual reach and fewer in number than beliefs and attitudes, values relate to a wide array of (a) cognitive processes, such as decision making, and career choice beliefs; (b) emotional states, including satisfaction, happiness, anger, or detachment; and (c) behaviors such as relational style, vocational choice, and work adjustment. Reflecting the utility and range of the concept, researchers and theorists have considered values across multiple levels of human experience in terms of personal, family, societal, and cultural values and across multiple domains, including environmental, economic, and political.

Job satisfaction research prompted conceptualizing values specific to the work domain. Work values constitute particular aspects of jobs and occupational life, such as income, hours, advancement, relationships, and security, which proffer and relate to satisfaction because they hold substantial meaning for the individual worker. As guideposts of vocational behavior, values are thought to influence how an individual practices an occupational choice rather than what occupation an individual chooses. For example, one person makes the occupational choice of physician to realize altruistic values, whereas another does so to realize lifestyle values. The importance individuals ascribe to the worker role relative to roles in other domains such as family, leisure, and community reflects in large measure the values they maintain.

Values are widely purported to endure with stability across context and time, although little research supports this claim. Constructed hierarchically, people prioritize values in order of relative importance and use them to explain, coordinate, and justify behavior. Typically, values remain outside an individual’s conscious awareness. Only when conflict ensues between or among highly prized values, such as personal success versus promoting the welfare of others, do they become activated, enter consciousness, and guide behavior. Considered within the context of career development, values figure prominently in outcomes related to occupational choice, job satisfaction, work style, conflict-of-interest management, career commitment, lifestyle, and workplace structure.

Values, Needs, and Interests

Values have been equated with needs and interests, which are closely interrelated concepts. Yet values differ from needs and interests in that values represent beliefs about desired goals to be achieved, ideals to be upheld, or courses of action to be taken rather than thoughts, feelings, or behaviors to be expressed or satisfied. Needs denote wants that activate or energize individual movement. Interests serve as links between personal preferences and environmentally situated activities or social roles that guide movement. Values signify goals or desired outcomes of movement. In this way, for example, a need for recognition prompts an individual to develop interest in the occupation of lawyer to realize a value of social status. Needs, construed in terms of what is necessary or unnecessary, come closest to human desires for growth and survival. Interests, a narrower concept than values construed relative to liking or disliking, most nearly approximate actual behaviors. Values, considered in terms of importance or unimportance, reside closest to beliefs about what constitutes personally or socially preferable ends or means to ends and thereby approximate a philosophy of life.

Whereas needs may be construed as innate and objective, values constitute subjective, learned adaptations transmitted within cultures and across generations. Milton Rokeach’s argument that humans and animals differ to the extent that both may be said to have needs, whereas only humans have values, perhaps most clearly illuminates the distinction between these concepts. Values likewise differ from personality traits, including interests, which accumulating evidence suggests are largely endogenous and fixed. Grounding values firmly in a social context underscores the view that values are negotiated and expressed through relationship and interaction with the social world and provide frameworks for decision making.

Value Types

Two commonly construed categories differentiate fundamental value types. One category comprises terminal, social, or extrinsic values that reflect desired goals sought from an activity. A second category, termed instrumental, personal, or intrinsic values, signal preferred ways of achieving desired goals. Stated simply, extrinsic values represent preferred outcomes of an activity, whereas intrinsic values constitute means of satisfaction inherent in an activity itself. Job security, compensation, and social status exemplify extrinsic work values, whereas service, creativity, and variety typify intrinsic work values.

At the level of culture, cross-cultural social psychology distinguishes individualistic and collectivistic (IC) value orientations as broad social patterns of beliefs, norms, attitudes, and behaviors. Individualism promotes personal goals over those of the group, whereas collectivism gives priority to group goals. Research indicates that IC predicts social behavior and relates to specific personal attributes. IC provides a useful construct for elaborating the cultural dimensions of values in career development, especially with regard to diverse groups. For example, IC likely relates differentially to specific work values such that significantly stronger positive associations might be expected between collectivism and extrinsic work values that stress relationship to others (e.g., altruism, associates, and supervisory relations). Similarly, significantly stronger positive associations might be expected between individualism and intrinsic work values that emphasize personal gain (e.g., achievement, independence, and lifestyle).

