Political interest is probably the most important predictor of many different aspects of political engagement (Brady, Verba & Schlozman, 1995
; Prior, 2019
; Shani, 2009
). Political scientists, media and others seem pleased when the political interest of youth is high, with the often-implicit assumption that this is good for democracy and the development of society. However, they seem to turn a blind eye to, for example, extremists also working on the basis of political interest but attaching less importance to others’ welfare as a driving force. The role that basic human values play in politically interested youth’s political attitudes and behaviors has been largely ignored in the literature. In this study, politically interested adolescents who attach high levels of importance to the welfare of other people are compared with adolescents who attach low levels of importance to it. In person-oriented analyses, it was expected that these two groups would emerge as naturally occurring clusters. The study examines the evidence that these two groups of adolescents differ on other basic values, attitudes and behaviors, and specifically on their political actions and the perceived need to act when others are in jeopardy.
The best known theory of human values is Shalom Schwartz’s theory of basic human values (Schwartz, (1994
); Schwartz, (2016
); Schwartz et al., 2012
), where he argues that values express people’s desired goals and organizing principles for their behavior, and guide their attitudes and activities in everyday life. His theory contains ten motivational values that are thought to differentiate between people world-wide. One is universalism, consisting of people’s societal concerns, e.g., protection of the welfare of all people, and their wish to protect nature. Jointly, universalism and benevolence, i.e., caring for the welfare of ingroup members, represent the self-transcending value of caring for others. Of the ten values in Schwartz’s theory (self-direction, stimulation, hedonism, achievement, power, security, conformity, tradition, benevolence, universalism), universalism and benevolence are often among the values most highly reported by adults (Schwartz & Bardi, 2001
), and even among 7 to 11-year-old children (Döring et al., 2015
). One of the components of the universalism values, societal concern, is the focus here. This value, defined here as attaching importance to other people’s welfare, will in this study be analyzed simultaneously with the political interest of adolescents. This will essentially involve comparison between highly politically interested adolescents who attach high levels of importance to the welfare of other people and highly politically interested adolescents who attach low levels of importance to it. Because these two groups are presumed to differ regarding their views on the importance of the welfare of others, they can be expected also to differ on other values, attitudes and behaviors.
In Schwartz’s model (Schwartz, et al., 2012
), the importance attached to the welfare of other people is intimately connected with the value of preserving the environment; these values together make up the broader universalism value. Hence, people who embrace equality, justice and helping other people also tend to respect and protect nature. This is likely to be the case for adolescents with a high political interest as well. If politically interested adolescents attach high importance to the welfare of others, they are also likely to endorse preserving the environment. Further, if adolescents’ environmental values are organizing principles for their behaviors, then these values should guide their environmental activities and thinking in everyday life (Bardi & Schwartz, 2003
; Schwartz & Butenko, 2014
). Highly politically interested adolescents who attach high importance to others’ welfare, compared with politically interested adolescents who attach low importance, should be more likely, for example, to practice pro-environmental behaviors in daily life and feel that they have a strong collective environmental efficacy, i.e., the perception of being capable of coping with the threat of climate change together with others (Jugert et al., 2016
Attaching high importance to others’ welfare among politically interested adolescents can underly politically interested adolescents’ broader support for the norms of democratic citizenship. For example, social justice and equality are key characteristics of the value of societal concern in Schwarz’s value model. They are also basic democratic principles (Miller, 1978
). This study examines whether having positive attitudes towards democratic principles are higher among politically interested adolescents who attach high importance to others’ welfare than among those who express low importance to others’ welfare. Also, trust in social movements built on human rights, the environment or animal rights may be higher among politically interested adolescents who attach high importance to others’ welfare. Further, attaching importance to others’ welfare may be associated with an inclusive attitude towards minority groups. Substantial associations between universalism values and an inclusive attitude towards minority groups have been reported earlier (Kuntz, et al., 2015
; Sagiv & Schwartz, 1995
; Vecchione et al., 2012
). For example, Vecchione & coworkers (2012
) found that the universalism value affected adults’ perceptions that immigration has positive consequences. The present study compares adolescents’ inclusive attitudes towards immigrants between politically interested adolescents with high and low levels of values regarding others’ welfare. In short, these two groups of highly politically interested adolescents may show very different values, attitudes and behaviors in relation to the environment and support for democratic norms: democracy and human rights, trust in social movements, and inclusivity regarding immigrants. Thus, politically interested adolescents are not assumed to be a homogenous group. They encompass individuals whose belief systems are different. Accordingly, political interest per se may be an important but insufficient indicator of the core welfare and democratic positions of adolescents.
