Core Values Theory: Hacking Emotions

Underwood: “And you don’t make decisions on emotions?” Tusk: “Decisions based on emotions aren’t decisions at all. They’re instincts, … which can be of value. The rational and the irrational complement each other. Individually they’re far less powerful.”

This exchange between the manipulative protagonist Frank Underwood and billionaire Raymond Tusk in House of Cards highlights a key argument I’ve been raising during discussions on relationships for years—decisions based on emotions aren’t decisions at all. It sets the scene for a rational account on relationships I’ve come to refer to as ‘core values theory’ during many heated conversations late into the night. My own understanding of the concept, based on nothing else but the experience of life, seems to have solidified sufficiently in order to recount it here. Although you are reading a software design blog, don’t expect anything IT related beyond the title “Hacking Emotions” from here on out.

What do you want?

what do you want

Seems like a simple question doesn’t it? “What do you want in life?” The truth though is that the majority of people you ask this question either greet you with a blank stare, or simply state they “just want to be happy”. Try it out for yourself! Next time, rather than discussing the newest episode of Game of Thrones, catch a friend off guard by asking this very question. You might be surprised to discover a general consensus that we are all just pawns in the grand scheme of things; passive bystanders whose roles are limited to either jumping on the passing train, or waiting for the next one. “Carpe Diem” offers a rich perspective on life, make the most out of each moment, but does it exclude glancing at the train schedule so you know where you are headed?

The problem with the blank stare, or solely relying on emotions to decide on a course of action, is you assume a passive role in life. You let your environment decide for you and simply express approval or disapproval. You do not grow as a person—you do not learn what it is that makes you happy or unhappy, what your goal is in life. Ultimately, it is counterproductive; simply pursuing the experience of happiness does not guarantee it in the long run, as you do not gain an understanding of how to maintain it. A case in point being our current materialistic society; quick-fix possessions do not lead to true happiness, on the contrary, it is self-destructive.

In his book “The 7 habits of highly effective people”, Stephen R. Covey’s advocates becoming aware of one’s own internal ‘maps’: where you stand, and where you want to be headed.

Each of us has many, many maps in our head, which can be divided into two main categories: maps of the way things are, or realities, and maps of the way things should be, or values. We interpret everything we experience through these mental maps. We seldom question their accuracy; we’re usually even unaware that we have them. – Stephen R. Covey

Far from being a book I would recommend, it still contains valuable ideas, including the suggestion of being proactive as opposed to reactive in lifeBeing proactive does not simply mean taking matter into your own hands, but also implies identifying that which concerns you, in order to work towards enlarging your influence on that which truly matters to you. It implies a positive stance in life, asking yourself “What can I do?”, rather than “Why does this happen to me?”, the result of which is a rewarding sense of empowerment.


Part of what makes us human is we do not have control over our emotions. It is outside of our circle of influence, but most definitely within our circle of concern. How then, to take a proactive stance when emotions are involved?

So, what DO you want?

Relationships, being one of the most fundamental building blocks in life, give rise to the strongest of emotions: love, hate, loneliness, jealousy, … and happiness. While I imagine that most people readily agree with the earlier quote from House of Cards, I have yet to meet anyone that truly applies it in all aspects of life, including relationships. On the contrary, mainstream culture seems to disregard any sense of rationality when it comes to love. Love is impenetrable to human thought, and should be left to destiny. Media does a good job of reinforcing this simplistic view, even in nontraditional “Once upon a time …” movies: “It just happened. […] I just woke up one day and I knew.” – 500 Days of Summer

Unless you aren’t looking for ‘happy ever after’, the problem is relationships (and marriages) also “just happen” to end because “the love is gone”. This common view on relationships is a reactive one.

One of my most controversial viewpoints in life is that relationships should not be dictated by feelings. I look at emotions as a manifestation of an underlying cause which you do have some level of control over. I am not declaring war on feelings here. Feelings (or lack thereof) are useful signposts put up by your body. However, it is your mind’s job to follow the right ones and decide where to go. A proactive approach by no means guarantees a ‘happy ever after’, but more importantly increases your awareness of what you are looking for and allows you to learn from past experiences (what to repeat, and what not to repeat). I do not believe in relationships built solely on top of feelings, and consider them a fruitless endeavor; emotional roller-coasters that make you feel alive, but in the end you still need to exit the theme park.

There is a need to identify who you are, what you want in life, i.e. to identify your identity—your core. As often expressed: “Find yourself before you find love.”

Core Values

In a nutshell, core values theory advocates identifying objective values you expect your partner to have in a relationship, based on your expectations in life. They are testable, meaning, as you get to know someone, you can objectively judge whether or not they fit these criteria. They are ‘core‘ values in the sense that they make up your identity; changing them would imply changing your nature, your personality. Emotions do not come into play. Within Stephen R. Covey’s diagram it could be depicted as an unbendable center you are unwilling to change.


