When we’re facing a threat, our values change. We revert to more primal values, like personal security and safety. During lockdowns, some people rediscovered values like wellbeing, working at a slower pace, and not travelling to work. However, many faced extreme hardship, especially in hard-hit industries like tourism and hospitality.
Vaccines came eventually, but they didn’t make things easier where values were concerned. Those who value safety and trust the vaccines welcomed them. Others, who also value safety, did not because they were convinced of conspiracies or cited a lack of research.
Both perspectives are driven by fear. When we are fearful, we revert to the core value of survival. Some fear illness due to lack of vaccination. It’s precisely the vaccine and its side effects that worry others. What’s more, it doesn’t help that anything going against the narrative is labelled as mis- or disinformation. Conspiracies are equally unproductive.
Then, we have observed a return to values like freedom. Riots in Australia are met with police brutality. Freedom marches have been seen through capitals around the world.
After that, we witness fatigue and acceptance. People are trying to redefine their values – what will be most important in our new world? We try to answer this question here.
A Return to Nihilism?
When society forgets its moral values, nihilism and terror reign. Steven Edginton talked to internationally best-selling author and clinical psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson about the moral crisis facing the West, how people become radicalized, and what is filling the void religion once held within society. Dr. Peterson says, “Science does not provide values. We need values or else we have nihilism. If values exist, are some higher than others? If so, which are the highest ones? How do we embody them? What is going on underneath political turmoil?”
Dr. Peterson gives arguments on Twitter and other social media as an example of people getting radicalized. It doesn’t seem to be working out for anyone, so the question begs itself: “What do you do when you’re angry?” Edginton presents two approaches:
a) I turn off all my devices and go running and I feel happier.
b) I don’t skirt responsibility. It’s our duty to change the way society is heading.
So, who is right? Both according to Dr. Peterson. He confirms the benefits of the first approach, saying, “You have to see how much you can take and no more.” On the other hand, “…you have a religious and political responsibility. You are part of society. You can’t function without it, in a vacuum.” Ideally, it’s a balance between the two.
There is a risk of going ‘too far down’ into issues, ‘contaminating the profane with the sacred’. Dr. Peterson warns about excessive devotion. To worship something is to imitate, so ‘be careful what you worship.’ Then, there are those who say, “I don’t have to worship anything.” Dr. Peterson asks, “Are you sure?” The radical atheist is a very real phenomenon. Ultimately, values are all about being a better individual.
Transformation of Individual Values in the Time of COVID
On the note of individual values, the majority of studies on value transformation in the time of Covid-19 have used Schwartz’s Basic Human Values as the theoretical framework. According to Schwartz, individual values are subjective beliefs linked to goals motivating action, associated with affect, used as assessment standards, associated with goals that motivate action, guiding one’s actions, going above and beyond concrete situations, and ordered according to their relative importance.
They are responses to our biological needs, to issues of group survival and well-being, and to the need for agreement in social actions.
Schwartz and Boehnke have found empirical support for the basic individual values of tradition, conformity, power, security, stimulation, achievement, benevolence, hedonism, self-direction, and universalism. Any value’s content will be compatible with some values, but not with others because there are specific goals and motivations behind values.
A simplified model of compatibility outlines a two-dimensional structure. The first dimension is self-transcendence vs. self-enhancement, which focuses on the opposition between personal and other people’s interests. The second is conservation vs. openness, which deals with the opposition between preserving and changing the status quo. The studies on changing values draw attention to these dichotomies.
Conservation over Openness
A study conducted in June 2021 and published in PLOS examined the changes in Schwartz’s Basic Human Values, which have been taking place since lockdowns began. Researchers administered an online questionnaire to 1,025 French citizens during the first pandemic-related lockdown in the country. Results showed that values had evolved a great deal. More specifically, openness to change and self-enhancement values had declined, while conservation values had become more prominent.
Perceived Threat Level Associated With Compliance
Perceived threat and conservation during the pandemic outbreak were associated with compliance with social distancing and movement restrictions. The results are not insignificant because it’s important to know how changes in terms of values can impact adherence to measures. This can help authorities comprehend how to implement difficult measures in the face of a substantial threat.
Initially, values were theorized as free of context and stable. Now, we know that’s not the case. Studies during the time of the pandemic suggest context changes and external circumstances can change values. Under pathogen threat, people are likely to demonstrate decreased openness to change and higher aversion to risk.
The results of the above-cited study are partially supported by another study carried out in Poland. Bojanowska found an increase in values like security and conformity, both of which are connected to conservation, and a decline in self-direction, connected to openness to change. What’s more, the pandemic is not the first phenomenon to produce such changes. Studies during the 2008 global financial crisis had similar results. Past studies have shown that views of the world as threatening and dangerous can build authoritarian and conservative attitudes.
