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SRI's Values and Lifestyle Program

  • VALS a look at the culture through people's diverse attitudes, needs, wants, beliefs, and demographics
  • One of the articles in Rediscovering The North American Vision (IC#3)
  • Summer 1983, Page 12
  • Copyright (c)1983, 1996 by Context Institute

History is not the only way to try to probe the roots of our culture's vision. The following excerpt (reprinted with permission) from a recent report by the VALS Group at SRI International (Menlo Park, CA 94025) suggests some of the current diversity within our culture. A more extensive discussion of the VALS research is in The Nine American Lifestyles, by Arnold Mitchell, published by Macmillian.

VALS - short for values and lifestyles - is a way of viewing people on the basis of their attitudes, needs, wants, beliefs, and demographics. The VALS program was created by SRI International in 1978 in an attempt to "put people" into the thinking of those of us trying to understand the trends of our times - in the marketplace, economically, politically, sociologically, and humanly. The approach is holistic, drawing on insight and many sources of data to develop a comprehensive framework for characterizing the ways of life of Americans. Conceptually, VALS owes a major debt to the findings of developmental psychology. Our initial speculations have now been extensively confirmed, honed, and extended in field research. The system is currently being applied in many areas of business and is evoking interest in circles as diverse as sociology, politics, law, education, and medicine.

A basic tool of the VALS program is the VALS typology. This typology is divided into four major categories, with a total of nine lifestyles. These are:


  • Survivor lifestyle
  • Sustainer lifestyle


  • Belonger lifestyle
  • Emulator lifestyle
  • Achiever lifestyle


  • I-Am-Me lifestyle
  • Experiential lifestyle
  • Societally Conscious lifestyle

Combined Outer- and Inner-Directed

  • Integrated lifestyle

It should be understood from the start that these lifestyle categories are not fixed and immutable. Many people grow from one level to another as children, as adolescents, and as adults. Some very few may start at the bottom and reach the top within a lifetime, but far more common is movement of a level or two.

The VALS typology is hierarchical. The prime development thrust is from Need-Driven through Outer- Directed and Inner-Directed phases to a joining of Outer- and Inner-Direction. These major transitions are seen as crucial way-posts in the movement of an individual (or a society) from immaturity to full maturity. Three of the four major developmental categories are subdivided into lifestyle phases representing stages of advancement within the main category.

By "maturity," we specifically mean psychological maturity. Very generally, psychological maturation is marked by a progression from partial toward full realization of one's potential. It involves a steady widening of perspectives and concerns and a steady deepening of the inner reference points consulted in making important decisions. Thus, the role of habit and "stock answers" abates as a person matures, and the person becomes increasingly more complex and self-expressive in a values sense.

This hierarchy should be thought of as a nested model, with each stage "burying," as it were, previous stages. This means that an individual's totality - like the layers of an onion - consists of inner "spheres" of values relating to stages of development that often date back to childhood or adolescence. Hence, the more developed a person is, the more complex his or her value structure and the more diverse the range of value-based reactions. This is why highly developed people often identify with many - even all - of the VALS levels: They are all of them!

In the paragraphs that follow, we have tried to describe the psychological essence of each segment of the typology and, in so doing, to provide a feeling for the widening concerns and multiplying values of people as they move through the typology.


The Need-Drivens are people so limited in resources (especially financial resources) that their lives are driven more by need than by choice. Much evidence shows that they are the furthest removed from the cultural mainstream, are the least aware of the events of our times, and are most inclined to be depressed and withdrawn. Values of the Need-Driven center around survival, safety, and security. Such people tend to be distrustful, dependent, unplanning. Many live unhappy lives focused on the immediate specifics of today, with little sensitivity to the wants of others and little vision of what could be. We divide the Need-Driven category into two lifestyles: Survivor and Sustainer.

Survivors (4% of the population aged 18 and over in 1981) are the most disadvantaged in American society by reason of their extreme poverty, low education, old age, and limited access to the channels of upward mobility. They are people oriented to tradition but marked by despair and unhappiness. Many, now infirm, once lived lifestyles associated with higher levels of the VALS hierarchy. Other generation-after-generation Survivors are ensnared in the so-called "culture of poverty."

Sustainers (7% of population) are a group struggling at the edge of poverty. They are better off and younger than Survivors, and many have not given up hope. Their values are very different from those of Survivors in that Sustainers have advanced from the depression and hopelessness typical of Survivors to express anger at the system they see as repressing them, and they have developed a street-wise determination to get ahead. Many operate in the underground economy.


This large and diverse category is named to reflect the central characteristic of the people within it: The Outer-Directeds conduct their lives in response to signals - real or fancied - from others. "Out there" is what is most important. Consumption, activities, attitudes - all are guided by what the outer-directed individual thinks others will think. Psychologically, Outer-Direction is a major step forward from the Need-Driven state in that the perspective on life has broadened to include other people, a host of institutions, shared goals, and an array of personal values and options far more complex and diverse than those available to the Need-Driven. In general, the Outer-Directeds are the happiest of Americans, being well attuned to the cultural mainstream - indeed, creating much of it. The VALS typology defines three principal types of outer-directed people: Belongers, Emulators, and Achievers.

