By Marina Lee, EdM, IECA (MA)

In 2015, political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel used data from the World Values Survey to create a cultural map of the world. To formulate their work, they defined two continuums of societal values. Traditional values to secular-rational values and survival values to self-expression values (see figure 1). According to the WSV website, the values are defined as follows:

Traditional values emphasize the importance of religion, parent-child ties, deference to authority and traditional family values. People who embrace these values also reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia and suicide. These societies have high levels of national pride and a nationalistic outlook.

Secular-rational values have the opposite preferences to the traditional values. These societies place less emphasis on religion, traditional family values and authority. Divorce, abortion, euthanasia and suicide are seen as relatively acceptable. (Suicide is not necessarily more common.)

Survival values place emphasis on economic and physical security. It is linked with a relatively ethnocentric outlook and low levels of trust and tolerance.

Self-expression values give high priority to environmental protection, growing tolerance of foreigners, [LBGTQ] and gender equality, and rising demands for participation in decision-making in economic and political life. (Inglehart and Welzel 2015)

The map shows the location of societies according to their scores on the WSV along two major dimensions of cross-cultural variation in the world. Moving upwards on the y-axis reflects a shift from Traditional to Secular-Rational values and moving across on the x-axis reflects a shift from Survival to Self–Expression values.

The map also connects societies by shared characteristics, such as Confucian, Protestant, Islamic, or Catholic.

Why It Matters

Although the map’s representation greatly simplifies the complexity within each society, the WVS assessment does provide an important lens for independent educational consultants (IECs) working with international students. Most international students coming to the United States are coming from nations whose governing ideologies tend to lean towards Secular-Rational and Survival value systems (upper left quadrant]. It is important to understand how these ideologies drive the calculations behind decision making as each student plays out a socio-cultural narrative shaped not only by their background but also by their own (often subconscious) synthesis of their societal histories. As IECs, we also have our own stories and implicit value systems that play a role in influencing our students.

Within this context, we can see how the common guiding principle of behavior heard throughout the United States, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” can engender increasing levels of complexity for international students. Following this principle creates a very real trap, because a well-intentioned student may easily assume that others hold the same values and thus the same preferences. It is exceedingly difficult to understand the ramifications of our actions without understanding the value systems in which we find ourselves.

In particular, the issue of plagiarism can take on new nuances when considered through this societal-value lens. The values placed on individual merit, critical thinking, and innovation within societies falling high in self-expression and secular-rational domains (upper right quadrant) drive the “scarlet letter” placed on plagiarism within American academic culture.

In many non-American societies, however, avoiding offending or embarrassing immediate superiors takes precedence over giving credit to ambiguous others. In several East Asian academic contexts, providing detailed citations can carry the insulting implication that the professors are in fact unfamiliar with the very works that they have assigned. In this value system, the overriding focus on citations from the original source becomes overly pedantic. The duty of the student is to demonstrate knowledge, not to provide credit to others. For those students, who have often found success operating under a different definition of excellence, adapting to a new definition within the American academic context is a difficult endeavor.

How We Can Help

Despite the variations, all value systems have one common attribute: each society believes in the truth—or ethical competency—of their own values; thus, individuals lead their lives believing in their own sense of the “good” and the “bad.” Each society shown in the chart above, therefore, develops citizen identities that embody a value spectrum specific to their own socio-cultural history.

IECs can be effective in guiding students through the following steps:

Share expectations with students. Avoid focusing on a single action as “bad,” and instead develop a broader context of what is valued in an American classroom and school (e.g., taking initiative, participation, individualism).

Encourage identity formation. International students, more than other groups, are in a unique position to analyze and actively construct their identity. IECs can help students develop a stronger sense of self—and thus a stronger sense of ethics—by framing the application process as an identity developing exercise and the time in American schools as an opportunity for students to reevaluate their value systems.

Involve families. Families propagate and reinforce societal values for students and provide the most pertinent advice on what is good and bad. Teaching families about the value systems and rationales behind school policies and academic rules is a key step toward fostering empathy and bringing about awareness for families, students, and ourselves.

Build competence. All IECs are constantly working to develop and extend their field of expertise. For those working with international families, developing competence means recognizing the different value systems at play and coordinating necessary support structures.

Educate others. Provide your own experiences, knowledge, and opinions to influence the Principles of Good Practice of IECA and the standards of other organizations, especially with regard to:

• Multiple interests and potential conflicts of interest

• Relationships with colleges, programs, and schools

• Relationship with students and families

• Relationship with other IECA members

• Advertising and other public statements.

Taking an active approach to our work helps to codify the values we uphold in the United States and will help students better understand models of professional and social behavior.

Moving Forward

We must not only be aware of and empathize with international students coming from different value systems but also analyze our own values and the effect we may have on our students. In doing so, we can better guide our students and help them develop a stronger sense of self. This requires much patience and even taking on roles and responsibilities that are traditionally outside the typical realms of an IEC. As each student develops a sense of self, he or she will decide for themselves what philosophy of life is best. With strong support, that philosophy can create a new trajectory of global competency that transcends the WVS map, demonstrating the unifying humanity that is the basis of all values, regardless of society.


Inglehart, Ronald, and Christian Welzel. 2015. Findings and Insights.

About the World Values Survey

The World Values Survey ( is a global network of social scientists studying changing values and their impact on social and political life led by an international team of scholars. The survey started in 1981 and uses a common questionnaire in almost 100 countries, which contain almost 90% of the world’s population. The WVS is the largest noncommercial, cross-national, time series investigation of human beliefs and values ever executed, currently including interviews with almost 400,000 respondents.

Marina Lee, Cogita Educational Services, can be reached at [email protected].