Values Structure

Theory and empirical research has considered the structure of values generally and within the context of work. In their work on values, Gordon Allport, Philip Vernon, and Gardner Lindzey built upon six personal value dimensions termed theoretical, economic, aesthetic, social, political, and religious. Rokeach identified 18 terminal values, such as salvation and world at peace, and 18 instrumental values, including honest and imaginative. The theory of integrated value systems advanced by Shalom Schwartz offers a general values model of increasing contemporary predominance and ambitiously researched to support a comprehensive set of different motivational values types identified across 41 countries. Arranged in a circular structure and encompassing representative goals and single values, the model includes the following 10 value types, which have been considered within the work domain:

  1. Power: Social status and prestige, control or dominance over people and resources
  2. Achievement: Personal success through demonstrating competence according to social standards
  3. Hedonism: Pleasure and sensuous gratification for oneself
  4. Stimulation: Excitement, novelty, and challenge in life
  5. Self-direction: Independent thought and action-choosing, creating, exploring
  6. Universalism: Understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature
  7. Benevolence: Preservation and enhancement of the welfare of people with whom one is in frequent personal contact
  8. Tradition: Respect, commitment, and acceptance of the customs and ideas that traditional culture or religion provide the self
  9. Conformity: Restraint of actions, inclinations, and impulses likely to upset or harm others and violate social expectations or norms
  10. Security: Safety, harmony, and stability of society, relationships, and self

In addition to considering the structure of personal values, theorists and researchers have also specified the structure of work values. The momentous multinational Work Importance Study led by Donald Super identified five main work value orientations— Utilitarian, Individualistic, Self-Actualization, Social, and Adventurous—with specific underlying work values ranging from prestige and lifestyle to ability utilization and risk. The theory of work adjustment proffers and empirically supports six broad value orientations of Achievement, Comfort, Status, Altruism, Safety, and Autonomy derived from factor analyses of psychometric data. Underlying these 6 broad work values are 14 second-order work values ranging from accomplishments and variety to associates and job security.

Values In Career Assessment And Counseling

Values assessment has long been conducted within career development and counseling contexts to appraise work importance. Researchers and practitioners use psychometric scales to operationally define and measure values globally, with scales such as the Rokeach Value Survey and the Study of Values. Instruments such as the Work Values Inventory, which scales 15 values, the Minnesota Importance Questionnaire, which scales 6 primary and 15 secondary values, and the Values Scale, which assesses 21 values, measure values specific to the work domain. The Salience Inventory measures value expectations of work and other life roles. Values appraisals also exist within various computer-assisted career guidance programs such as DISCOVER and SIGI. Qualitative assessments, particularly in the form of card sorts, permit subjective evaluations of work values. Considering values as both an important individual differences or person variable and an emerging cultural context or environment variable enhances the usefulness of values in career assessment and counseling contexts to promote occupational exploration, choice, and adjustment.

Values As A Person Variable

Career choice and development theories and counseling approaches converge on values as an important person variable that influences vocational choice, job satisfaction, and work adjustment. Values rest at the core of career construction and other developmentally grounded theories, as well as work adjustment theory, and the values-based model of career choice and development. The RIASEC model of vocational personality types holds that particular personality styles maintain specific values. For example, Artistic types are thought to more highly value beauty and creativity, whereas Conventional types presumably more highly value security and comfortable work surroundings. The learning theory of career counseling proposes that learning events shape values, which in turn guide individual behavior. Social cognitive career theory characterizes values within the notion of outcome expectations. The cognitive information processing approach to career problem solving and decision making includes valuing as a central component of the theory.

