FAQ: What Is a Value Hierarchy?

A Value Orientation, Series: The Concept of Value

If you want to manage your motivation, you need to understand your own value hierarchy.

A value hierarchy is not a list of your top ten values or a bucket list. It is a psychological structure consisting of all of the values you have formed in relation to one another. An emotion results from the interaction between your present awareness and this stored structure.

You can get an idea of what I mean by a value hierarchy by understanding why I love the Zebra ballpoint pen pictured above.

For years, this pen has been “my” pen. I have dozens of these pens in convenient locations around my home. I have refilled them hundreds of times. I keep two in my purse. When I go on a trip, I am careful to pack five or six. Before I spend a month at my cottage, I make sure I will be stocked up on refills. I spend a measurable fraction of my life making sure I always have one of these pens handy.

Why is this pen such a value to me? Because it helps me think more effectively.

I am not joking.

Why I value my pen

I fill a couple of thousand pages a year with “thinking on paper,” and any problem with the pen is a distraction and irritation that undercuts my effectiveness. If I am already dealing with an emotional upset, I become more upset. If I am having trouble concentrating, I am now tempted to think about my pen instead of the topic at hand. If the process of writing is painful or messy or unpleasant, I won’t want to engage in thinking on paper. Thinking on paper is my primary research lab for understanding the human mind in general and my mind in particular. It is essential to my work, to pursuing my mission, to achieving my vision for the future.

Other values are involved, too.

It is a ballpoint pen. Why? Because 35 years ago, before I even knew about thinking on paper, I got a big blue blot on a pretty pink suit because I had forgotten to cap a felt-tipped pen. No one could get the stain out. I still feel grief when I think about throwing away that suit. From then on, I have preferred ballpoint pens to help keep my clothes nice.

It is retractable. Why? Ballpoint pens can still mark up clothes a bit, so you need to protect the end. But tops get lost and create clutter. So, in the name of ease and neatness, I prefer a retractable pen.

It is a fine point. Why? I like the way it feels on the page. It takes less force, which is a serious issue for me. I had a major problem with tendonitis in my hands and wrists 25 years ago, so I pay attention to make sure I am keeping my hands and wrists comfortable.

It is black. Why? I don’t know. I prefer black ink to blue.

It could be because I found a black Bic pen on the playground when I was six years old. I had just learned to write and was using the big, fat pencils they issued in 1st grade. We were just transitioning to write “half space.” I remember using that black Bic pen for my assignments and feeling very elegant and grown up. An image comes unbidden to my mind: black, bold, “half-space” letters on the pale green paper with the special dotted lines that we used for writing assignments.  That memory still triggers a frisson of pride.

On the other hand, it could be because if you use a fine point ballpoint pen, black ink makes a better contrast with the paper. Or maybe it’s because that ink spot on the pink suit was blue! Or maybe I prefer black ink due to some combination of these three factors.

It is a Zebra F-301. Why? Because I tested half a dozen retractable ballpoint pens, and this one neither blots nor skips. I hate blots. They look bad, and the extra ink gets on the heel of your hand. Messy. More clothes ruined. And I hate skips. It’s hard enough to read my handwriting when the ink goes where I send it. Add unintended white space and it can be unreadable. 20 years ago I found a pen that didn’t blot or skip, but about 10 years ago the quality went downhill and it started blotting. I instituted a new search and found the Zebra pen.

What values are

A pen is a small part of life. It is not your career or your health. And yet, in my case it is interrelated with these deep values.

Here I am using “value” in the psychological sense. By value, I mean something you desire to gain or keep because you believe it will better your life. My career. Pretty clothes. Ease. Neatness. Tidiness. Elegance. Health. Clean hands. Legibility. And, thanks to its relationship to all of these other values of mine, the F-301 Zebra pen.

The desire for the object is psychological evidence. It means that object has been tied into your pleasure-pain mechanism. That’s what makes it a value in the psychological sense. Someone else may think it is good for you, but if it’s not tied into your emotional system, it has no value to you. And for that matter, you may be mistaken about what is good for you. But if you think it’s good for you, and you feel desire for it, then there is a structure in your subconscious. You do hold it as a value in the psychological sense.

