Personal values found to backflip during COVID-19

New research from The University of Western Australia has found typically stable human values rapidly adapt to major threats during times of emergency.

The international study, published today in Social Psychological and Personality Science, found certain groups of human values became more or less important to people during the COVID-19 crisis.

The study asked thousands of Australian adults about their values during different periods, including three years before the pandemic and at the start and end of 2020.

As expected, values were stable across the years before the pandemic but had changed significantly during the onset of the pandemic and again in late 2020.

Study author Professor Julie Lee from UWA’s Business School said values tended to be relatively stable over time but had been found to adapt to major threats, including the experience of terrorism, war, and financial crisis.

“Evolutionary theory suggests that infectious disease may have an especially high likelihood of inducing adaptation in behaviour and potentially in our values,” Professor Lee said.

The team found that by April 2020, conservative values had increased in importance while more open values had decreased in importance.

“Conservative values concerned with security, personal and societal safety were considered stable prior to the pandemic but increased at its onset alongside traditional values, such as the commitment to and acceptance of cultural, family and religious traditions,” Professor Lee said.

“Openness values, seeking stimulation excitement and challenge in life, had been decreasing in importance however this decrease accelerated at the start of the pandemic. These changes were stronger for those who were more worried about the pandemic.”

Values that emphasised universalism – caring for the welfare of all others – decreased in 2020, while benevolence – caring for the welfare of those close to us – also declined in importance.

In contrast, values related to self-direction, seeking independence, freedom and creativity, increased dramatically towards the end of 2020.

Professor Lee said human values were broad motivational goals related to people’s beliefs, attitudes and behaviour and had far-reaching consequences for social functioning and social policy.

“Increasing conservative values and decreasing care for others, especially those who are different from us, provides a fertile ground for authoritarian policies,” she said.

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