Belongers (39% of population) constitute the large, solid, comfortable, middle-class group of Americans who are the main stabilizers of society and the preservers and defenders of the moral status quo. Belongers tend to be conservative, conventional, nostalgic, sentimental, puritanical, conforming. The key drive is to fit in - to belong - and not to stand out. Their world is well posted and well lit, and the road is straight and narrow. Family, church, and tradition loom large. Belongers are people who know what is right, and they adhere to the rules. They are not much interested in sophistication or intellectual affairs. All the evidence suggests that Belongers lead contented, happy lives and are relatively little vexed by the stresses and mercurial events that swirl around them.

In terms of psychological maturity, Belongers are ahead of the Need-Drivens in having a much wider range of associations (both personal and institutional), a longer term focus for planning their lives, and a less opportunistic pattern of behavior. These are people well integrated with their surroundings.

Emulators (8% of population) live in a wholly different world from that of Belongers. Emulators are trying to burst into the upper levels of the system - to make it big. The object of their emulation is the Achiever lifestyle. They are ambitious, upwardly mobile, status-conscious, macho, competitive. Many see themselves as coming from the other side of the tracks and hence are intensely distrustful, are angry with the way things are, and have little faith that "the system" will give them a fair shake. Emulators tend not to be open in their feelings for fear of alienating those in authority, on whom they depend to get ahead. The Emulator group contains a higher fraction of minorities (24%) than any VALS group other than the Need- Drivens.

Psychologically, Emulators are a step ahead of Belongers in that they ask more of themselves and the system and have assumed greater personal responsibility for getting ahead instead of drifting with events in the style of many Belongers. On the other hand, Emulators seem often to have unrealistic goals. In truth, many are not on the track to make them Achievers, but they appear not to realize this.

Achievers (20% of population) include the leaders in business, the professions, and government. Competent, self-reliant, efficient, Achievers tend to be materialistic, hard-working, oriented to fame and success, and comfort loving. These are the affluent people who have created the economic system in response to the American dream. As such, they are the defenders of the economic status quo. Achievers are among the best adjusted of Americans, being well satisfied with their place in the system. Only 5% of Achievers come from minority backgrounds.

Achievers are psychologically more advanced than Emulators in having a wider spectrum of values, in being more open and trusting, and in clearly having brought their ambitions into better alignment with reality. Achievers are supporters of technology and are open to progress, but they resist radical change. After all, they are on top and too radical a change might shake them off!


People we call the Inner-Directeds contrast with the Outer-Directed in that they conduct their lives primarily in accord with inner values - the needs and desires private to the individual - rather than in accord with values oriented to externals. What is most important to such people is what is "in here" rather than what is "out there." Concern with inner growth thus is a cardinal characteristic. Inner-directed people tend to be self-expressive, individualistic, person-centered, impassioned, diverse, complex.

It is important to recognize that, in American society today, one can hardly be profoundly Inner-Directed without having internalized Outer-Directedness through extensive and deep exposure as a child, adolescent, or adult. One implication is that inner- directed people tend not to come from need-driven or inner-directed families. Some measure of satiation with the pleasures of external things seems to be required before a person can believe in or enjoy the less visible, incorporeal pleasures of Inner-Direction. This means not that the pleasures of the outer world disappear (for the VALS typology is a nested model), but that inner needs become more imperative than outer needs. From the psychological standpoint, then, Inner-Direction in today's Western culture represents an advance over Outer-Direction in that it adds new values to old, thus increasing the range of potential responses and the number of channels available for self-expression. For children raised in strongly inner-directed families, however, the psychological advance would involve the shift from Inner-Direction to Outer-Direction. This would be true, for example, of people raised according to the tenets of the great inner-directed Eastern cultures.

VALS has identified three stages of Inner-Directedness: I-Am-Me. Experiential, and Societally Conscious.

I-Am-Me (3% of population) is a short lived stage of transition from Outer- to Inner-Direction. Values from both stages are much in evidence. Typically, the I-Am-Me person is young and fiercely individualistic to the point of being narcissistic and exhibitionistic. People at this stage are full of confusions and emotions they do not understand; hence, they often define themselves better by their actions than by their statements. I-Am-Mes tend to be dramatic and impulsive. Like cats, they have whims of iron. Much of their Inner-Direction shows up in great inventiveness, a willingness to try anything once, and an often secret inner exploration that will later crystallize into lifelong pursuits.