How do politically interested adolescents who attach high or low importance to others’ welfare, channel their interest in politics into political action? A lot is known about political participation (Brady, 1999
, p. 737). Why youth engage in civic or political activities has been widely examined, based on the roles played by many factors – age, heritage, socio-economic resources like education, gender, cognition, personality, emotions, traits, recruitment, networks, life experiences, and political motivations (Giugni & Grasso, 2022
). But they have not been addressed in terms of the motivational role that basic human values play (Deutsch, 2022
). This is surprising, because a match would be expected between youth’s care of fellow citizens and their engagement in civic and political activities, which usually have the same value motivation.
Adolescents can decide to engage in politics. Their choice to participate should depend on the type of political activities. Some adolescents engage in civic activities together with likeminded people. Here, they are able to act as young active citizens to affect political processes that they value highly. In the Swedish political milleu, politically interested adolescents who attach high importance to others’ welfare, the environment, and democratic principles, and who are inclusive of minorities, should have more options to participate in politics with others than other adolescents due to their values congruence with the wider political context (Grasso & Giugni, 2016
). Other adolescents decide to become formal members of civic or political associations or engage in community services. When adolescents in community services report what they have learned, they mention developing stronger responsibilities for fellow citizens, having obligations to others and the common good, being aware of social inequalities in society, and having a sense of themselves as part of the public (Flanagan, 2013
). A focus on citizen welfare should characterize both politically interested adolescents with high levels of importance attached to other people’s welfare and the stated purposes of most civic and political associations. Hence, the politically interested adolescents who attach high importance to others’ welfare would be expected to be more involved in civic actions with others or in political or civic associations than the politically interested adolescents who attach low importance to others’ welfare.
Joining associations or participating in joint activities may not be the preferred or most common way for adolescents to express their political opinions. Adolescents have other means of expression, e.g., donating to preferred political/civic initiatives, wearing a bracelet, badge or other symbol to show support for a good cause, or refusing to buy products for political, ethical or environmental reasons (Ekman & Amnå, 2022
). Hence, they can act independently. Also, it is expected that these individual modes of expressions will be more common among politically interested adolescents who attach high importance to others’ welfare.
Whether this also applies to political activities on the internet is an open question. Here, adolescents may choose to interact with people with whom they are familiar or unfamiliar (Minozzi et al., 2020
). They can also use the internet and social media by following political and societal information solitarily. This study examines whether the two groups of adolescents differ in these regards – interacting politically on social media with friends or unknown persons, or searching solitarily for political and societal information. Overall, this study has gone some way to identifying potential ways in which politically interested adolescents who attach high importance to others’ welfare can channel their political interest into political action offline and online differently from politically interested adolescents who attach low importance to others’ welfare.
Finally, the question about politically interested adolescents’ political participation brings up the often-discussed issue of how active citizens should be. In their seminal study, Almond & Verba, (1963
) compared various political systems in their search for the prerequisites of a stable liberal democracy. One of their main arguments was for a civic culture of shared social norms where citizens were not fully but sufficiently active in politics, and allegiant enough not to jeopardize effective governance. In other words, citizen participation was more a latency than a reality, and indeed – over the past half century since then – citizens in mature democracies have become even less allegiant (Dalton & Shin, 2014
From the present point of view, if there are youth who are ready to act politically if something bad happens to other people, these are likely to be the ones who are fueled by both political interest and attaching high importance to other’s welfare. They are the ones who should be willing to act politically if people are in jeopardy or are treated unfairly, or just if other people ask them.
