“Value Collapse”: Professor C. Thi Nguyen on the Dangers of Explicit Values and Gamification

Thi Nguyen, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Utah, delivered a virtual presentation on the concept of “Value Collapse” on April 6 in the Tang Gallery. Nguyen’s talk dove into the dangers of focusing on an explicit set of goals or values.                                                           

Nguyen began his presentation by highlighting the pervasiveness of gamification, overuse of metrics, and over-defined values in society, pointing out examples such as Grade Point Averages (GPA), college rankings, and dating apps. While gamification and clear goals can have some benefits, such as increasing motivation and engagement, Nguyen argues that it can lead to a collapse of other, greater  goals. 

For example, the over-emphasis of a GPA in school can lead to a narrow-minded focus on achieving perfect grades at the possible expense of creativity and critical thinking, according to Nguyen. Over time, Nguyen believes that this may cause students to lose connection with the actual goal itself: learning. 

Fuzzy goals, as opposed to explicit goals, are ones that are not focused on a specific metric or number, but rather, allow for a more creative exploration that preserves important values, according to Nguyen. Audience member Alice Fan ’23 resonated with the differentiation between fuzzy and clear goals. 

“I’m currently deciding which college I want to go to. Initially, before the talk, I was looking at colleges in terms of the objective statistics and metrics I can use to objectively choose the best college, but I think his talk made me really question those values and think more about fuzzy values like community and happiness that are much harder to quantify, but still important to consider,” said Fan.

Nguyen emphasized the importance of cultivating a broader set of values and goals, which can allow individuals to focus on their intrinsic motivation and preservation of goals of greater importance. He pointed out how this approach can lead to a more well-rounded, engaging, and fulfilling life. For Claire Wang ’23, hearing Nguyen’s push for fuzzy values encouraged her to be less dependent on awards and metrics in the future. 

“Instead of over-optimizing for a specific proxy of what you think is good, you just sort of fuzzily work towards a fuzzy idea of success. It’s sort of something that I’ve always agreed with but I never had a term for it. I never had any actual thought or reasoning behind it, so it made it a conscious thought for me. So I think having this new terminology and concrete understanding is going to change the way I communicate how I feel with other people, and I think it might change some ways in how I perceive what I do because it validates it and encourages myself to avoid over-optimization,” said Wang.

Kian Burt ’24 shared a similar sentiment to Fan and Wang, finding Nguyen’s approach valuable especially in the context of academically rigorous schools. 

“In a school like Andover, it’s really interesting to have a culture that is so focused on GPA and deciles. And also having a speaker who comes in basically saying that if you want to have the best experience you need to focus on the values that matter to you, not the numbers that the school defines you by. I personally found that really profound,” said Burt.