Here you can read answers to frequently asked questions about the four worldviews we distinguish, and worldviews in general. These questions were asked by students participating in our program. Want to ask us your own questions, or share your comments, with respect to worldviews? You can contact us here.

One could say that there are as many worldviews as there are people. However, worldviews as we define them refer to the overarching, collectively shared, ‘big stories’ through which humans make sense of their experience and world. These stories, value patterns, and meaning-making systems guide how whole communities or societies understand reality in a general sense.

These ‘big stories’ could therefore also be described as families of worldviews, with ample variety and different perspectives within a family, while sharing certain foundational assumptions and characteristic values and priorities.

Especially the traditional, modern, and postmodern worldviews have been widely recognised by philosophers and sociologists as part of the historical-developmental trajectory of cultural epochs in the West. These value patterns have also been observed more globally in large-scale cross-cultural research (more on that below). These worldviews thus express larger patterns and structures that most of us are familiar with, and are often relatively easy to recognize.

You can see them as archetypes, or what sociologists call ideal-types. These are idea-constructs that depict ‘pure’ or idealised structures and patterns. That is, though they are recognisable in the world around us, they generally do not exist in these ‘pure’ forms, because social reality is inherently messy and complex. These ideal-types thus serve primarily as heuristics, or analytical tools, that help us put the seeming chaos of social reality in order, and ‘see the forest for the trees’.

While more worldviews could be added to our model, these four worldviews appear rather dominant in our world today, and quite useful for analyzing societal and political debates (e.g., see this blog or this study). Moreover, the distinction in four worldviews adds a lot of nuance and complexity, compared with most of the binary approaches used in the social sciences (as argued in this article).

Although these worldviews were found in research in a Western context, there’s substantial support for the idea that they’re relevant and recognizable beyond the West. Take for example the insights as emerging from the results of the World Values Survey, the largest non-commercial, cross-national, empirical, time-series investigation of human beliefs and values ever executed.

Data-analysis by Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel asserts that there are two major dimensions of cross cultural variation in the world. As their results show, massive cultural change is observed over time and throughout the world, with a shift from traditional values dominant in more agrarian societies (resonant with the traditional worldview), to secular-rational values in industrial societies (resonant with the modern worldview). As well as a shift from survival values to the self-expression values dominant in post-industrial societies (resonant with the postmodern worldview).

This suggests that beliefs and value patterns associated with the traditional, modern, and postmodern worldviews are observed beyond the West. The integrative worldview can be understood as a newer and more speculative worldview arising in response to the challenges of our late postmodern societies. Though this worldview is not (yet?) distinguished by the World Values Survey, it’s been extensively described by various philosophers and also increasingly recognized in empirical work, including the study that led to the Worldview Test.

Though people who feel that their outlook on life is strongly defined by their religion will often identify with the traditional worldview, the relationship is not one-on-one. Clearly, there are traditional people who are not religious, and religious people who are not traditional.

It all depends on one’s interpretation of the religious ideas, values, and concepts in question. People with traditional worldviews will be more inclined to interpret these in more literalistic and dogmatic ways, while people with (for example) more integrative worldviews may understand them in a more mystical, universal fashion, emphasizing direct experience and self-actualization.

Moreover, the traditional worldview is as much defined by its (more conventional, traditionally) religious understanding of reality, as it is by its emphasis on the family and community, its social values, solidarity and conformity to the group, socially defined roles and rules, and a higher, transcendental purpose in life.

These worldviews are not inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They’re stories, value patterns, and structures that help people make sense of their experience and world. People’s worldviews are often profoundly shaped by the context they grew up in, and the challenges they were confronted with. Each worldview brings forth qualities, values, and possibilities, as well as pitfalls and limitations. The morality of one’s behaviors and choices thus depends on how one relates and gives expression to these worldviews, rather than only on the content of the worldviews.

At the same time, people’s worldviews can become radicalised, highly ideological, or pathological. Put simply, when individuals see their worldview as the only valid perspective, and other perspectives not only as ‘wrong’ but also as ‘evil’, radicalization is occurring. Then worldviews run the risk of encouraging or justifying ‘bad’ behaviors – like the exclusion, oppression, or even prosecution of other groups or people who think differently.

Each of these four worldviews – though neutral in their basic structure, with potentials as well as pitfalls – may thus be turned into extremist ideologies. This is quite obvious when considering the radicalization tendencies prominent in today’s world. An example may be the anti-democratic movement of Christian Nationalism that’s currently gaining political power in the United States. This ideology appears to be a radicalized expression of the traditional worldview. Another example involves some of the more extreme aspects of the “woke” and transgender activist cultures, which at times come off as caricatures of the postmodern worldview.

It’s therefore of great importance to explore our attitudes towards our worldviews. Instead of promoting any particular worldview, our educational programs are focussed on supporting people to develop healthy and inquisitive relationships with their worldviews – fostering the humility, openness, curiosity, tolerance, and reflexivity that are vital for our planetary civilization to flourish.

Just like these worldviews are not inherently good or bad, they’re also not inherently sustainable. Each worldview brings qualities and possibilities as well as pitfalls in addressing our planetary issues. For example, traditional worldviews may coincide with a willingness to sacrifice for the common good and live in more sober ways, while generally having less affinity with green values. Modern worldviews offer possibilities with their emphasis on science and technology – crucial in the transition to more sustainable economies – while also being associated with more reductionist and exploitative attitudes towards nature (which are detrimental to sustainability).

