Let’s say you’re really concerned about a social or environmental problem – human rights abuses, or climate change; the extinction of entire species, or discrimination against people, perhaps because they are disabled. But you also know, of course, that these are big problems that are difficult to tackle. So you join with other people – you support a charity; maybe you even go and work for one.

Nonetheless, it seems that the problems still aren’t getting fixed. You see that there is just too little pressure to create the changes that you know are necessary to the way governments work and businesses operate. The gulf between the scale of social and environmental challenges that we confront and the responses we are able to collectively muster seems, if anything, to be widening.

So then what do you do?

Well, if you keep going, you probably ask: “How can I help to encourage more people to show that they really care?” You don’t necessarily want them to support the exact same charities of which you are a member, but you do want more people to agitate for positive change.

At this point, it will help to ask what motivates people to show that they care about big social or environmental problems. What motivates a person to lobby their MP, join a demonstration, or donate to a charity?

Social psychology offers one set of responses to this question. It affirms what many of us grasp intuitively – that we are often motivated to express such concern because of the values that we hold. Psychologists have described a range of different values, which it seems are important to all of us but at different times.

So we are almost all, at times, concerned about what psychologists call extrinsic values – concern about money; social status and image; authority. At other times almost everyone prioritises what psychologists call intrinsic values. These are values associated with greater concern about social and environmental problems. They include values of connection to family, friends and community; appreciation of beauty; broadmindness; social justice; environmental protection; equality; helpfulness. In motivating expressions of concern about social and environmental issues, the balance that we strike between these two sets of values (both individually and collectively) is of crucial importance.

As can be easily seen, it’s difficult to prioritise extrinsic and intrinsic values at the same time. It’s difficult to be concerned about making money while also being concerned about equality. So we can see that values aren’t prioritised independently of one another. Indeed, it seems that they are held in dynamic relationships. Here are three important principles that have been found to govern these relationships:

Firstly, exercising one value within a group (for example, an intrinsic value like broadmindedness) is found to increase the importance that a person places on other values within that group (for instance, environmental protection). In an experiment that WWF helped to conduct, it was found that asking participants to think briefly about self-acceptance or broadmindedness increased their concern about climate change – an issue more likely to be associated with values of social justice or environmental protection.

Secondly, exercising an intrinsic value tends to suppress the importance that a person places on extrinsic values, and vice versa. This has been called the ‘see-saw’ effect. So, for example, drawing a person’s attention to the importance of money (an extrinsic value) is found to reduce the likelihood that that person will help someone in need, or donate to a charity (behaviours associated with intrinsic values).

Thirdly, repeatedly exercising a value tends to strengthen it in a more durable way – much like a muscle. Repeatedly reminding a person of the importance of image or social status is likely to lead that person to draw upon this value more often in making decisions in many areas of life, and (because of the see-saw effect) to place less importance on social and environmental concerns.

These principles have important implications for anyone striving to help build public concern about social and environmental issues – perhaps in order to bring more public pressure to bear on business or government leaders.

Consider the use of appeals to extrinsic values in order to motivate more environmentally friendly behaviour. Of course, extrinsic values needn’t only be pursued by driving a swanky car or shopping conspicuously in Harvey Nichols! Depending upon the social groups with which we identify, they might equally be pursued by putting solar panels on our roof, or being seen shopping at the farmers’ market. Many social marketeers advocate the use of such extrinsic appeals to drive environmentally friendly behaviour: indeed, some suggest that this is the only conceivable way to achieve the widespread adoption of such behaviour.

But now we can grasp the dangers of this strategy. Let’s say you decide to promote a car-share scheme by highlighting the money that participants would save. (There is evidence that highlighting the new friends that participants could make would be a more effective strategy, but let’s say for the sake of argument that highlighting the financial benefits is found to be effective in encouraging people to join the scheme.) The trouble is that, in highlighting the financial benefits, you are also subtly drawing attention to extrinsic values that are associated with lower social and environmental concern. This is likely to have knock-on effects in other areas of a person’s life. He or she may be more likely to car-share, but what of the motivation to adopt other environmentally friendly behaviours, or to help less fortunate people?

There is good evidence for such effects: one recent study conducted at the University of Cardiff found, as predicted, that drawing people’s attention briefly to the financial benefits of car-sharing reduced their motivation to recycle paper.

Another important implication of an understanding of values is this: much as appeal to any extrinsic value is likely to reduce social and environmental concern, so appeal to any intrinsic value is likely to increase this concern. Strengthening a person’s concern for the welfare of people with disabilities is likely to also strengthen his or her concern about biodiversity loss. Where they work to exercise intrinsic values, perhaps as these relate to the particular issues upon which they focus, charities are serving to strengthen public commitment to support a wide range of social and environmental concerns.

Conversely, charities could also work to tackle some of the most important cultural reminders of extrinsic values (such as advertising, for example). In doing so, because of the see-saw effect, they would be working to increase the importance that people place on intrinsic values. This, in turn, would serve to strengthen public commitment to support and fund a wide range of charitable objectives.

An understanding of values therefore presents a challenge to charities and their supporters: can they build a wider basis for collaboration across the third sector, thinking beyond the specific issues upon which they each focus, and asking how they might begin to establish common cause in working to strengthen intrinsic values in society?

Tom Crompton works for WWF-UK. He is the author of Common Cause: The Case for Working with Our Cultural Values. www.valuesandframes.org