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Posted on Tue, Feb 1, 2011 : 10:10 a.m.

Our Values: How do we define 'core values'?

By Wayne Baker

Editor's note: This is part of a series of posts on core American values by Dr. Wayne E. Baker, originally published on

Values, by definition, are emotional. A strongly held value is a guiding principle that engages passions. The term “core value” is the same—it conjures the emotions and can mean different things to different people. So, today, I’m pausing in my original plan to talk about one core value per day and instead I want to define what I mean by core value.

“Core” refers to that which is central, innermost, vital or the most essential part of something, according to online dictionaries. The word derives from the Latin “corpus,” meaning body. We speak, for example, of the corpus of literature on a subject. For me, a core value is central or essential in a neutral sense. It means that there is widespread consensus, not disagreement.

Core values by the numbers

A core value, as I’m defining it, has four statistical characteristics:

  1. It has to be strongly held. People can’t be lukewarm on, say, patriotism for it to qualify as a core American value.
  2. It must be widely held. This simply means that a very large majority of Americans strongly hold a value.
  3. The value has to be stable over time. We get the same results across surveys taken at different times.
  4. The value doesn’t vary much when we compare people of different ages, levels of education, liberals versus conservatives and so forth. Consider, for example, the type of patriotism called “critical love” (see yesterday’s post). On a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 = strongly agree, the average is 4.14 for liberals and 4.25 for conservatives.

Let's reclaim this valuable phrase

The meaning of core values can be seized, manipulated and wielded by either side of the political aisle. I’d like to reclaim the concept of core values from those who would usurp it, and make it a more neutral term. It’s such a valuable principle—an insight that can bridge political chasms rather than deepen them.

What about you?

How do you feel about the phrase “core values”?

Dr. Wayne E. Baker is a sociologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Baker blogs daily at Our Values and can be reached at