How Our Cultural Norms & Social Institutions Reflect The Value We Ascribe To Each Other
Value is difficult to define because it depends on context. Instrumental value is the value that something or someone can achieve or attain. It is derivative by nature, and can fluctuate based on the desirability of the outcome. The instrumental value of a can of beans, for instance, changes based on how hungry you are. Intrinsic value, on the other hand, is the inherent worth of something through its sheer existence. It does not fluctuate, nor does it need to achieve or attain anything to garner that value.
Instrumental value is how we apply the term in economics. The market dictates the cost of goods and services and we can exchange our money for something of equivalent value. A one-dollar bill may buy you that can of beans, but that requires us to extract instrumental value from that dollar. By itself, it is just a small piece of green paper. The can of beans, on the other hand, has more intrinsic value. It consists of caloric energy, sugars, carbohydrates, all of which are essential properties and require no exchange to be valuable.
So what kind of value do we place on people in the US in 2021? I’d like to believe we value individuals intrinsically, that they don’t have to earn it. But that is not the reality. Instead our social institutions and cultural norms reflect our emphasis on instrumental value. We value what can be extracted from or earned by individuals.
Some examples. Veterans would be treated better if we valued their service. Employers would raise wages—and consumers would fit the bill—if we valued labor. A college degree would not plunge you into debt if we valued education. The Affordable Care Act wouldn’t be continually under attack if we valued physical health. The elderly would not suffer disproportionate loneliness if we valued mental health. School shootings would not occur if we valued children over guns. Customers would wear a mask if we valued essential workers. Black people wouldn’t be incarcerated at a rate four times higher than white people if black lives mattered. The LGBTQ+ community would not be constantly battling in the Supreme Court if we valued civil rights. Wages would not be stagnant if we valued ‘hard work’. Childcare would be factored into our GDP if we valued families. The death penalty would not subsist if we valued the sanctity of life. Poverty would not exist if we valued human dignity.
In each case (and there are many more), the institution is broken. The value is not placed on individuals, rather it is ascribed to the output they produce. We do not intrinsically value ‘hard work’, only the instrumental value we decide your type of work is worth. We will gripe when restaurant prices increase, but not mind that the person making our food needs a second job to afford rent. We thank veterans for their service and wish moms a Happy Mother’s Day, but our socioeconomic system values veterans and working mothers them less than, say, accountants and lawyers. Instrumental value is derived from a societal judgment about what matters, and I believe we have a value misalignment in our incentive structure.
This is not an attack on capitalism, democracy, or meritocracy. It is an observation on the contradiction of our American rhetoric, leaving us two options to attain consistency. The first is easy: match the message to reality. Proceed with business as usual—but stop pretending we value each other intrinsically. Continue an economy where CEOs benefit from a pandemic while their employees suffer. Write more tax codes that give Jeff Bezos a $4,000 child tax credit. Treat job-seekers as ungrateful for wanting better wages. Create voting laws that disproportionately impact people of color. Ban teaching critical race theory in schools. If we choose this path, we simply need to change our words to match our actions. I am not encouraging this, but at least we will be consistent.
The second option is much more challenging: match reality to the message. There are countless considerations: a universal basic income, climate change coalitions, free community college, minimum wage increases, reparations, a negative income tax, an ultra-millionaire tax, hazard pay for pandemic essential workers. But there are also ways to demonstrate we value people intrinsically without financial investment. We can change our mindset by making Juneteenth a Federal Holiday, applying Title IX protections to LGBTQ+ students, and not calling poverty a choice.
It sounds pie-in-the-sky to think that reshaping our value system could fix our norms and institutions. These policies and programs are far from perfect. But humans are not perfect, so why would our solutions be? If, however, we strive to form a more perfect Union, we should ascribe value to people for who they are, not just for what they do. I’m pulling for option 2.
The US vaccination goal has shifted from herd immunity to simply getting as many needles in arms as possible. But the underlying obstacle remains the same: how do you persuade people to get the shot?
In recent weeks, vaccine incentive programs have bubbled up all over the country, but few have garnered the attention of Governor DeWine’s “Vax-a-Million” lottery. Last Wednesday, Abbigail Bugenske (age 22) won the first of five million-dollar prizes and Joseph Costello (age 14) won a full-ride scholarship to college. While critics remain, the Associated Press analysis concluded the state vaccination rate is up 33% since the announcement. President Biden endorsed Ohio’s program last week, and other states have begun similar lotteries.
Originally I was skeptical of the Vax-a-Million lottery. I argued to put $100 in the pocket of every newly vaccinated person because people usually prefer a sure thing over some chance of a larger payout. But Governor DeWine leveraged another aspect of prospect theory, namely that individuals tend to overweight low probabilities. That is why we buy insurance, go to casinos, and play the lottery to begin with. Governor DeWine simply applied this behavioral trait to his vaccination strategy. And, perhaps unwittingly, he employed an additional persuasion tactic—he generated ‘social proof’.
Social proof, a term coined by Robert Cialdini, suggests that people alter their behavior to be more like people around them. Imagine it is your first day at a new job. You are in jeans and everyone else is wearing a suit. What will you wear tomorrow? Not only do humans have an innate desire to fit in with others, we are more receptive to suggestions if people similar to us have already engaged in that behavior. That is why we ask friends for Netflix recommendations and visit Tripadvisor before planning a vacation. We seek the advice of others because we think we will like what they like.
Social proof is more effective when the desired behavior is observable. For instance, people are more likely to wash their hands when others are watching. This is one reason social proof was a useful persuasion tool with mask-wearing. Even people who didn’t ‘believe in’ masks wore them to not stand out from the group. But vaccines are invisible. Sure, you can get a sticker or button, but there is less social pressure to conform to the group because there is no visible proof that the group exists.
The genius of the Vax-a-Million lottery is that it manufactured its own social proof by leveraging social media. Every article about the program has hundreds or thousands of comments pushing the dialogue toward vaccination. Not all are positive, but there is a chorus of “I got my shot and feel so relieved!” and “My whole family is fully vaccinated!” Giving space for these comments creates a public forum where people can observe the group mentality. It underscores that many people—your friends, neighbors, fellow Ohioans—are engaging in the same behavior to achieve a shared goal.
How do we maintain this momentum and offer more social proof to those still on the vaccine fence? It could be as simple as changing the headline. Instead of highlighting the number of people who have not received the vaccine, focus on the percentage who has. With more people getting vaccinated every day, this group continues to expand, and the desire to be a part of it will too.
[This piece was originally published in the Columbus Dispatch.]
Colin Gabler is a writer at heart.