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‘As We Fight Climate Change and Poverty, the Focus on Personal, rather than Social Goals, may Prove Harmful over Time’

‘As We Fight Climate Change and Poverty, the Focus on Personal, rather than Social Goals, may Prove Harmful over Time’

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The 11th International LCSR Workshop of the HSE Ronald F. Inglehart Laboratory for Comparative Social Research, ‘Recent Advances in Comparative Study of Values’, took place as part of the XXIII Yasin (April) International Academic Conference. HSE News Service talked about the study of values and current changes in academic life with Ronald Fischer, who presented an honorary paper ‘Why We Should Aim for Systematic Non-Invariance in Cross-Cultural Research’ at the workshop.

Ronald Fischer, Professor of Psychology at the School of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Across the social sciences, there is broad agreement among researchers that values direct thinking and behaviour, even when a person does not directly think about their values. People often decide what to do based on their value priorities, although such priorities may not always be conscious at that point in time.

In my work, I often use the value theory developed by psychologist Shalom Schwartz, who grouped values into four major categories:

  • Conservation values promote preservation of the past, order, and resistance to change. 
  • Openness to change values promote an independent, creative, and explorative mind, and seeking change.
  • Self-transcendence values emphasize care for the welfare of others and nature.
  • Self-enhancement values emphasize pursuit of one’s self-interest through ambition, success and dominance.

These broad value categories can be further broken down into more narrow and specific values. For the time being however, I will stay with these broad categories.

As I also study personality—behaviour patterns that individuals adopt in their day-to-day activities—it is fair to ask how values as motivational goals differ from behaviours. What differs from the data that I have worked with is how individuals think about traits vs values. Traits are about what people remember about how they typically act or behave, whereas values are more of a goal looking forward.  Some authors argue that personality traits and values are conceptually distinct. In my view, this may be overstating the case and potentially might even only reflect how we measure these variables. Examining values from a neuroscience perspective, it is more parsimonious to assume that personality traits and values relate to the same underlying neurobiological processes.

Changes in Values during the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic changed most people’s day-to-day lives. It seems like all our behaviours underwent changes, but what about the core aspects of who we are as individuals? Did our values change, too? Values are life goals, defining what we want to achieve, such as being kind to others, having independence, success, or the safety of one’s nation or loved ones. People usually know their values and stick with them over time. But what has happened during the current crisis?

People’s values were relatively stable before the pandemic. Once the pandemic hit, the life goals of individuals in different parts of the world started to change. We don’t have the full picture yet, but at least some evidence suggests that values have changed and some of these effects may linger for a while. 

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In one study, we repeatedly contacted over 1,000 Australians aged 18 to 75 years old. We asked them how important certain different values were in their life. Three of these times were before the pandemic, in 2017, 2018, and 2019. We contacted them again as the pandemic started, and then 8–9 months later. During these last two points of contact, we also asked how worried they were about catching the COVID virus. There were some consistent changes across the four major categories that I mentioned above. Self-transcendence values, that is the values of caring for people and for nature, remained stable at first. As time progressed, by late 2020, they had become significantly less important. This decrease occurred especially among people worried about their health. Maybe people focused on their own survival, and had no capacity left to worry about the environment, society, and even those close to them. It’s also possible that social distancing created a physical distance from others, which resulted in emotional distance—as the saying goes—‘out of sight, out of mind’ Focusing on conservatism values, the values of keeping safe and stable became more important in the beginning of the pandemic. Our Australian participants, and especially those who worried about their health, immediately started prioritizing safety and security, and traditions around one's family, culture, and religion. This new-found focus on conservatism may have helped to enhance compliance with instructions by the authorities.

The values of caring for people and for nature became significantly less important during the pandemic. It is possible that people focused on their own survival and had no capacity left to worry about the environment and even those close to them. Maybe, social distancing resulted in emotional distance.

