What Americans believe: World Beliefs Survey, part one

It’s high time I fulfilled my commitment to the people who completed my online World Beliefs survey and let people know what I learned in my dissertation research. (Thanks, again, to all of my friends, friends of friends, and helpful members of online communities who helped me out by taking my survey!)

The Big Picture

In my dissertation, I studied metanarratives – beliefs about the “big picture” for a group (especially the citizenry of a country, or humanity at large) that have story elements (like references to time and change or the lack of it). Examples could include, “Everything’s going to fall apart if we don’t hurry up and do something about…” Global warming. Illegal immigrants. The national debt. Or, “We used to live in nearly idyllic conditions, until…” The Industrial Revolution. The patriarchy came along. Adam bit that apple. Previously, social scientists have studied metanarratives by looking at how one or more of them evolved in specific conditions, but nobody has done a comparative study of this type of beliefs before.


In my study, I asked people to indicate how much they agreed with each of a list of 73 metanarrative belief statements. I collected data from two groups of people: undergraduate students at our university and people who were willing to complete the survey on the web. I focused mostly on the responses from lifelong U.S. residents. Then I used the data to find patterns in the metanarrative beliefs, and also to see whether the storylike features of some of the beliefs affected people’s willingness to act on those beliefs. In this post, I’ll talk about the first of those: patterns in the beliefs.

Themes: Who Believes What?

First I used “exploratory factor analysis” with the data to find broad themes among the survey questions. For the students, the analyses yielded six such themes:
• Traditional Religion
• Secular American Nationalism
• International Cooperation
• Eco-Romanticism
• Anti-Government Cynicism
• Rational Progress

“Traditional Religion” was favored, not surprisingly, by Christians and Republicans. The interesting bit here was that people lumped pretty much every overtly religious metanarrative together. Whether the origins were actually Christian, or instead Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or ancient Egyptian, they all seemed similar to the people completing the surveys. What I found most interesting was that 44% of the students said they strongly believed that “All of reality is moving toward unity with the cosmic Absolute,” which is actually a tenet of Hinduism, and 35% believed in the seed of the divine within everyone that can reunite us with our divine origin after death, an ancient Egyptian belief that also shows up in Jewish Kabbalistic thinking. Only one of the students was Hindu, and only one was Jewish (no ancient Egyptians), but maybe these beliefs look like generic Western mystical beliefs to most people. In my opinion, it also shows that people weren’t necessarily indicating what their beliefs actually were when they started the survey, but rather, if something sounded good, then they’d go along with it.

“Secular American Nationalism,” aka patriotism, was big among Republicans, of course, and especially favored by immigrants to the U.S. On the other hand, Democrats were more interested in “International Cooperation,” which was supported by agnostics but generally rejected by atheists. (Why, I wonder?)

The existence of an “Eco-Romanticism” factor means that respondents who cared strongly about environmental issues also tended to believe that life has become too complicated and that people had stronger community ties in the past – beliefs that have no explicit environmental component (and that can also be shared by reactionaries and fundamentalists). Eco-romantics tended to be older and were more likely to be female and to have well-educated mothers.

“Anti-Government Cynicism,” naturally, reflects the beliefs of the numerous Libertarians who completed the survey (which was great; I’m glad the results I got aren’t just reflecting the two-party mainstream).

“Rational Progress” lumped together all the beliefs in favor of science, technology, and improving social justice, even though in practice, it seems that people strongly concerned about social issues aren’t necessarily likely to believe that technology has all the answers.

So that was for the students. For the web sample, the analyses showed four factors, which roughly corresponded to combinations of the student factors, but which were sometimes more strident. The first factor wasn’t just “Traditional Religion” but rather, ended up closer to “Militant Religious Entitlement,” with an emphasis on extremism, chosen people, and fundamentalism. Christians and Republicans tended to accept the whole bundle of these beliefs (to some degree), while atheists, agnostics, and Greens/radical left generally rejected them all.

In the web sample, “International Cooperation” and “Eco-Romanticism” went hand in hand, rather than independently, and were combined into the same factor, which was favored by agnostics, non-Christian religious people, and especially Greens/radical left. There was again a secular patriotism factor, endorsed mostly by Republicans, and then the fourth factor colored “Anti-Government Cynicism” with a big dollop of Capitalism, to create a factor that was absolutely adored by the Libertarians and rejected soundly by the Democrats.

Common Ground?

Even though the results I just reported make Americans look very partisan, if we look at the results for individual metanarratives, there’s actually quite a lot of common ground. Most people said they valued international cooperation, multiculturalism, a strong work ethic, standing up to minority oppression, reducing the influence of global corporations, and the value of science. Most people rejected militant extremism, the idea of a superior race, the “woman’s place is in the home” argument, and domination over nature.

In fact, most people shared the same common core of beliefs, and their religious and political affiliations tended to just mean that they also accepted – or rejected – additional bundles of beliefs. Christians, of course, also have a lot of religious beliefs, which atheists and to some degree agnostics then reject. Republicans add on a bunch of beliefs about the need for national defense and the special role of America in the world scene. Libertarians reject beliefs about the role of government. And those identifying as Greens and/or members of the radical left reject long lists of beliefs that the others hold, while adding on some of their own.

Democrats had no special identifying beliefs. It’s possible, of course, that I just didn’t think of any to put in the survey, but overall the results suggest that Democrats (a) are currently near the political center of the United States (along with Libertarians, more or less) and (b) may not be taking as much advantage of narratives in political discourse as they could.

Of course, my research goes into a lot more detail, but this seems like enough for now.

Questions, anyone?

Next time: Which kinds of beliefs are most likely to inspire action? And what does this mean for solving big problems like global warming?

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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3 Responses to What Americans believe: World Beliefs Survey, part one

  1. Robin Turner says:

    This is interesting, but I’d be more interested to see what happenes with the cross-belief metanarratives. For example, is there anything in common in the mentality of those who believe “Everything was OK until the industrial revolution severed our unty with Nature” and those who believe “Everything was OK until progressive education destroyed family values.” Or if people who believe in the Singularity share attitudes with people who believe in the Rapture.

    • Laura says:

      I agree. There are so many cool and worthwhile things that could be looked at, and this study was just a first, exploratory effort. I’d especially like to learn more about the relationship between different metanarrative beliefs and indicators of well-being, like health or happiness (conservatives are said to be happier, for example). If I follow up on this research, I’d like to figure out how to make the survey less burdensome to complete (it was already rather long).

      Your comment has led me to realize that before I write about the relationship between beliefs and action, I should make an intermediate post about metanarrative “genres.” Thanks!

  2. Pingback: “And just how do we go about changing the world, anyway?”: World Beliefs Survey, part three « Living In Dialogue

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