More evidence of how COVID-19 changed Americans’ values, activities

A new UCLA-led study decisively confirms findings of research published earlier this year, which found that American values, attitudes and activities had changed dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The earlier study, published in February, was based on an analysis of online behavior — Google searches and phrases posted on Twitter, blogs and internet forums. The latest research, published in the open-access journal Current Research in Ecological and Social Psychology, is based on a survey of 2,092 Americans — about half in California and half in Rhode Island.

Patricia Greenfield, a UCLA distinguished professor of psychology and senior author of both studies, said the results indicate that Americans’ activities, values and relationships have begun to resemble those found in small, isolated villages with low life expectancy — such as an isolated Mayan village in Chiapas, Mexico, that she has studied since 1969.

For example, according to the survey, people said that compared with pre-pandemic times, they are now more likely to be growing and preparing their own food, conserving resources, demonstrating less interest in financial wealth and showing greater appreciation for their elders. The researchers found all of those shifts are a function of Americans’ increased focus on survival and their isolation during the pandemic.

The study also found that during the pandemic parents expected their children to help out around the home — for example, by cooking for the family — more than they did before the pandemic.

The fact that the latest findings aligned with those of the earlier research on online trends provides additional support for both studies.

“The replication of findings using two very different methods gives us confidence that our survey findings indicate actual change,” Greenfield said.

In the new paper, the authors write that they expect most people’s behaviors and activities will shift back to pre-2020 norms once the pandemic is more fully under control. But they note that might not be true for people in their 20s and younger, whose values are likely to be more permanently shaped by the events of the past two years.

Californians and Rhode Islanders had lived under stay-at-home orders for a little more than a month in late April and early May 2020, when the study was conducted, and most survey respondents were still self-isolating when they took the survey.

Among the other findings:

  • Respondents reported that, as compared to before the pandemic, they were thinking substantially more during the pandemic about death and dying — including their own mortality and that of their family members, making wills and where they intended to be buried, for example.
  • People said they felt greater appreciation for their family and for elderly people during the pandemic than before.
  • While study participants said they were more focused than before on having enough money to cover basic needs like food and shelter, people were generally less focused on the goal of becoming rich.
  • Respondents reported an increase in the amount of time they spent on activities with other members of the household — shared meals and conversations.

Conducting the study in California and Rhode Island was beneficial because, beyond their differences in size and population, the states offer other useful contrasts: Rhode Island’s population is much less diverse than California’s, and at the time of the survey, Rhode Island’s COVID-19 mortality rate was five times higher than California’s.

The study’s results provide significant new evidence to support Greenfield’s long-held theory of social change, cultural evolution and human development, which was published in 2009 in the journal Developmental Psychology. The theory holds that when people are particularly concerned with their own survival and their social lives narrow to their own households, their activities, values, relationships and parenting expectations tend to shift to resemble those typical of small rural communities with low life expectancy. (When Greenfield began studying the Mayan village in Mexico, for example, approximately 35% of children there died before age 4.)

Greenfield said the theory was borne out during 2020 and 2021, even as the COVID-19 pandemic added two new elements — increased mortality and stay-at-home mandates — to the conditions she had previously taken into account.

“The experience of respondents in both states confirmed all of the predicted shifts,” Greenfield said. “The basic human responses to survival threat and limited contact with strangers have been conserved throughout human history and cultural evolution. This suggests that such reactions could be universal human responses that will be similar everywhere in response to the pandemic.”

To evaluate that idea, the researchers are now testing whether the findings from their U.S. studies also hold true in four other nations: Indonesia, Japan, Mexico and Turkey.

The study’s co-authors are Genavee Brown, a psychology lecturer at Northumbria University in England, and Han Du, a UCLA assistant professor of psychology. The research is being published as part of a journal special issue on the ecological and social psychology of the pandemic.

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