That democracies need people who are knowledgeable and can monitor the consequences of political actions is a common idea (Flanagan, 2013
; Schudson, 1998
). The term standby citizen was coined for participatory latency, which includes a readiness to step in (Amnå & Ekman, 2014
; Jennings & Stoker, 2016
). Standby citizens should constitute a societal asset since their values make people vigilant, and easily trigger their macro concern that other people may be treated unjustly (Boehnke & Schwartz, 1997
; Schwartz, Sagiv, & Boehnke, 2000
); like watchdogs, they should be alert when other people’s well-being is jeopardized. The hypothesis is that youth who are politically interested and attach high importance to others’ welfare constitute the adolescents who, in particular, should be likely to intervene and manifest their values if they regard others’ welfare is at risk.
The broad value of universalism, encompassing societal concern and care for the environment, has often been found to characterize females more than males. The most robust examination of gender differences in universalism was reported by Schwartz & Rubel, (2005
). Their study covered 127 adult samples in 70 countries and involved more than 77,000 persons. They found that females scored higher than men on the value of universalism in over 80% of these samples. This gender difference has also been reported for young adults (Ardenghi et al., 2021
) and for 7 to 11-year-old children (Döring et al., 2015
). Outside Schwartz’s theoretical framework, review studies conclude that females tend to express more concern, and report stronger environmental attitudes and behaviors than men (Gifford & Nilsson, 2014
; Zelenzny, Chua, & Aldrich, 2000
Based on these findings, it can be expected in this study that girls will attach higher levels of importance to others’ welfare and preserving the environment than boys. Assuming that there are small gender differences in political interest, the cluster of highly politically interested adolescents who attach high levels of importance to others’ welfare then can be expected to consist of more girls than boys. How this translates into gender differences in political values and activities is unclear. Potentially, females’ gender socialization, stronger other orientation and social responsibility (Zelenzny et al., 2000
) can be connected to higher levels of support for democratic citizen norms than males´.
Politically interested citizens are more knowledgeable, more interested in engaging in political and civic activities, talk more often about political and civic issues with people around them, and more prepared to be mobilized than other citizens (Prior, 2019
). But the common tribute paid in democratic societies to citizens’ interest and their critical voice in political processes needs to be qualified. Politically interested young citizens are influential but they are not a homogenous group. Schwartz’s theory of basic human values (Schwartz et al., 2012
), and specifically the value of attending to others’ welfare, was used in this study to identify and explain the diverse attitudes and behaviors of politically interested adolescents.
A cluster analysis of 16-year-olds’ political interest and the importance they attached to others’ welfare identified five groups, including ‘high political interest and high importance attached to others’ welfare’ and ‘high political interest and low importance attached to others’ welfare’. Of these two groups, the adolescents with high political interest and high levels of importance attached to others’ welfare scored high on environmental values, and had inclusive attitudes towards immigrants, high evaluations of democratic principles, and high trust in social movements. Effect sizes when comparing these two groups were for the most part large. Comparisons of their political activities revealed that the adolescents with high political interest and high levels of importance attached to others’ welfare were also more engaged in political activities offline and were members of civic/political associations to a greater extent. Effect sizes were small. Further, the adolescents with high political interest and high levels of importance attached to others’ welfare reported themselves to be more ready to step in if something jeopardized the welfare of others. The effect size was large. The conclusion is that highly politically interested adolescents have very different values, attitudes, and engagements in political activities according to whether they attach high or low importance to others’ welfare. Highly politically interested adolescents are apparently not a uniform group. In one respect, however, they were found to be similar. They both engaged in political activities online more than the other cluster groups of adolescents.
It is well-known that a concern for the welfare of others is strongly correlated with environmental values (Cieciuch & Schwartz, 2012
). This was also true in the present sample (r
= 0.60, p
< 0.001). A high correlation between these basic value dimensions is likely to be present in all conceivable subgroups, such as adolescents with high political interest who attach high importance to others’ welfare and politically interested adolescents who attach low importance to others’ welfare (r
= 0.54 and 0.44 respectively, in this study). However, what would not be immediately predicted is that members of the former subgroup of adolescents, in comparison with the latter, have high evaluations of democratic principles, inclusive attitudes towards immigrants and high trust in social movements, are more often involved in offline political activities, are more often members of political/civil associations, and more likely to report themselves as standby citizens. This covers the range of differences predicted in the study. Future studies are needed to understand the combined role of political interest and importance of others’ welfare for adolescents’ political attitudes and behaviors long-term.