Value Change’s Mediating Role
Value changes play a mediating role in the relationship between complying with measures and perceived threat. Making measures to raise awareness of risk and adopt behaviors to contain the virus work has been a major challenge for governments worldwide. Identifying the factors that affect risk perception connected to the pandemic has become critical. Without a doubt, social distancing is one behavior that has been difficult to enforce.
The reason for this is attributed to the large number of factors involved in reducing people’s ability to comply with social distancing. One factor is physical limitation. Venues like grocery stores do not enable distant interactions.
People need physical and social contact, in particular with those close to them, like relatives and friends. It’s precisely those people we were unable to interact with during lockdowns and that was very hard on some for many reasons, including because social behavior is reinforced in times of trouble.
We couldn’t argue against the impact of cultural factors in these forms of behavior and perceptions. Evidence suggests cultural values guide major principles and intentional behaviors. They motivate people to avoid practices inconsistent with their values and to engage in such that correspond to them. For example, collectivism is a positive predictor of intention to socially distance, while individualism is a negative predictor of it. Compatibility between pandemic guidelines and values is essential in terms of the way people respond to the former.
Among the measures included in the questionnaire administered in the French study was a 3-item one of pandemic-related perceived threat. Statements included:
- I believe the Covid-19 crisis is serious
- I think Covid-19 is dangerous
- I feel that I and my loved ones are at risk from covid-19
The possible answers ranged from 0 = “Not at all” to 100 “Yes, very much”. The questionnaire also included items such as:
- I make sure there is at least one meter between me and other people when I am outside my home
- I don’t hug people and I don’t shake hands when we meet
Perceived risk connected to Covid-19 involved higher value on conservation. In other words, people favored security, conformity, stability, and preservation of traditional values.
Conservation Values Increase in Direct Proportion to Magnitude of Perceived Threat
The results complemented the outcome of Bojanowska et al.’s study in Poland with one small difference. The Polish study observed an increase in security and conformity, two of the three values in the main group of conservation. There was no increase in tradition. The French study observed an increase in all three.
As expected, the cluster of openness to change, which includes the subgroups of hedonism, self-direction, and stimulation was valued less in Covid-19 times. The self-enhancement group, consisting of values like achievement and power, demonstrated the same pattern. In other words, the results of the French study not only confirmed the effects of perceived risk on social distancing and movement restrictions, but also showed that the significance of conservation values during Covid-19 partially mediated these effects.
In simpler terms: The higher the risk perceived, the more important conservation values become. As a result, people are more likely to stick to government-mandated safety measures. The same outcomes were reported in an analogical study, which took place in Australia.
Lower Openness and Higher Conservation are Linked to Compliant Behavior
Another study reached the conclusion that the belief that other people share your values elicits a sense of belonging and community, which can be critical in promoting the efforts of society to contain the pandemic. You can expect people who place value on collectivism, responsibility, security, and related constructs to be more likely to comply with Covid-19 restrictions. On the other hand, people who endorse values like ambition and freedom will be less likely.
Those who place a focus on self-transcendence i.e. the collective over the individual will care more about others’ safety, which is consistent with these values’ other-oriented focus. On the other hand, those who place more focus on conservation will be more prone to comply because they care more about their own safety.
When Does Freedom Become More Important Than Safety?
People who attach greater importance to values related to openness will have problems with restrictions on their personal freedom. Those who find self-enhancement values important will also have problems with them, but for a different reason – because the restrictions are likely to conflict with their ambition to make progress.
Evidence links lower openness values and higher conservation values to security- and compliance-oriented behavior. However, it’s important not to become over-reliant on such evidence because the aspect of compliance that involves protecting other people may apply to pandemics only. Still, this link is corroborated by a study that established empathy related to a propensity to comply with social distancing. Empathy was positively associated with motivation to distance socially in three studies using samples from Germany, the US, and the UK.
Previous studies have connected lower self-enhancement values and higher self-transcendence values to greater empathy.
The Connection Between Self-transcendence and Prosocial Behavior
Prosocial behavior is more typical of people with a lesser focus on self-enhancement and a greater one on self-transcendence. They are more likely to cooperate rather than compete, donate money, and do volunteer work.
Studies in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing have shown that values can forecast reactions to a disaster. People higher in conservation values reported a notable increase in worries about society in general after compared to before the event. Concerns about oneself or loved ones also increased in this context, but not notably.
This indicates people higher in conservation and self-transcendence values could be more likely to support individuals struggling in the time of Covid-19; those in their community as well as those in places like war zones and refugee camps, which are hit especially hard by the crisis.
One aspect that stands out is that in the pandemic, openness to change is valued less, but at the same time, Covid-19 has ushered in changes like social distancing. At any rate, this indicates the best approach might be staying flexible. Covid-19 may have limited our social interactions, but it opened up new opportunities, like working from home and being more active online. Financial markets have been transformed by it. The price of Bitcoin keeps rising, reflecting perhaps permanent changes. It’s optimal to find middle ground between openness and conservation. The flexible not only survive, but thrive.