Book Summary: “Cultural Evolution: People’s Motivations are Changing” by Ronald Inglehart

Cultural Evolution

Title: Cultural Evolution: People’s Motivations are Changing, and Reshaping the World
Author: Ronald F. Inglehart
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 4.5 stars
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Topic of Book

Inglehart uses international survey data to explore the connection between security, economic prosperity and values.

If you would like to learn more about cultural evolution, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Key Take-aways

  • Values of society are stable over the long-term, but they also change due to fundamental shifts in society.
  • Since World War II, there has been a fundamental value shifts across the Western world.
  • When people feel that their survival is at stake, their values tend to favor group solidarity, rejection of outsiders and obedience to strong leaders. For most of human history, people survival was always in question.
  • When people feel secure and economically prosperous, values tend to favor openness to change, diversity and new ideas. This is a very recent phenomenon in only the richest nations.

Important Quotes from Book

Cultural Evolution argues that people’s values and behavior are shaped by the degree to which survival is secure; it was precarious for most of history, which encouraged heavy emphasis on group solidarity, rejection of outsiders and obedience to strong leaders. For under extreme scarcity, xenophobia is realistic: if there is just enough land to support one tribe and another tribe tries to claim it, survival may literally be a choice between Us and Them. Conversely, high levels of existential security encourage openness to change, diversity and new ideas. The unprecedented prosperity and security of the postwar era brought cultural change, the environmentalist movement and the spread of democracy.

People’s values and behavior are shaped by the degree to which survival is secure. For most of the time since humans first appeared, survival has been precarious. This dominated people’s life strategies. Population rose to meet the food supply, and most people lived just above the starvation level. When survival is insecure, people tend to close ranks behind a strong leader, forming a united front against outsiders – a strategy that can be called the Authoritarian Reflex.

In the decades following World War II, something unprecedented occurred in economically advanced countries: much of the postwar generation grew up taking survival for granted.

Unprecedentedly high levels of economic and physical security led to pervasive intergenerational cultural changes that reshaped the values and worldviews of these publics, bringing a shift from Materialist to Postmaterialist values – which was part of an even broader shift from Survival value s to Self-expression values. This broad cultural shift moves from giving top priority to economic and physical safety and conformity to group norms, toward increasing emphasis on individual freedom to choose how to live one’s life. Self- expression values emphasize gender equality, tolerance of gays, lesbians, foreigners and other outgroups, freedom of expression and participation in decision- making in economic and political life. This cultural shift brought massive social and political changes, from stronger environmental protection policies and anti- war movements, to higher levels of gender equality in government, business and academic life, and the spread of democracy.

Long before this happened, substantial cross- cultural difference already existed that can be traced to geographically shaped differences in vulnerability to disease and hunger.

From 1981 to 2011 happiness rose in 52 of the 62 countries for which substantial time- series data were available, and fell in only 10; during the same period, life satisfaction rose in 40 countries and fell in only 19 (3 showed no change). The two most widely used indicators of happiness rose in an overwhelming majority of countries. Why?

The extent to which a society allows free choice has a major impact on happiness.

This book presents a revised version of modernization theory – Evolutionary Modernization theory – which argues that economic and physical insecurity are conducive to xenophobia, strong in-group solidarity, authoritarian politics and rigid adherence to their group’s traditional cultural norms – and conversely that secure conditions lead to greater tolerance of outgroups, openness to new ideas and more egalitarian social norms. It then analyzes survey data from countries containing most of the world’s population, showing how, in recent decades, changing levels of economic and physical security have been reshaping human values and motivations, and thereby transforming societies.

For under extreme scarcity, xenophobia is realistic: if there is just enough land to support one tribe and another tribe tries to claim it, survival becomes a zero-sum struggle between Us and Them. Under these conditions, a successful survival strategy is for the tribe to close ranks behind a strong leader,

Over the past seven decades, scores of studies have confirmed that there is a strong tendency for deference to authority to be linked with xenophobia, intolerance and conformity to group norms. This seems to reflect a deep- rooted human reaction to insecurity.

A central feature of modernization is that it makes life more secure, eliminating starvation and increasing life expectancy. At high levels of development, this brings pervasive changes in human motivations, enabling people to shift from life strategies based on the perception that survival is insecure, to strategies that take survival for granted and give top priority to a wide range of other human aspirations.

Evolution has shaped all organisms to give top priority to survival. Organisms that did not do so died out, and the vast majority of all species that ever existed are now extinct. Thus, people evolved to give top priority to obtaining whatever is needed for survival when it is in short supply.

Throughout history food has usually been scarce, reflecting the biological tendency for populations to rise to meet the available food supply.