Typically, counselors appraise and consider values within various theoretical contexts as a person variable, in the mode of abilities, interests, and personality traits. As such, values lend readily to both psychometric assessment to promote person-occupation matching and qualitative assessment to foster personal meaning making of work and career. In the classic matching paradigm, counselors appraise work values to help individuals identify occupations that may best allow them to realize their values, clarify what outcomes they seek from the work role, and how they wish to practice in a chosen occupation. For matchmaking, counselors may use both global and work-domain-specific values scales, which have proven useful for general life design, values clarification, and initial occupational decision making. By eliciting personal stories, counselors may assist individuals to identify and contextualize the personally construed meaning of their values as they construct their life careers. Considering values in service of meaning making concerns assisting individuals to elaborate on the significance of the role of work in their lives and offers an area ripe for theory development, research investigation, and counseling practice.

Values As A Context Variable

Considered as an environment variable, values take on added relevance in career assessment and counseling contexts. Values represent a prominent contextual variable having inherent cultural dimensions. Cross-cultural psychology articulates values as a fundamental element of subjective culture, which constitutes the meaning, beliefs, norms, and values within a society. A theme that surfaces in the multicultural career literature concerns values as a culturally situated variable crucial for fully comprehending the meaning of work and career in the contexts of people’s lives. Placing attention more squarely on value sets and IC dimensions is particularly of potential use in cross-cultural career assessment and counseling because it helps to comprehend how broader cultural value orientations may shape specific work values.


Long overshadowed by abilities, interests, and personality, in part because of their seemingly nebulous nature, values hold particular promise for the long-term future of career development, both as an individual differences variable and an environment variable. Broadening the construct of values as conceived in career development to incorporate its cultural dimensions might enrich values as a context variable that can be considered relative to individual career exploration, choice, and adjustment. Values have been examined broadly across national, group, and individual levels of human experience. Yet values remain incompletely understood and have received relative research inattention compared to the big three constructs of abilities, interests, and personality. Values remain understudied despite the fact that principal career development theorists and researchers have long articulated a central role for values in explaining and predicting vocational behavior—particularly vocational choice satisfaction— and supported such a role with, albeit modest, empirical data. Because career commitment is a function of values and not interests, values may offer a more valid and reliable predictor of how an individual enacts an occupational choice or role. Contemporary streams in science and practice increasingly recognize the importance of values in career development contexts and bode well for the prospects of values in career theory, assessment, and counseling.

See also:


  1. Allport, G. W., Vernon, P. E. and Lindzey, G. 1970. The Study of Values. Chicago, IL: Riverside.
  2. Dawis, R. V.  1991. “Vocational Interests, Values, and Preferences.” Pp. 833-871 in Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 2d ed., vol. 2, edited by M. D. Dunnette and L. M. Hough. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
  3. Dawis, R. V. 2001. “Toward a Psychology of Values.” The Counseling Psychologist 29:458-465. Hartung, P. J. 2002. “Cultural Context in Career Theory: Role Salience and Values.” Career Development Quarterly 51:12-25.
  4. Hofstede, G. 1980. Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-related Values. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
  5. Kluckhohn, C. K. M. 1951. “Values and Value Orientations in the Theory of Action.” Pp. 388-433 in Toward a General Theory of Action, edited by T. Parsons and E. Sils. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  6. Prentice,  D.  A.   2000.  “Values.”  In Encyclopedia of Psychology, vol. 8., edited by A. E. Kazdin. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  7. Roe, R. A. and Ester, P. 1999. “Values and Work: Empirical Findings    and    Theoretical    Perspective.” Applied Psychology: An International Review 48:1-21.
  8. Rokeach, M. 1973. The Nature of Human Values. New York: Free Press.
  9. Rounds, J. B. and Armstrong, P. I. 2004. “Assessment of Needs and Values.” Pp. 305-329 in Career Development and Counseling: Putting Theory to Work, edited by S. D. Brown and R. W. Lent. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
  10. Schwartz, S. H. 1999. “A Theory of Cultural Values and Some Implications for Work.” Applied Psychology: An International Review 48:23-47.
  11. Super, D. E. and Sverko, B., eds. 1995. Life Roles, Values, and Careers: International Findings of the Work Importance Study. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.