When exploring major drivers of future change, the focus all too frequently is on technological innovations or short-term political tensions. But both the adoption of technology and pressures on governments are fundamentally driven by social attitudes, which are often overlooked. Now, the latest wave of results from the World Values Survey (WVS), which has just been released, gives us insights into how attitudes have changed around the world since the survey began in 1981.
WVS is an international research program devoted to the scientific and academic study of social, political, economic, religious and cultural values of people in the world. It is a representative comparative social survey conducted globally every 5 years, covering 120 countries representing 94.5% global population. In the UK, it is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and led by the Policy Institute at King’s College, London.
The WVS suggests (referencing political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel) that much of the variation in human values between societies boils down to two broad dimensions:
- “traditional vs. secular-rational values” where traditional values emphasise religiosity, national pride, respect for authority, obedience and marriage, while secular-rational values are the opposite.
- “survival vs. self-expression values”. Survival values prioritise security over liberty, non-acceptance of homosexuality and sexual diversity, abstinence from political action, distrust in outsiders and a weak sense of happiness. Self-expression values imply the opposite.
The theory is that people’s priorities shift from traditional to secular-rational values as their sense of existential security increases and vice versa. This occurs most with the transition from agrarian to industrial societies. Shifts from survival to self-expression occur with an increase of sense of individual agency, mainly driven by the transition from industrial to knowledge societies.
Remarkably, WVS were able to produce a map of countries’ positions on these scales, which show significant geographical groupings (Wave 7 report 2023). (Note their own value judgements are shown by the direction of the positive/negative on the axes). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Nordic countries were the highest scoring on both dimensions, with New Zealand and the Netherlands close behind.
Looking at Qatar’s position on the map in relation to Great Britain’s perhaps indicates why holding the World Cup there received such criticism here in the UK.
Even more interesting is examining changes over time. WVS has produced an amazing animation of the results of the seven waves of surveys since 1981 – World Values Survey Cultural Map – YouTube. It is fascinating to note the ebb and flow of the positions of the UK and US.
This calls to mind work that SAMI did with the EC Research and Innovation Directorate, where experts plotted the paths of various regions across a scenario cross as they were impacted by different trends and shocks over time.
The most dramatic cultural change has been the shift toward gender equality. Whether men make better political leaders than women is a major belief within the “survival versus self-expression” dimension. Globally, a majority believes that men make better political leaders than women; however, this view is rejected by growing majorities in post-industrial societies and is overwhelmingly rejected by the younger generation within these societies.
The UK has become more liberal over the period, though the proportion of people saying suicide and prostitution are justifiable is still below 20%.
This isn’t just driven by younger generations replacing older generations. All generations have changed their views significantly.
The FT used the data to identify changing views to employing immigrants.
The Guardian highlighted a comparison of the UK with other countries on a range of issues, showing it is among the most liberal.
However, UK attitudes are relatively less liberal on the death penalty, as the country has a more favourable view of capital punishment than various comparable nations. 21% think capital punishment is justifiable – higher than Greece (4%), Italy (6%), Germany (7%) and Spain (17%), though lower than Australia (25%), France (25%) and the US (30%). And a further 35% of the UK indicate that the death penalty is potentially justifiable. Taken together, this means a majority (56%) think it may at least be acceptable in certain circumstances.
In a society like the UK, with a diverse population potentially representing the worldviews of other countries, it will be important to note how different sub-sections of society may have quite radically different attitudes. There are also significant variations in attitudes of different age cohorts, with Gen Z being by far more liberal than Baby Boomers.
These variations show up some of the challenges for those developing public policy, and for organisations’ HR policies. The variety highlights the dangers of regarding one’s own attitudes as the norm, when others may prefer to reverse the positive or negative scales – in some societies “liberal” can be an insult. The way that the UK and US responses have ebbed and flowed also shows that the “transition” model of progress reflects an underlying value set.
The analysis reminds us that foresight projects – and decision-makers – need to be aware of stakeholders’ views and recognise their own prejudices. It also shows the power of social attitudes, as well as their flexibility over time and between generations.
Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
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