As the I-Am-Mes mature psychologically, they become the Experientials (6% of population). At this stage of Inner-Direction, the focus has widened from the intense egocentrism of the I-Am-Me to include other people and many social and human issues. Experientials are people who most want direct experience and vigorous involvement. Life is a light show at one moment and an intense, often mystic, inner experience the next. They are attracted to the exotic (such as Oriental religions), to the strange (such as parapsychology), and to the natural (such as "organic" gardening and home baking). The most inner-directed of any VALS group, these people also are probably the most artistic and the most passionately involved with others. Although intense, this is a thoroughly enjoyable stage of life, full of vigorous activity (although less so than at the I- Am-Me stage), and marked by a growing concern with intellectual and spiritual matters.

The Societally Conscious (11% of population) have extended their Inner-Direction beyond the self and others to the society as a whole - in fact, sometimes to the globe or even, philosophically, to the cosmos. A profound sense of societal responsibility leads these people to support such causes as conservation, environmentalism, and consumerism. They tend to be activistic, impassioned, and knowledgeable about the world around them. Many are attracted to simple living and the natural; some have taken up lives of voluntary simplicity. Many do volunteer work. The Societally Conscious seek to live frugal lives that conserve, protect, and heal. Inner growth remains a crucial part of life. Consequently, many Societally Conscious people assume a high degree of self-reliance, which extends to holistic health and a sense that they are in touch with inner forces that guide them.


At the pinnacle of the VALS typology is a small group we call the Integrateds (2% of population). These rare people have put it all together. They meld the power of Outer-Direction with the sensitivity of Inner-Direction. They are fully mature in a psychological sense - able to see many sides of an issue, able to lead if necessary, and willing to take a secondary role if that is appropriate. They usually possess a deep sense of the fittingness of things. They tend to be self-assured, self-actualizing, self-expressive, keenly aware of issues and sentiments, and often possessed of a world perspective. These highly unusual people are the Lincolns and Jeffersons and Einsteins and Schweitzers and Huxleys and Hammarskjolds of society.


Recent history has raised the question: What happens to the lifestyle groups in hard times? This subject is addressed in depth in a VALS report entitled Hard Times by Marie Spengler and Peter Teige. The report was published in November 1980. The conclusions of the report have proved prescient, as shown by lifestyle trends revealed in VALS surveys conducted in April 1980 and October 1981.

Four main things happen in hard times:

First, the transitional lifestyle stages (especially Emulator and I-Am-Me) tend to be much less prominent. Apparently, in hard times people will not tolerate show- off, flibbertigibbet lifestyles. Second, the number of people adopting the deep and solid traditional lifestyle of the Belonger tends to increase. We have evidence of recent growth in the number of Belongers, reversing a long-term downtrend. When the going gets rough, the safety, familiarity, and supportiveness of the Belonger way appear to be profoundly appealing. Third, the ranks of the Societally Conscious expand. We impute this to the fact that this lifestyle is already attuned to frugal living. It has the further appeal of supporting many of the issues brought into prominence in periods of economic uncertainty. Fourth, although an increase in the number of people living in poverty might be expected, rather to our surprise we have not found a major change in the number of Need-Drivens. Apparently, times are still not bad enough to have appreciably increased the number of Americans who fit the Survivor and Sustainer categories, although the number of Sustainers reporting being unemployed has skyrocketed. We suspect that the natural resilience of people has something to do with this. Over a period of a year or two, hope for better times remains. If hard times persist, the resilience may vanish and many who now see themselves as Belongers (plus other groups) would begin to take on the psychic attributes of the Need-Drivens.


One of the most interesting and potentially significant questions raised by the VALS typology regards the lifestyles that the children of Experiential and Societally Conscious parents will adopt. This discussion is necessarily speculative because these two VALS types are still so young (median age of Experientials is 26 and that of the Societally Conscious is 38) that we are only beginning to see how their children react on reaching age 18.

We think that the children of the Inner-Directeds will tend to become a new, subtle, and effective kind of Achiever. This "new convert" Achiever group, which will begin to develop in the coming decade, will be fleeing the Inner- Direction of their parents just as current l-Am-Mes are abandoning outer-directed family values. The notion is that if you were raised without dolls, you'll collect them as an adult; if you have not visited the pasture on the other side of the road, you must journey there.

We think this potential addition to the VALS typology could be of crucial importance for several reasons. First, this new kind of Achiever will, we believe, bring an introspective entrepreneurial spirit to the driving outer-directed segments of society. We expect this will have a profoundly rejuvenating effect on the American system because the person who represents a blending of Inner-Direction and Outer-Direction may be particularly effective in getting things done.

This new class of Achievers will surely be creative and different, just as the I-Am-Mes of the 1960's and 1970's were. The new Achievers will insist on seeing things and doing things in their own way - and they are not likely to be slavishly imitative of any model.

Further, we speculate that they will prove to be the nation's most important source of leadership by the year 2000, for by then some will have matured into the Integrated stage. These will be people long out of Inner-Direction and recently out of Outer-Direction. This history, we surmise, will equip them to be particularly effective leaders, because they will be able to combine the executive strength of the Outer-Direction with the human insight of Inner-Direction. With luck, they will be able to devise higher order solutions to national problems that combine the best in both ways of life..

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