[In international survey data] there is much more difference in the degree of emphasis on Self- expression values between the highly educated people of different nations, than between the highly educated and the general public within given nations.

Having emotions is ultimately more conducive to survival than being purely rational… In the long run, natural selection behaves as if it were more rational than sheer rationality itself.

Emotions enable people to make quick choices in situations where a rational analysis of the options might be almost endless.

But since, in the long run, natural selection is very effective at producing cultural norms that have a good fit with their environment, the end result often resembles what would emerge from a process of rational choice.

A culture is a set of learned behavior that constitutes a society’s survival strategy.

Empirical analysis of the Materialist/Postmaterialist value shift indicates that basic values change gradually, largely through intergenerational population replacement. Instead of spreading across the entire world evenly, as awareness of the optimal choice might do, this shift occurs only when a society reaches a threshold where a sufficiently high level of economic and physical security enables younger birth cohorts to grow up taking survival for granted. In contrast to this, rational choice theory holds that key institutions are adopted through conscious elite choices – which could change from one day to the next. It also tends to assume that institutions determine culture, in which case basic cultural norms would also change rapidly.

Major Predictions

The theory just discussed, generates the following predictions:

1. When a society attains sufficiently high levels of existential security that a large share of the population grows up taking survival for granted, it brings coherent and roughly predictable social and cultural changes, producing an intergenerational shift from values shaped by scarcity, toward increasing emphasis on Postmaterialist values and Self- expression values.

2. As younger birth cohorts replace older cohorts in the adult population, it transforms the societies’ prevailing values – but with long time- lags. The youngest cohorts have little political impact until they reach adulthood, and even then they are still a small minority of the adult population; it takes additional decades before they become the dominant influence in their society.

3. Intergenerational value change is shaped by short- term period effects such as economic booms or recessions, in addition to population replacement, but in the long run the period effects often cancel each other out, while the population replacement effects tend to be cumulative.

4. Intergenerational value change can eventually reach a threshold at which new norms became socially dominant. At this point, conformist pressures reverse polarity, supporting changes they had formerly opposed and bringing much more rapid cultural change than that produced by population replacement alone.

5. Cultural change is path-dependent: a society’s values are shaped by its entire historical heritage, and not just its level of existential security.

People who emphasize Survival values tend to be significantly less satisfied with their lives and less happy than people with Self- expression values. This is a remarkable finding. It suggests that certain value systems may be more conducive to happiness than others.

[Industrialization brings a shift from traditional to Secular-rational values – but with the rise of postindustrial society, cultural change starts to move in another direction. The shift from Traditional to Secular-rational values becomes slower, while another change becomes more powerful – the shift from Survival to Self- expression values, through which people place increasing emphasis on free choice, autonomy and creativity.

The cross-national cultural differences are so large that they dwarf the differences within given societies… Despite globalization, nations remain an important unit of shared experiences, and the predictive power of nationality is much stronger than that of income, education, region or sex.

An additional reason why this Self- expression/ Individualism/ Autonomy super- dimension is so robust may be because its cross-national differences reflect genetic variation – which in turn is rooted in different levels of historic vulnerability to disease and starvation.

The extent to which Self-expression values are present in a society explains over 80 percent of the cross- national variance in the extent to which liberal democracy is actually practiced.

Cultural change is a process through which societies adapt their survival strategies. The process operates as if evolutionary forces were consciously seeking to maximize human happiness.

Data from representative national surveys carried out from 1981 to 2014 show that happiness rose in an overwhelming majority of the 62 countries for which substantial time series data are available. Why?

Extensive empirical evidence indicates that the extent to which a society allows free choice has a major impact on happiness.

Support for gender equality and tolerance of outgroups are strongly linked with happiness – not just because tolerant people are happier, but because living in a tolerant society makes life less stressful for everyone.

[In international happiness surveys] In contrast with the modest differences found within most countries, the cross- national differences are huge.

[In international happiness surveys from 1981 to 2014] Happiness rose in 84 percent of these countries and life satisfaction rose in 65 percent of them: from 1981 to 2014, there was an overwhelming trend toward rising subjective well-being.

Genetic factors may explain a large share of the variation in subjective well- being within a given country, at a given point in time. But genetic factors cannot possibly explain the massive and enduring changes in subjective well- being levels that occurred in Russia.

Throughout history there have been two strategies for reducing unhappiness: the first is to lower one’s expectations and accept the inevitability of suffering – a strategy endorsed by virtually all of the world’s major religions. The second is to expand one’s range of material, political and social choices, a strategy called modernization.

If you would like to learn more about cultural evolution, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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