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Why People’s “Deeply Held” Values Can Change So Quickly

This is what I stand for. These are my principles, my values. A common line we’ve all heard, and probably said ourselves, many times before.

We tend to think of principles and values as items that are stable and consistent. We believe in something, and that belief holds true across a long period of time. We take a moral stand and then use that stand to determine who to support and what actions to take.

Our day to day behaviors tend to follow that pattern. If we express more gratitude or empathy to our friends and colleagues, chances are that a week, month, or year from now, we’ll show that same higher degree of empathy. Other research shows that we have a small number of core values that remain relatively stable over a prolonged period of time, but we have a host of secondary or derived values that shift and change much more quickly. We mistake many of our beliefs as being of the stable variety, neglecting that most are actually liable to shift more easily.

Why would we change what we stand for?

Often, it’s due to our own self-interest. In a study out of Stony Brook University, researchers found that when performing a two-person task where one participant could divide their earnings with their partner, participants shifted their moral values based on what would have them benefit most. Their belief in what kind of pay—equity (pay proportional to work done) or equality (equal pay)—was moral shifted based on what kind of pay benefited them the most.

“People seek not only to benefit themselves but also to persuade other people that they are morally right in doing so,” concluded the authors.

We are social animals. Most of us just want to fit in and seem like decent human beings. This social pull is so strong, that, depending on whether or not a failure or transgression occurs in public or private, we will change how we internalize that failure or transgression into our life story. If it is for all of the public to see, we’ll get defensive, protect our ego, and blame our misgivings on bad luck or some other item that was outside of our control. If occurred in private, we’ll accept responsibility, and ideally learn from our mistakes.

It turns out that we may be more like politicians than we’d like to admit; feeling the winds of change and altering our stance for our own benefit, wanting to be liked by enough people to keep living our life and doing our job.

Speaking of politics, we often assume that the few political beliefs that we hold dearly are immovable, stable values as well. Things like pro Life vs. pro Choice; gun control vs. staunch 2nd amendment support; healthcare for all vs. keep the government out and let the free market figure it out. It may seem like your particular position is hard-wired into your being. But that’s an illusion.

In one study published in the American Journal of Political Science, researchers found that it’s not that your moral views determine which group you belong to, it’s the other way around. Your tribe does more to determine your morality than your morality does to determine your tribe. As the lead researchers put it: “We will switch our moral compass depending on how it fits with what we believe politically.”

How could we abandon something that is allegedly so central to who we are?

Well, herein lies the problem. While it might have started out that way, that we chose our political tribe based on a matching of things we cared about, once that tribal identity is cemented, it’s the other way around. If the tribe changes its stance, you get dragged along with it. We see this in sports all the time. Fans are against cheating until their favorite player or team gets caught, then it’s justify and rationalize all the way. Recent research found that we value our identity much more than accuracy of information. So much that researchers have suggested, ” You actually need to affirm someone’s identity before you present information that might be contradictory to what they believe.”

Our beliefs shift with our identity. If our identity is tied to a particular group and that group’s beliefs and values shift, ours tend to follow. Our identity is more powerful than our principles or values. A few decades ago, one of the strictest religious groups in the country, the Southern Baptists, were Pro-choice. Now, not so much. Could it really be that thousands of individuals all changed their values? Nope. It’s that their locus of identity, the Southern Baptist church, changed it’s values. Everyone simply followed. This isn’t a rare occurrence, it’s a relatively common one.

If your identity is entirely wrapped into your tribe—be it political, religious, athletic, or whatever—it’s hard to disentangle it. That group feels like your friend group, or maybe even family. When researchers studied whether or not students moral decision-making changed over their 4-year college career, it turns out their morality was remarkably stable, with one exception, that is. As students made their way from freshman to senior year, they were “more likely to help a friend even when doing so required them to ignore other ethical obligations, such as following the law or adhering to accepted social norms.”

Now, we live in a world where we all have hundreds or even thousands of “friends” and “followers.” We all belong to siloed off tribes with people who may seem to be like the college friends in the aforementioned study, the ones they’d be willing to break their moral stances for.

As you read this little argument, you may be getting defensive yourself and thinking, No, that’s not me. You, Steve (and your tribe) are wrong.

And maybe I am. But if the research is right, I can’t help but think, we must all:

  1. Be very thoughtful and careful with how we construct our identities.
  2. Hold our “tribes,” especially people we don’t see on the daily, at an arm’s length, instead of as fervent identities.
  3. Be clear on a few principles and values that hold importance to us and check in regularly to see if we are living up to those, or if we are being slowly, nearly imperceptibly, dragged away.

— Steve

1 Comment

  1. Santiago Achucarro on January 31, 2021 at 2:25 am

    Muchas Gracias. Estoy de acuerdo con tus reflexiones ya que lo grupal o social muchas veces nos juega ciertas trampas al confirmar o darle solidez a nuestros problemas o puntos pocos reflexivos de nuestras identidades. abrazo fraterno Santiago Achucarro. Desde Argentina.

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