October 15, 2015

Convey Shared Values

Engagement Object: Convey Shared Values or Identity


Good: Communicators should not be afraid to share who they are and why they do their work.

Better: Communicators should learn about those with whom they communicate and highlight shared concerns or motivations.

Best: Communicators should regularly assess whether those with whom they are communicating see them as sharing an identity and associated values and adjust as needed and appropriate. This might involve switching to a different communicator.

Always: Communicators should respect the values and identity of those with whom they communicate and be honest about their own identities and associated values.

Description of the objective: People use identity information—which might include visible things such as race or gender down to less obvious things such as a shared hobby or geographic history—as part of how they perceive other people (Tajfel, 1982). This means that people are regularly assessing others and comparing themselves to those others.

Values—which are how people think the world should be—can be linked to identity because certain groups are typically associated with certain values. The ideas of  “moral tribes” (Greene, 2014) and “social intuition” about morality (Haidt, 2007) highlight this connection.

A wide range of studies have shown that group identification is relatively fluid. For example, it’s possible to get people to identify with groups whose membership is randomly assigned by the researcher (Tajfel, 1982). The degree to which someone decides they are part of the same group as another person then appears to drive a range of attitudes and behaviors. Further, people typically have multiple identities and these can become more or less important depending on the situation.

As with knowledge and excitement/interest, the National Academies considers having people “develop an identity as someone who knows about, uses, and sometimes contributes” to science as a central objective for science educators and communicators (National Research Council, 2009).

The core argument is that people are more likely to develop science-positive identities when they have encouraging, welcoming experiences with science and scientists. In contrast, negative experiences and a failure to feel such a connection can push people away from science. This is a particular problem for people from groups who are under-represented within scientific communities, including women and people of color (Ong, Wright, Espinosa, & Orfield, 2011).

Related research from social psychology suggests that an important way to build a sense of shared group identity is to treat people with respect and to give them a fair voice in decisions that affect them (Blader & Tyler, 2009). (See here).

What this objective affects

As noted, work focused on formal and informal science education often focuses on getting people to identify as being someone who is involved in science. Developing this type of identity can be an important component of spurring an individual to pursue a science career (Ong et al., 2011).

It should similarly be expected that identification with science can also lead to all the motivational benefits associated with interest in science, such as more willingness to seek out and focus attention on content about science.

Work on ‘cultural cognition’ also finds that communication from someone who appears to shares our values based on identity factors has more of an effect on our attitudes (Kahan, Braman, Cohen, Gastil, & Slovic, 2010). This is important because it suggests that people can identify with scientists even if that person does not identify with the science community. Framing research further emphasizes the potential value of framing messages about science in ways that resonate with existing values.

Example Studies

Chemers, Zurbriggen, Syed, Goza, and Bearman (2011) found that positive mentoring and a sense of being good at science (i.e., self-efficacy) helped minorities identify with science; this identitification was further associated with commitment to a science career.

Steinke, Applegate, Lapinski, Ryan, and Long (2012) showed that male and female adolescents identify with different types of scientists on television, with boys identifying more with males and girls more with females. Other character and show attributes were also associated with identification.

Kahan et al. (2012) tested the effect of literacy and numeracy on climate beliefs and found that the impact of both types of knowledge are contingent on whether respondents’ believe they share cultural values with the communicator.


Blader, S. L., & Tyler, T. R. (2009). Testing and extending the group engagement model: Linkages between social identity, procedural justice, economic outcomes, and extrarole behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(2), 445-464. doi:10.1037/a0013935

Chemers, M. M., Zurbriggen, E. L., Syed, M., Goza, B. K., & Bearman, S. (2011). The role of efficacy and identity in science career commitment among underrepresented minority students. Journal of Social Issues, 67(3), 469-491. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.2011.01710.x

Greene, J. (2014). Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between Us and Them: Atlantic Books Ltd.

Haidt, J. (2007). The new synthesis in moral psychology. Science, 316(5827), 998-1002.

Kahan, D. M., Braman, D., Cohen, G. L., Gastil, J., & Slovic, P. (2010). Who fears the HPV vaccine, who doesn’t, and why? An experimental study of the mechanisms of cultural cognition. Law and Human Behavior, 34(6), 501-516. doi:10.1007/s10979-009-9201-0

Kahan, D. M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L. L., Braman, D., & Mandel, G. (2012). The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Clim. Change, 2(10), 732-735. doi:10.1038/nclimate1547

National Research Council (Ed.) (2009). Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Ong, M., Wright, C., Espinosa, L., & Orfield, G. (2011). Inside the double bind: A synthesis of empirical research on undergraduate and graduate women of color in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Harvard Educational Review, 81(2), 172-209. doi:doi:10.17763/haer.81.2.t022245n7x4752v2

Steinke, J., Applegate, B., Lapinski, M., Ryan, L., & Long, M. (2012). Gender differences in adolescents’ wishful identification with ccientist characters on television. Science Communication, 34(2), 163-199. doi:10.1177/1075547011410250

Tajfel, H. (1982). Social psychology of intergroup relations. Annual Review of Psychology, 33(1), 1-39.

One thought on “Convey Shared Values

  • Scientists may or may not share the values of the community. Scientists are diverse in the values they hold, like anyone else, but are likely to hold common values that often differ from the community on average where knowledge, skepticism, and trust in science are concerned. Communicating in a way that aligns the values of scientists with the values of the community is not necessarily a good thing. It can convey the message that science is value-based and therefore arbitrary rather than empirical and therefore a bedrock of certainty on which values can be based.

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