Right and Wrong in 40 Countries: Pew’s Global Attitudes Survey Tracks Values by Country

One of my absolute favorite subreddits is currently r/dataisbeautiful, a community of data lovers that brings you a daily stream of interesting research in digestible, visual bites. On any given day, you may find infographics on which news topics female writers are most likely to cover, attitudes towards Jewish and Muslim peoples in different countries, or even one couple’s dedicated logging of sexual activity over a year (a dream for Kinsey, or any modern day sexologist).

Most recently, r/dataisbeautiful brought me the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Survey, which asked respondents in 40 different countries to state their moral attitudes on eight issues. These eight topics, which are often the subject of moral debates, ranged from homosexuality to premarital sex to alcohol use. For each topic, participants answered whether they found it morally acceptable, morally unacceptable, or not a moral issue. The results give us a big picture view of how value systems differ by country and by cultural region.

Besides these five big takeaways outlined by the Pew Center, the survey revealed several sociological gems.

For instance, defying our stereotype of the vodka-thirsty Russian, 44% of Russians stated alcohol use is morally unacceptable (perhaps this is linked to Russia’s high rates of alcohol-related deaths?). In contrast, an astounding 66% of Japanese respondents felt alcohol use was morally acceptable (notice the majority still didn’t think it was an amoral issue) – a number so high it suggests that alcohol is a morally-influenced social imperative in Japanese culture. Switching topics, in the U.S., a 58% majority of respondents think homosexuality is either morally acceptable, or not a moral issue (though that leaves a disappointing 37% of the population still against), and abortion remains a divisive topic, with 49% of U.S. participants labeling it morally unacceptable.

On goes the list of fascinating discoveries of how our values are shaped by culture. In many cases, it’s clear that the predominance of a religion in a country dictates the majority’s moral opinion. For example, most of the countries where Islam if the official religion topped the charts for highest percentages of respondents saying alcohol use is morally reprehensible. Ok, I could have guessed that. But, what factors explain why 82% of El Salvadorian respondents find alcohol use wrong? Is it due to the small central american country’s problems with drug-related violence and crime? Here is where I think the survey analysis would benefit from overlaying population demographics (religion, age, ethnicity, health stats, etc) alongside the results. I’m also curious how respondents would have justified their responses, and wish there was  qualitative level to this survey.

The Global Attitudes project results also bring up the question of what topics are even considered moral issues. In many cases, analyzing the divide in certain countries between what is moral and amoral, was just as interesting as analyzing the breakdown between what was or wasn’t morally acceptable. In France, for example, only 47% of participants found affairs morally unacceptable, and 40% of respondents thought extramarital affairs were not a moral issue.  This may be the punchline to a joke about French promiscuity – the pattern from the data seems to be that once a topic has achieved wide cultural acceptance, it’s no longer considered an issue for ethical debate.  For example, among Western European-influenced countries (France, Canada, Australia, Spain, Britain, Germany) where abortion was legalized several decades ago, there is not a large population of evangelical Christians against it, and abortion is not commonly discussed in political debates (as it seems to be in the U.S.), percentages of respondents declaring abortion amoral ranged from 25 – 47%.  (But, then again, what explains the 36% of Jordan’s participants defining abortion as amoral?) I also found these relatively high percentages interesting, because abortion is one of only two of the named topics I would definitively declare “moral issues” (if you’re curious, I’d also identify extramarital affairs).

There’s a wealth of data here to comb through and several research questions posed for more study (Alcohol use in El Salvador? Extramarital affairs in France? Abortions in Jordan?). Take a look for yourself and see what other anthropological conclusions you can piece together. And, if you liked this post, subscribe to r/dataisbeautiful!

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