Self-Respect Tops List of American Social Values

A survey of American social values over recent decades finds an increasing emphasis on self-respect, while security and a sense of belonging decline in importance.
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The social values of Americans have changed dramatically over the past three decades, with self-respect surging in importance and a sense of security mattering far less. That is the conclusion of a group of scholars writing in the Journal of Advertising Research, who paint a portrait of a self-confident and increasingly individualistic society.

In 2007, a research team led by Eda Gurel-Atay, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business, commissioned a survey in which 1,500 Americans were asked to rate the importance of eight social values, and to identify the one they considered most important. The scholars then compared the results with those from similar surveys taken in 1976 and 1986.

The values were self-respect (“to be proud of yourself and confident in who you are”), security (“to be safe and protected from misfortune and attack”), warm relationships with others, a sense of accomplishment, self-fulfillment, being well-respected, a sense of belonging and fun-enjoyment-excitement (“to lead a pleasurable, happy life; to experience stimulation and thrills”).

Self-respect led the list in all three surveys, with a greater percentage of Americans ranking it as the most important value with each new survey. By 2007, 28.8 percent ranked it No. 1, compared to 21.1 percent in 1976 and 23.0 in 1986. Psychologist Ellen Langer and writer Joan Didion, both of whom have written eloquently about the importance of self-respect, will no doubt be pleased.

Security, on the other hand, plunged in importance, from 20.6 percent of respondents placing it first in 1976, to 16.5 percent in 1986 and 12.4 percent in 2007. That most recent survey was taken before the onset of the severe economic recession, which raises the question of whether security would move up on the list if the question were asked today.

Gurel-Atay concedes that is possible, but very much doubts it has bounced back to 1970s or 1980s levels. “When we collected data in 2007, there were still problems related to security (terrorism, Hurricane Katrina effects, Iraq War, etc.) and actually some of the presidential campaigns were emphasizing security issues,” she noted in an e-mail message. In spite of this post-9/11 atmosphere, the importance of security continued to decline.

“Warm relationships with others” steadily grew in importance, from 16.2 percent in 1976 to 20.9 percent in 2007.  But a “sense of belonging” dropped from 7.9 percent in 1976 to a mere 3.3 percent in 2007. It was overtaken by “fun-enjoyment-excitement,” which doubled from 4.5 percent in 1976 to 9.3 percent in 2007.

“A sense of belonging (social connectedness) appears to have steadily eroded for all age groups, both genders, all education groups and most income groups in the United States,” Gurel-Atay and her colleagues report. They see this as consistent with their overall findings, noting that “If a person looks to him- or herself as the ultimate arbiter of most things, a need for belonging ought to correspondingly diminish.”

So Americans, who have traditionally marched to the sometimes-quirky beat of their own drums, are even more individualistic today than in past decades. This makes the study of how our genetic makeup and early life experiences morph into motivation even more important. If we tend to follow our own inner compass, it would be good to understand how we settle upon a meaningful direction.