Ironically, a common response to this is “But how can you be so picky? If one thing on the list doesn’t work out, you give up? You do not open up yourself to new experiences”. The truth though is most people already have a similar list, but just aren’t aware about it. By externalizing and objectifying it for some reason it becomes a faux pas. Their list however is usually longer, transient, more restrictive than the core values I am talking about here, and includes subjective values like “it needs to feel right”, or “it needs to be love at first sight”. The ‘list’ is nothing more than a mental exercise, identifying key aspects in your life on which to make more rational decisions when clouded by emotion, or even in the absence of emotion. If anything, it is more in line with the idiom, “There are plenty of fish in the sea”, recognizing you are not after ‘the one’, but after anyone you can fully respect, and love.

There is some reasoning behind this madness. Firstly, you should not think less of your spouse; a relationship is built on mutual respect. In the case of conflicting core values I argue this is unsustainable. It easily turns into recurrent arguments throughout the relationship, where you want to out-argue the other, causing resentment and loss of respect. Secondly, you should not expect to change or ‘fix’ your partner in a relationship; do not expect the core values of your partner to change, it is outside of your circle of influence. Your energy should be focused elsewhere, where you can actually make a change, and where you can still discover yourself.

This ‘theory’ has some controversial implications. There is nothing wrong with dating someone you have no feelings for, yet are sexually attracted to. Consider it an opportunity to discover your core values. From my own experience I can tell you either feelings will follow, or you learn something new about yourself to take with you into subsequent relationships. But more importantly, a breakup should be indicative of discovering a mismatch in core values, which makes it less of a loss, and more of a learning experience.


This perspective on relationships comes at a price. Most people want to be swept off their feet, where emotions take center stage. I’m a rational person, and prefer placing rationality at the center. Either way, the stage is big enough, and there is room for both. It might seem hard to believe in a long-term relationship with such conflicting perspectives, but luckily, a rational center is not a core value to me. I know I can learn a lot from an emotional counterpart, and I like to think this works both ways.

Author: Steven Jeuris

I have a PhD in Human-Computer Interaction and am currently working both as a software engineer at iMotions and as a postdoc at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU). This blend of research and development is the type of work which motivates and excites me the most. Currently, I am working on a distributed platform which enables researchers to conduct biometric research 'in the wild' (outside of the lab environment). I have almost 10 years of professional software development experience. Prior to academia, I worked for several years as a professional full-stack software developer at a game development company in Belgium: AIM Productions. I liked the work and colleagues at the company too much to give up entirely for further studies, so I decided to combine the two. In 2009 I started studying for my master in Game and Media Technology at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, from which I graduated in 2012.

2 thoughts on “Core Values Theory: Hacking Emotions”

  1. As always, nice writeup Steven! Unfortunately you got it completely wrong ;). I myself don’t have a theory on relationships, I have a secret. But since you (more or less) asked for it, let me share my secret with you.

    Well, maybe it’s not a secret, it’s just a fact: you can’t have the most beautiful girl in the world, because she’s already mine. I met her when I was 14, and it was love at first sight (on my side ;)). We started dating when we were 17 and married at 25. I’m now 36, and we have 3 kids together. Sometimes when I come home from work, and I lay eyes on her, I think she is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life. And that is after being 18 years together.

    I’ve met beautiful girls, girls with amazing eyes, funny girls, girls with great taste for music, but no one comes even close to Leen.

    Now here comes the real secret, and I don’t understand why I’m one of the few who understands it:
    I never call her ‘sweetheart’. I always find it strange if people call their significant other ‘sweetheart’ or ‘schatje’. Why do I find this strange? Because everyone has a sweetheart. A sweetheart can be replaced with the next sweetheart. But there is only one Leen, and she’s mine. She can’t be replaced. And that’s the secret. But unfortunately for you or any other man, she’s already taken guys! Sorry about that. And now I understand why you call your girlfriend/wive ‘sweetheart’, because she’s not Leen.

    I see you read ‘the 7 habits of highly effective people’. If you remember there is a part where it explains there is the real world, but everyone has his/her own view on it. And that is very fortunate for you! My view on the world differs from yours, my taste differs from yours. Maybe in your world, Leen isn’t the most beautiful girl (Some folks just have bad taste in women ;)).

    So I wish you *don’t* find a relationship, I wish you *don’t* find your sweetheart. I wish you find your ‘Leen’, the most beautiful girl in the world, the one no other woman can compare to. And then do anything to make her yours.

    1. Of course love at first sight can happen, and I’m very happy for you that it did! Part of what I’m arguing for is simply that it is not the best means to an end (being a long-term stable relationship). If I could choose I’d prefer it as well, but unfortunately unlike you, me and countless others have had the ‘luxury’ of experiencing breakups where things didn’t turn out as one would have hoped. Where we did experience the pleasure of finding our ‘Leen’, but destiny decided to meddle with our intentions. What do we learn from that? Were we fools to believe it was our ‘Leen’, or did destiny simply have a bad day? At that point it is more constructive to take it at face value; we found our ‘Leen’, but ‘Leen’ hasn’t found us, which I can respect.

      P.s. I’d love to meet up with the whole old AIM gang at some point! 🙂

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