An explanation for why politically interested adolescents with high or low importance attached to others’ welfare differ in their political values and attitudes could be that the two groups may contrast in their political knowledge and political visibility to others. This, however, does not seem to be the case. The two groups of adolescents had about the same political reputation in their classes, and they achieved about the same results on a knowledge test of societal issues. Both groups differed significantly from the other groups of adolescents in these regards. Given their political reputation and documented political knowledge, they might have been expected to be politically active offline to the same or greater extent than the other groups. But the politically interested adolescents attaching low importance to others’ welfare were less politically active offline. This finding emphasizes the fundamental asset to society constituted by politically interested adolescents with high importance attached to others’ welfare. The mean level of political activity offline for politically interested adolescents with low importance attached to others’ welfare was, on these measures, at the same level as that of the average person in the sample.
Broad, general values, like valuing human dignity and human rights, have been said to underpin citizens’ political participation (Barrett, 2016
), but the research linking values to political participation has mainly focused specifically on political aspects, such as left/right, libertarian/authoritarian, traditional, postmaterialist, and democratic (for an overview, see Heath, Lindsay & Jungblut, 2022
). These are narrower values, which are assumed to be more directly linked to political action than the global values in Schwartz’s theory of basic human values (Schwartz et al., 2012
). Still, the present findings that a global value like attaching importance to other people’s welfare has strong implications for politically interested young people’s attitudes, behaviors, political action offline, and preparedness to act under certain types of circumstances in the future is striking. Apparently, the importance attached to other people’s welfare has high explanatory power in shaping adolescents’ political values, attitudes and activities and preparedness for future political action. One practical implication of this may relate to the processes through which adolescents become recruited to political activities. What the present results suggest is that a conscious strategy in mobilizing adolescents to political action, such as volunteering, is to provide value-based motivations that connect young people’s high political interest to their genuine care for other people. This conclusion is sustained by the observations that willingness to step in if others’ welfare was at stake, the standby citizenship construct, was correlated with the measures of political action, environmental values, attitudes towards immigrants and democratic principles, and trust in social movements, all to a substantial extent, and that being a standby citizen was concentrated solely among the highly politically interested adolescents attaching high levels of importance to others’ welfare.
This study showed a roughly equal proportion of males and females across the two groups with high political interest. What was most noteworthy, and not predicted, was that the group of adolescents with high political interest and attaching low importance to the welfare of others mainly contained males (74%). The overrepresentation of highly politically interested males found in previous studies may hide the fact that some of the highly interested males do not channel their political interest into common political activities or into a preparedness for future political activities. In addition to being heavily overrepresented by males, the group of highly politically interested adolescents attaching low importance to the welfare of others stand out in several respects. They are known to their classmates as having high knowledge of political issues and are interested in discussing political matters in class, but they do not seem to transfer their political interest into civic/political associations or into political activities with others offline. Further, they do not communicate their opinions in public, by, for example, donating to political or civic initiatives or refusing to buy products for political or other reasons, and they are not willing to act politically if people are in jeopardy. They seem to be content with having the internet and social media as their sources and modes of political activity. In line with its supposed opportunities, the internet seems to offer the politically interested who attach low importance to the welfare of others an appropriate arena for being an active citizen without requiring personal identification in exchange (Schuster, 2013
This study could, in some sense, have been a study of differences between females’ and males’ values and political attitudes. High importance attached to others’ welfare was more common among females than males (r
= 0.25, p
< 0.001), while political interest was unrelated to gender. Females also scored higher than males on environmental values. Thus, females reported higher levels than males for the two values that make up universalism in Schwartz’s model – societal and environmental concerns. The gender differences reported in the current study are similar to those found in research on Schwartz’s basic values (Aredenghi et al., 2021
; Döring et al., 2015
; Schwartz & Rubel, 2005
). Further, in line with higher environmental values, correlational analyses in this study showed that females had higher levels of pro-environmental behaviors, and had higher collective environmental efficacy than males.