At the same time, certain worldviews are more inclined to care about sustainability issues than others. As this study showed, people with postmodern and integrative worldviews displayed significantly more concern about climate change as well as more sustainable behaviors, compared with moderns and traditionals. This makes sense, as environmental values fit with the larger story of postmodern and integrative worldviews, including their views on nature (which are more conducive to a mindset and ethic of global sustainability than the other two worldviews).

While some worldviews are thus more inclined towards sustainable values and lifestyles, for addressing our pressing global issues a diversity of worldviews is generally preferable. Of course, differences in worldview can – and often do – lead to misunderstanding, conflict, and inertia. Yet the diversity in solutions and strategies they bring forth may prove crucial in helping us adapt and transform as a society. Including different perspectives is also considered crucial for advancing the creative collaboration needed to address complex problems.

Thus, though some worldviews are more inherently aligned with environmental values and purposes, a diversity of worldviews and perspectives tends to offer the best chances for coming to the most innovative and inclusive solutions for our planetary problems.

In a general sense, worldviews do tend to translate to behaviours and decisions. As mentioned above, this study found that postmoderns and integratives displayed significantly more environmental behaviours. This also makes sense, as environmental values gain importance with the emergence of postmodern and integrative worldviews. These environmental behaviours thus fit with the larger story, the concerns, priorities, and values of these worldviews. So this increases the probability. At the same time, worldviews can be expressed in many different ways. Also, we know that there are many factors influencing concrete behaviors, and our worldviews and values is just one of them.

Additionally, we know from fields like medicine and neuroscience that our beliefs and attitudes substantially inform a wide range of subtle behaviors, that have great impact on our experience and world, yet often without us even noticing.

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Considering the widespread calls for “mindshifts”, research into how worldviews change in practice is remarkably thin.

As far as we know, a full-blown shift of worldview tends to occur slow, and may take years. At the same time, a perspective shift can happen in a matter of moments. Such perspective shifts are perhaps to be understood as the ‘building blocks’ of larger worldview changes.

This process may be akin to Thomas Kunn’s groundbreaking depiction of how paradigm shifts happened in the history of science (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962). According to Kuhn’s observations, initially anomalies – observations that are at odds with, and contest, the current paradigm or way of understanding in a certain scientific field – tend to be resisted and oppressed. They are therefore not able to shift the paradigm. However, once more anomalies are observed and start to reach a certain threshold, the inevitable happens and the paradigm shifts. A radically and qualitatively new understanding of the same phenomena now takes over the field.

Like these paradigm shifts in science, our personal perspective-shifts may over time result in a shift of worldview. For example, one day you’re climbing a big mountain and while standing on its peak you have a powerful and deep experience like you’ve never had before. You experience an aliveness, a vastness, and a value that feels incredibly meaningful to you, and that evokes a different understanding of what nature is and the role it should play in your life. This experience  in itself , however powerful, will probably not immediately result in a shift of worldview. But when you start having more of these ‘perspective-shifting’ experiences, at some point the balance may tip and your larger understanding of reality – your worldview – may shift. (Check out this study.)

Though there is limited research available that explores how this happens in practice, many people have experienced such shift in their lives. However, this process may be so slow that one often only appreciates in retrospect, and upon conscious reflection, that that is what happened.

More research is needed to answer this vital question!

The observation is that worldviews arose societally in a certain order. That is, modern worldviews arose after, and in response to the limitations of, traditional worldviews. Postmodern worldviews arose after and in response to the problems of the modern worldview, and integrative worldviews after and in response to postmodern ones. There is indeed a developmental logic and dynamic here. This process has been observed by historians and philosophers in the West, while also having been found in cross cultural data on changing beliefs and values over time.

This understanding also aligns with developmental psychology and the “evolutions” observed in the process of mental development. Research has shown that, looking at a population as a whole, mental complexity tends to increase with age: “When an evolution occurs from one level of complexity to another, adults take greater responsibility for their thinking and feeling, can retain more levels of information, and can think further into the future, to name only some of the well-researched consequences of mental development” (Kegan and Lahey, 2016, p.60). Yet there is considerable variety within any age, and people move through these evolutions at different speeds. Also, “many of us, if not most of us, get stuck in our evolution and do not reach the most complex peaks” (Ibid, p.60).

This is a hopeful understanding, as our worldviews may display our possibility for social learning and a potential for a gradual expansion of perspectives! However, there are some things to keep in mind:

  • Take your result of the Worldview Test lightly! This test only tells you which ‘big story’ you seem to gravitate towards based on the answers you provided. It’s NOT an indication of your state of mental evolution in any way.
  • Habermas spoke about ‘the dialectics of progress’: Though the evolutionarily later worldviews often display new qualities and possibilities, they also tend to generate new (and often bigger) problems and pathologies.
  • This is not a moral order! One worldview is not inherently better than any other one. The goodness of our character depends more on what we do with these worldviews and how we give expression to them, than with the worldviews per se.

Instead of seeing this as a moral order or an oppressive ranking system, we believe a developmental or evolutionary view can in fact be highly empowering and life-enhancing, as it invites us to keep learning, growing, and evolving, to continue to widen our horizons and deepen our understanding, to fulfil our greater potentials.

Additionally, this kind of view may evoke a more compassionate understanding of human nature and behavior. ‘Undesirable’ or problematic behaviors or opinions – like racist views or unsustainable attitudes – may be ascribed to a lack of the right conditions for development, rather than to the “moral failings” of someone’s character. Instead of judging people or writing them off, this view emphasizes that, under the right conditions, each and every one of us has the potential to move beyond narrow and self-centered perspectives, and grow into a wiser and wider self.

This invites more compassion, kindness, and inclusivity – and thus hope for the future.

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