Values in Crisis – a Crisis of Values? Moral Values under the Imprint of the Corona Pandemic

Article by Christian Welzel, Klaus Boehnke, Jan Delhey, Franziska Deutsch & Jan Eichhorn

The Question

People have an intuitive sense about right and wrong, about what is justified and what is not. These moral values determine how people judge situations and other persons and, hence, how people behave in social settings. The aggregate distribution of values in a population, accordingly, shapes prevalent patterns of human behavior, which in turn guide a society’s overall development. For all these reasons, moral values are of critical relevance for a society’s wellbeing.

Conventional wisdom holds that people’s moral values take shape during their formative phase of socialization. Conceptions of the age range in which the formative phase of socialization is located vary but there is consent that most people finalize their formative socialization at about the age of twenty-five. The moral values that people have internalized by then are thought to be stable for the rest of their lifetime. This continuity does not entirely foreclose momentary adjustments in, for instance, people’s valuation of freedom-vs-security, in response to situational changes. But these situational adjustments occur around stable setpoints that endure throughout people’s life course. Therefore, scholars presume that groundbreaking value changes on a mass scale can only happen through generational replacement, which is a slow process that proceeds at glacial pace. Rapid value changes throughout an entire population, by contrast, would require that large numbers of people substantially change their values within a short time span. The available evidence suggests that this does not happen under usual circumstances.

But does the glacial stability of values that we routinely observe in “normal” times persist in highly unusual times when a sudden crisis of massive proportions hits an entire society? Conclusive evidence that would allow one to answer this question is literally inexistent because there is little, if any, research that examines people’s values over the course of an incisive crisis.

The Corona pandemic, which is ongoing at the time of this writing, is beyond doubt the most dramatic social crisis since World War II. The pandemic is of a global scale, progresses at rapid speed and severely restricts the daily lives of billions of people around the world. Governments in dozens of countries, including Germany, enforced limitations of people’s mobility that literally shut down public life. These measures come close to curfews that are only known from states of emergency as in times of war. All of this creates a dramatically disruptive situation. The general sense of disruption is further strengthened by other exceptional government actions. To buffer the expected economic recession, governments have enacted truly gigantic aid packages, the scale of which is unprecedented ever since the Marshall plan.

Against this backdrop, the ongoing Corona pandemic offers a truly unique opportunity—a natural experiment indeed—to study how people’s moral values behave during times of crises. In the face of lacking evidence, we cannot take it for granted that the glacial stability of values observed in normal times continues throughout the Corona crisis. This uncertainty opens new territory and raises several imminent research questions: Does the Corona pandemic impact on people’s values? In other words, do people change their values under the imprint of this crisis? If yes, how massive are these changes? And if these changes are massive, in what direction do they move? Finally, how enduring are these changes, once an end of the crisis is at sight and once its economic consequences are overcome: do people’s moral values revert back to their old setpoint or does the crisis leave a lasting impact?

Research Design

To examine these possibilities, we need above all a panel study that surveys the same people throughout the different stages of the Corona pandemic. The aim is to figure out how these respondents’ perception of the crisis transforms and how these changes in perspective affect their moral values and social orientations. Needless to say, the respondents should be taken from a representative sample. Under the current contact restrictions, using an online panel is the only option.

Sample: To be specific, we envisage to interview a panel of roughly 2,000 respondents in three consecutive waves, using a fully standardized questionnaire of about twenty minutes interview length. We intend to include in the questionnaire randomized experimental tools to see whether people react in their responses to varying stimuli that depict the crisis in different degrees of severity.

Waves: We plan three panel waves that should be timed as follows: Wave 1 “Amidst the crisis” (basically now or very soon as long as curfew-like measures are still in effect), Wave 2 “End at Sight” (at a point in time when public life begins to turn back to normalcy), Wave 3 “After Recovery” (half a year or a full year later when the economy has recovered from the its expected recession). Again, it is necessary to interview the same respondents throughout the crisis.

Participating Countries

The national teams collecting data in compliance with the VIC-questionnaire and VIC-study design, consist of team Austria (Prof. Markus Hadler/University of Graz, Prof. Franz Höllinger/University of Graz, Prof. Johann Bacher/University of Linz, Prof. Wolfgang Aschauer/University of Salzburg), team Brazil (Diego Moraes, Camilla Mont’Alverne), team Chile (Prof. Ricardo González/The Laboratory of Surveys and Social Analysis, Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez), team Georgia (Merab Pachulia/Gorbi Survey Institute), team China and Taiwan (Prof. Yu-tzung Chang/National Taiwan University), team Greece (Prof. Sokratis), team Hong Kong (Prof. Yi-hui Christine Huang, City University of Hong Kong), team India (Yashwant Deshmuk/CVoter), team Italy (Prof. Alina Mungiu-Pippidi/Hertie School of Governance), team Japan (Prof. Naoko Taniguchi/Keio University, Dr. Plamen Akalyiski/Keio University, Prof. Joonha Park/Nagoya University of Commerce and Business), team Maldives (Dr. Aminath Riyaz/The Maldives National University (MNU), Dr. Sheena Moosa/MNU, Dr. Raheema Abdul Raheem/MNU, Hawwa Shiuna Musthafa/MNU), team Netherlands (Prof. Tim Reeskens/Tilburg University), team Poland (Prof. Renata Szimienska/University of Warsaw), team Russia (Prof. Eduard Ponarin/National Research University-Higher school of Economics), team South Korea (Prof. Jibum Kim/Sungkyunkwan University), team Sweden (Prof. Bi Puranan/Institute of Future Studies, Stockholm), team USA (Prof. Markus Kemmelmeier/University of Nevada).