In addition to environmental values, several other differences found between girls and boys go in the same direction as the differences found between the two groups of adolescents with high and low importance attached to others’ welfare. Girls scored higher than boys on inclusive attitudes towards immigrants, positive attitudes towards democratic principles, trust in social movements, and standby citizenship; as did the participants with high political interest and high attached importance to others’ welfare. Overall, the higher levels for girls than boys on the universalism value and measures of support for democratic norms – where these measures make up one common factor – can be interpreted in terms of gender socialization, a stronger other orientation and social responsibility among females (Zelenzny et al., 2000
). Of course, other frames for interpretation are likely.
The similarities in outcomes between the two cluster groups and between females and males end here. There were no gender differences for offline political activities. In line with much previous research, females were less engaged in online activities such as talking to friends and strangers, and they had generally lower scores on the knowledge test (Kittilson & Schwindt-Bayer, 2012
; Dassonneville & McAllister, 2018
) as well as lower political reputation in their classes. The females´ hesitancy in stepping forward as political actors may reflect their general lack of access to supportive networks (Pfanzelt & Spies, 2019
). Moreover, the females’ avoidance of online activities can be understood in the light of their overall tendency to hold back when faced political dissension (Djupe, McClurg, & Sokhey, 2018
), but also has the consequence that females’ political engagements offline tend to make them more invisible to those who choose online activism as their political platform (Schuster, 2013
There are potentially three lessons to learn from applying the results. First, high political interest on the part of young citizens is not per se necessarily an asset for welfare and democratic principles. Second, for people involved in recruiting volunteers to civic and political organizations and campaigns, the study underlines the importance of stressing motivations connected to basic human values, such as helping others, equality, justice, and giving something back to society (Gage & Thapa, (2012
); Chambré, 2020
). Third, for educators in general and civic educators in particular, what is required is a human-values perspective on adolescents´ citizenship, as recently discussed by Veugelers, (2021
Numerous studies in the literature have linked political interest to a wide variety of political behaviors. In these studies, no differentiation was made within the group of persons who had a high political interest. Researchers generally concluded that political interest makes democracy work (Prior, 2010
, p. 747). Potentially, this is the first study to attempt to identify and explain the different political attitudes and behaviors among highly politically interested young people who are highly influential by virtue of their political knowledge and ability to communicate it to others.
A main strength of this study lies in its identification of the broader values of highly politically interested adolescents that seem to make some of them more politically active offline than other politically interested adolescents. The findings are robust and seem to apply to a variety of types of offline political activities and involvement in civic and political associations. They show that offline political participation is primarily concentrated among highly politically interested adolescents who attach high importance to others’ welfare but that online political activity is equally common among highly interested adolescents who attach high and low importance to others’ welfare.
There are limitations that need to be mentioned. First, this is a cross-sectional study, which rules out the attribution of causality. Second, with a few exceptions, its measures were based on self-reports, which raises concerns about shared method variance. This is largely unavoidable, though, because the study focuses on adolescents’ perceptions of a key universalism value, societal concern, and how this value extends to other values, attitudes and behaviors, and political actions. Nevertheless, the problem of shared method variance should be acknowledged. Third, the analyses concerning engagement in political activities among members of the clusters did not consider individual differences in opportunities available for carrying out political actions or in the broader structural factors that promote or hinder people’s political activism (Meyer & Minkoff, 2004
Fourth, the study is embedded in its historical, social, and cultural context. It was conducted in Sweden and included adolescents from a single Swedish city. The sample is broadly representative of the country as a whole (proportion of immigrants, income, level of education, unemployment rate, and voting turnout). That said, the study needs to be cross-validated in other countries with different political landscapes. Finally, it is a limitation that the study cannot empirically differentiate attached importance to the welfare of all other people, universalism, from the welfare of ingroup members, benevolence.
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