As the pandemic progressed, conservation values did not return to previous levels. This may be surprising, given that Australia had only a minor spread of the pandemic. This means the value changes may have long term effects, even after the pandemic has passed. Possibly, social distancing itself reinforced these value changes. Similar changes have been reported in studies in France, Poland and in research that our group has conducted in Brazil. There, we found that emotional processing was also important for understanding this change. If people were already stressed prior to the pandemic and then experienced the fear of becoming infected, they reported much stronger shifts towards conservative values, in particular. values related to personal security. 

In contrast, Openness to Change values like seeking adventure and enjoyment became less important early in the pandemic, most likely reflecting the necessary adjustments to a situation in which a lot of variety and enjoyment were out of reach. But, a few months later, while people continued to downplay values that promote pleasure and enjoyment, values that prioritize independence and intellectual pursuits increased in importance. Existing routines that were now out of reach seem to have been replaced with more intellectual stimulations and activities. We have been speculating that maybe people started to apply critical thinking to more aspects of life. 

If people were already stressed prior to the pandemic and then experienced fear of becoming infected, they reported much stronger shifts towards conservative values, in particular values related to personal security. 

These results may have substantial consequences for the future of individuals and society. As we struggle to fight climate change, hunger, and poverty, the focus of individuals on personal, rather than social goals, may prove harmful over time.

Rituals that Bond People into Cohesive Groups

My work on rituals is driven by curiosity about how large-scale institutions and societies may have first emerged in our ancient past.

A number of theories have suggested that some changes in our collective life happened that triggered the seeds for what later would become societies and institutions. They focus on ritualistic actions, in which individuals (in this case, hunter-gatherers at the very dawn of human civilization) came together to do things that were ostensibly not very productive for our immediate survival. Think of singing, chanting or dancing for extended period of time, which obviously burns lots of calories and takes time away from hunting for food.

Some changes in our collective life happened that triggered the seeds for what later would become societies and institutions.

Together with a large group of colleagues across social and medical sciences, we are examining different types of rituals, some which have been preserved quite well through documented history, and others that are relatively new, but show some features that we assume to be important. We examine changes in people’s behaviour and thinking before and after they have participated in these rituals. As part of these endeavours, we have already identified a number of basic features of ritualistic actions (such as moving in time together or feeling pain together), which shift our cognition and behaviour to become more ‘groupish’ and influence how we process emotions. 

Recommendations for Early-Career Researchers in Times of Change

Despite the way that academia has been changing in the last few years, some of the advice that our professors gave us when we started off are still useful today. 

You have to be curious about what you do, follow your interests and passions. Academic life is often hard, lonely and difficult, so you have to be passionate about it in order to overcome the various setbacks that inevitably await you. 

With that comes the need to be resilient; to find ways to balance your passion for research and academics with other activities. Treat your research work as a 9-to-5 job and give yourself some free time. I often see students suffering because they think they have not done enough yet and quickly burn out. 

You need to build relationships with your peers and other researchers, both those that are starting off and will be your colleagues in the future and those who have already established a career.

Don’t be shy to approach established professors via email or in person at conferences and ask for feedback and advice.

I think that academia has become tougher over the last few decades. There is more pressure to publish, there is more competition and scarcer resources for research. I don’t have a good answer on how to best approach these problems, but I think there are some opportunities that may help to overcome these challenges. There is an open science movement to pre-register your research design—this allows you to get early feedback and put a stake in the ground about what you are doing. It is also possible to publish your pre-registration, which counts as a publication. The open science movement also means that a lot of data is available now for free, which allows you to test your ideas without the need to conduct your own study. This is a huge advantage. There are also ever more powerful statistical tools available and many of the programs (eg, R or Python) are free. When I started off, we only had limited analysis choices, relatively few resources available to learn from, and some of the better programs were very costly to buy. Today, I can run analyses on my laptop in a few seconds that would have previously taken me days or even weeks with the tools that were available when I started off. Finally, there are amazing opportunities to network with others around the world. It is easier than ever to find other researchers that work on similar questions and team up with them to find solutions to the problems that you are facing.

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