(Incidentally, not all desire is desire for something that will better your life. Sometimes it is a desire to destroy. The desire for destruction is evidence for an anti-value, not a value. But anti-values are off-topic for this discussion. They are a derivative issue in motivation, and can only be understood in relation to your values and your value hierarchy. You have thousands and thousands of values, interrelated in many ways, but at worst relatively few anti-values.)

The importance of understanding your value hierarchy

So how does this all relate to managing motivation?

Values are the fundamental cause of all emotions. The emotional system is designed to call your attention to value-related issues. Think of emotions as alerts to opportunities for gaining a value and/or threats to a value that may warrant attention.

But you have thousands of values. What causes a particular emotion to be triggered? To understand this, you need to understand that values exist in a structure. They are related to one another. This structure is what I call a value hierarchy.

These connections are real and cannot be either wished away or wished into existence, though they can be changed over time through different choices. Hence, your value hierarchy is stable at a given time, and you need to motivate present action by means of your existing values.

As I hope you see from my discussion about my favorite pen, your value hierarchy evolves over time, as a result of every experience you have had and every choice you have made. You have formed values and connections between the values, which may be loose or systematic, accidental or intentional.

When you understand this, you can see that every emotion you have is a lead into a history of experiences and choices. You can appreciate that a pattern of emotions reflects a pattern of organization. And you can see the importance of your current choices in programming your future motivation.

Many of the productivity tactics I teach involve taking incremental action that is specifically designed to reprogram your value hierarchy. These small but strategic actions set up a virtuous cycle of increasing motivation and achievement, which soon results in tremendous momentum to achieve ambitious goals.

I will write more about this process in future articles.

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  1. Michael Pizolato

    Do you think there’s anything good to be gleaned from attempting to document one’s value hierarchy? A good number of years ago, I came up with a list of my core values, and I find that all other values can be assigned to one or more of them but, while they interact and support each other, none of them can be assigned to any more fundamental value other than life itself. Those core values are, in no particular order, Health, Vocation, Finances, Security, Recreation, and Intellect. (For example, my bicycle is a “sub-value” of Health and Recreation, while my computer falls under Vocation, Finances, Recreation, and Intellect.) I never went beyond that core level to try to document my full value hierarchy, though. (I also have one I keep at that level called Management, but that’s more administration and record-keeping than a value in itself. I used to have Possessions along with those but found that my possessions rather serve the other core values than constitute their own separate one.)

    (I know one’s value hierarchy is in constant flux, especially the further one travels from the core values, but I think that at the least the intellectual exercise would be instructive. I did once start to create an “unabridged” *conceptual* hierarchy, which was quite enlightening, but then I found a dictionary that had already done that and lost interest in the project. I really like abstract pursuits like that – I’m currently writing, in response to the totalitarian leftist establishment, a new declaration of independence, whose official name I have not yet chosen, and something I call the Universal Constitution, a document that applies equally at every level of government.)

    • Jean Moroney

      Hi, Michael,

      Nice to hear from you.

      I don’t recommend that you try to map your value hierarchy. It is just too complex. But there are a few things you can do that are very helpful.

      1. Go through my list of deep rational values and compare it with other lists of universal needs, and get your list of top 50 fundamental values. You’ll see that my list includes the Objectivist virtues. (I introduce this idea in the Thinker’s Toolkit that is the freebie on the site. There is much more about it in Do What Matters Most and the Thinking Lab.)

      2. Make a short list of the top concrete values you hold: This could be your spouse, your #1 work project, your favorite hobby, etc. It’s good to know what these are, and they are the top.

      3. Make a list of your “roles.” This is a recommendation by Stephen Covey. It’s helpful to see the major areas of your life. For example, I have three business roles: Writer, Teacher, Marketer. One of my roles used to be “Toastmaster” because I put a lot of time into that. I have retired from that, so my list of roles has changed.

      These shorter lists are helpful to keep perspective.


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