COVID-19: Are Values changing during the lockdown?

This is one of the most common questions clients and partners are asking us in these times of the 'Black Swan' that is Covid-19; the unknown unknown that disrupts cultures. The image below can help us look at where we are and what we know in these unprecedented times.

Pandemics can be classified as a known known - we know what they are and what they do - but they are also low probability/high impact events that seldom happen. If you want to predict when a pandemic will hit it becomes an unknown known.

Developing a vaccine is a known known - a multidisciplinary activity involving collaborations between experts to create a new treatment in an environment of unknown knowns. Science typically works in a transparent and evidence-based way - making methods, conclusions and recommendations open to others for peer review so everyone involved is in the loop.

So far so good as a model to deconstruct ways of knowing - it's logical, rational and measurable in ways that lead to change and the ability to learn from crisis situations.

The problem comes when non-scientists - most of us, including our elected representatives - perceive and react to new situations (Covid-19 included) as an unknown unknown - "Who would have thunk?"

Politicians - by definition generalists rather than specialists - are likely to be uniquely unqualified to make decisions about the development of systems within the first three 'ways' of knowing - they don't know what is known, they are not too sure what they don't know and they can't know what is known but they don't know. So, when they react to a pandemic Black Swan their learning curve will need to be very steep, and many will fail to find solutions quickly enough to prevent deaths.

This same dynamic applies to you and me. We are generalists, knowing a little about a lot but unaware of what we don't know, and when we are made aware of the unknown some of us (not all) can feel deceived or misled. For those people, new knowledge creates stress rather than relief.

The way you and I react to change is a function of our pre-existing values set. The way a country or culture reacts is a function of the dynamics between its different values sets. Black Swans disrupt the dynamics between the groups and expose the stresses within existing systems.

Covid-19 is a stressor to the British values system of a kind not experienced since WW2 - before even the oldest of the Baby Boomers was born.

Britain is uniquely likely to be culturally affected by the virus, the lockdown and the aftermath - a changed and unstable economic world. Years of uninterrupted 'austerity' has created a different 'known known' in the UK compared to other nations. The added twist of Brexit working its way through physical, intellectual, emotional and political systems in the UK is likely to have a significant impact on the direct effects of Covid-19, and not for the better.

Epidemiologists (who are experts not generalists) are preparing the population for a second wave of the virus. It is likely that a second wave of austerity will have a greater effect as a force multiplier on British values change over the next two to five years.

But let's go back to the original question - are values changing? A better question would be are values systems changing?

The values systems of individuals do not change overnight and a real crisis needs to occur for deep seated orientations like values systems to change. No one factor is likely to cause these changes.

Values systems are most likely to change when either of two very different circumstances occur:

  • Underlying psychological needs are met. Needs that were formerly unsatisfied - the individual's dominant motivations - are satisfied and no longer provide the stimulus they once did. This can be summed up in the phrase, 'a need satisfied is no longer a need'. It is at this point that individuals develop a new set of needs - and, as they are not yet satisfied, they become their new dominant motivations. It is normal to change values during the course of one's life. It is healthy to change. These needs are defined at a basic and meta-level by Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
  • Underlaying needs are not being met and cognitive dissonance is producing a range of discomforting symptoms - anxiety, fear, paranoia, and a whole range of neuroses - which make it less stressful to retreat to a previous set of needs. This area of previously satisfied needs - a part of identity that is easy to access and provides a comfort zone - is often called the 'locus of control'. This method of change is also normal but is not necessarily 'healthy' when reacting to new situations that require new ways of thought and behaviour.

Cultural Dynamics Strategy and Marketing (CDSM Ltd) has developed a method of measuring UK values systems and has tracked them for decades. Our data defines three different basic meta-values systems (Maslow Groups) and four different subsystems within each of the three groups (Values Modes) - a total of 12 in all.

We tracked changes in British values systems that have been in stress mode since the crash of 2007/08. We warned clients then that there would be a short term - four to six year - disruption to some values systems. As the effects of austerity were incorporated into disrupted individual values sets, the new known known, we forecast that by 2014 the stage would set for a return to the pattern of change that had occurred since WWII, and that CDSM and other companies had measured since 1973.

But a series of culture-changing elections and a referendum post-2014 culminated in a mandate for government to negotiate the UK's withdrawal from the European Union, creating even more uncertainty about the future. Cumulative short term change, designed to create a clear set of known knowns, had instead extended and deepened the unknown knowns. This has led to the suspicion, lack of trust and division we are currently experiencing.

British organizations of all shades have lived through these times and have adapted to these changing conditions and continued supplying products and services to their 'customers'.

But ...

In flies a big Black Swan. Another stressor that is likely to have a deeper impact on individuals and on a culture that has already lived through an immediate past of increasing uncertainty - the last 13 years.

Based on values surveys of the British population in 2014-2015 to 2018 and now, with bang up-to-date data and analysis in May of 2020, right in the middle of our generational Black Swan event, we are confident in saying:

  • Group 1 (Settlers) valuing safety, security and belonging as a dominant orientation. After growing in the disruptive years (2007-2018) they have reverted to slowly declining.

  • Group 2 (Prospectors) valuing the esteem of others and self-esteem as a dominant orientation. After some turbulent shifts during the 2007-2018 period they are now back to very slow but steady slight growth.

  • Group 3 (Pioneers) valuing self-direction, universalism and benevolence. After static or tiny negative changes during the 2007-2018 period they are now back to slow but steady growth..

All organizations, from major financial and technological corporations to government policy-makers to local charities and international NGO's, need to understand their appeal to these different groups if they are to survive in this Brave New post-Covid-19 World. The ways the different values sets perceive your brand, the demands they place on your organization - both internally and in the supply of services to your recipients - need to be understood at a the deep values level; and need to be in harmony with your users'/buyers'/voters'/members' values.

This applies now - and into the future of the first stage of the new normal.

The emergent longer term new normal is a conversation for another day - disturbingly on the border between known and unknown unkowns. In other words, at the pinnacle of uncertainty.


Cultural Dynamics Strategy & Marketing Ltd.          email:          tel: +44 (0)208 744 2546