Key points

  • Researchers measured the values of Australians before and during the COVID pandemic.
  • Values changed in four major domains, especially for those who worried more about the pandemic.
  • The findings indicate that the environment can alter people's values, and that emotion may be an important mechanism.

The pandemic caused huge shifts in behavior around the world. People were no longer able to engage in day-to-day activities that brought meaning to their lives, like spending time with family and friends, socializing, working, and traveling. Alongside these shifts came psychological changes, including changes in life goals and core values. In the first study of its kind, Daniel et al. (2022) conducted a large longitudinal study to investigate how personal values changed during the pandemic.

Per the “behaviorial immune system,” infectious diseases can cause people to behave differently to avoid catching an illness. For example, people are more likely to avoid contact with outgroup members during a pandemic. Mortality salience (i.e., awareness of one’s mortality) caused by the pandemic may also encourage ingroup bias and closemindedness. Daniel et al. thus predicted that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the desire for order and stability (i.e., conservation values) would increase whereas the desire for novelty and freedom would decrease, particularly for those anxious about the pandemic.

To test their hypothesis, Daniel et al. measured the values of Australians at three timepoints: In 2017 before the pandemic (N = 1,498), in April 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic (N = 2,321), and in November-December 2020 later in the pandemic (N = 1,442). Through this data, they identified four ways that values changed during the pandemic:

1. The desire for security, conformity, and tradition (i.e., conservation values) increased

As hypothesized, the desire for security, conformity, and tradition (i.e., conservation values) increased and stayed elevated through the pandemic. The researchers posited that in addition to the desire to minimize exposure to COVID-19, the poor economy and social distancing may have contributed to conservation values.

2. The desire for excitement and novelty (i.e., stimulation values) decreased

Also as hypothesized, the importance of excitement and novelty (i.e., stimulation values) decreased and stayed lower later in the pandemic. The decrease was likely due to both the need for safety/security and the inability for individuals to partake in exciting activities given the rules and regulations.

3. The desire for freedom and independence (i.e., self-direction values) increased

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While the desire for excitement and novelty decreased during the pandemic, the need for freedom and independence increased

Contrary to the hypothesis, the importance of freedom and independence (i.e., self-direction values) increased during the pandemic. The researchers proposed two mechanisms to explain this unexpected finding. First, people may engage in “artistic and intellectual pursuits” to keep themselves occupied, thus boosting their self-direction. Second, the increase in self-direction could result from the “critical thinking required to understand and assess the wealth of highly complex health information and to evaluate implemented government policies within the highly politicized environment.” Although not mentioned by the authors, these values could also emerge from psychological reactance as a result of one’s freedom being taken away.

4. Care for others (i.e., self-transcendence values) decreased

At the beginning of the pandemic, care for “distant others, the wider society, and nature” decreased, and later on in the pandemic, this lack of concern grew to encompass close others. This apathy towards others may have resulted from sustained social distancing and isolation. The researchers additionally suggest that learned helplessness may have played a role. Specifically, due to the inability to escape the pandemic and its negative consequences, people may have withdrawn from the social world and focused instead on self-preservation.

Notably, the researchers found that those who were worried about the pandemic were especially likely to show the above shifts.

Overall, the findings indicate that values can shift rapidly due to the environment, and that emotion (i.e., worry) serves as an important mechanism. Unfortunately, while the shift in values may assist with feelings of safety and security, they are harmful in many ways, promoting prejudice against outgroups and a general disregard for others. In fact, the researchers warn that these shifts may “provide fertile ground for authoritarian policies.” They further suggest that changes in values may be larger in many other countries given the relatively mild outbreaks in Australia.

Future research might explore changes in values around the world as people resume “normal life” after a very long pause. Will our values return to what they were prior to the pandemic, or will changes persist? What will be the social repercussions of these changes?


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