Here you can read answers to frequently asked questions about the four worldviews we distinguish, and worldviews in general.

Why are there only four worldviews?

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 shared stories, value patterns, or meaning-making systems guide how whole communities or societies understand reality and relate to the world, in a general sense. These ‘big stories’ could also be described as families of worldviews, with ample variety and different perspectives occurring within a family, while also sharing certain foundational assumptions, 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 values, 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: idea-constructs that depict ‘pure’ or idealised structures and patterns, recognisable in the world around us, yet generally not existing in these ‘pure’ forms. Though reality is always more messy and complex than these ideal-types depict, they serve as 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 today, and quite useful for explaining and organizing societal debates (e.g., see this study on perceptions of biotechnology and the debate on the bio-economy). 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).

How do non-Western worldviews fit into this picture of four worldviews?

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 (i.e., traditional worldview), to secular-rational values in industrial societies (modern worldview). As well as a shift from survival values to the self-expression values dominant in post-industrial societies (i.e., 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.

What’s the relationship between religion and these worldviews?

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 religious ideas, values, and concepts. People with traditional worldviews will be more inclined to interpret these in a more literalistic and dogmatic sense, while people with more integrative worldviews may tend to understand them in a more mystical, universal fashion with an emphasis on self-actualization.

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

Do worldviews have a moral vector? Is there such a thing as ‘bad’ worldviews?

The four worldviews that we distinguish here 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 and circumstances they grew up in, and the challenges they were confronted with. Each worldview brings forth certain qualities, values, and possibilities, as well as certain pitfalls and limitations. The moral expression thus depends on how one relates and gives expression to these worldviews.

However, people’s worldviews may become radicalised, highly ideological, or pathological. This is especially likely to happen when only one’s own worldview is considered right and good, when there’re no openness towards other perspectives or towards data that contradict one’s own understanding, and when other worldviews or perspectives are not only seen as wrong but also as evil. Obviously, then worldviews can turn ‘bad’ and start to encourage or justify ‘bad’ behaviors, though this is more a function of how the individual or group relates to the worldview, rather than something inherent in the worldview.

What is a sustainable worldview?

Just like these worldviews are not inherently good or bad, they’re also not inherently sustainable or environmentally-friendly. Each worldview brings certain qualities and possibilities in addressing our planetary issues, while also bringing forth certain pitfalls.

For example, traditional worldviews may bring a willingness to sacrifice for the common good and live in more sober ways, while generally having less affinity with explicitly environmental values. Modern worldviews offer possibilities with their emphasis on science and technology, which are crucial in the transition to more sustainable economies, while also bringing forth more reductionist and exploitative attitudes towards nature.

At the same time, certain worldviews are much more inclined to care about environmental issues. 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 gain importance with the emergence of postmodern and integrative worldviews. These environmental behaviours thus fit with the larger story of these worldviews – including their views on nature (unsurprisingly, the postmodern and integrative views on nature are more conducive to a mindset and ethic of global sustainability than others).

While the differences in worldview can clearly lead to misunderstanding, conflict, and inertia, this diversity may also  be essential for addressing our pressing global issues. Precisely because of the diverse range of solutions, strategies, and perspectives that different cultural worldviews tend to bring forth, this diversity can be seen as having the potential to enhance our overall capacity for (cultural) adaptation and transformation.

How do worldviews translate to concrete behaviors and decisions?

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.

When and how does a shift of worldview happen?

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. Multiple smaller perspective shifts over an extended period of time may then lead to a worldview shift. The way we hypothesize this is that these smaller perspective shifts occur with respect to different aspects of worldviews. For example, we may have an experience in nature that shifts our understanding of what nature is and the role it should play in our lives. This in itself will most likely not immediately result in a larger shift of worldview, but when over time other aspects of our worldview also start shifting, at some point the balance tips and our larger understanding of reality – our worldview – shifts.

Though there is limited research available actually exploring how this happens in practice, many people have experienced this in their own lives. However, the process of shifting worldviews may be so slow that one only appreciates in retrospect, and upon conscious reflection, that that is what happened. This process may be akin to Thomas Kunn’s description of paradigm changes in the history of science. A limited number of anomalies (i.e., observations that are at odds with the current paradigm in a certain scientific field) tend to be resisted and thus don’t shift the paradigm. However, once these anomalies reach a certain threshold, the inevitable happens and the paradigm shifts. A completely new understanding of the same phenomena now takes over…

Transformative learning is defined as the process by which we transform problematic frames of reference (mindsets, habits of mind, meaning perspectives) – sets of assumptions and expectations – to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, reflective, and emotionally able to change. Such frames are better because they are more likely to generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action.

Is there a development or evolution of worldviews?

Yes, the understanding and observation is that worldviews arise societally in a certain order. That is, modern worldviews arise after, and in response to the limitations of, traditional worldviews. Postmodern worldviews arise after, and in response to, the limitations of modern worldviews. Integrative worldviews arise after, and in response to, the limitations of postmodern worldviews. There is a certain 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 what we know from 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 these worldviews thus seem to display our possibility for social and individual learning and 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.
  • There’s what Habermas has called ‘the dialectics of progress’. Though the evolutionarily later worldviews often display new qualities and possibilities, they also tend to generate new problems and pathologies.
  • This is not a moral order. One worldview is not inherently morally better than any other one, and in fact our moral expression of these worldviews depends more on what we do with these worldviews (how we hold, interpret, and give expression to them) than with the worldviews themselves.

Though these are things to keep in mind, we believe a developmental view actually has the potential to evoke a more compassionate understanding of human nature.

Are we moving towards more postmodern and integrative worldviews in the future?

How can we use these worldviews practically, e.g., to collaborate better with one another?