All about who we are

Headlines, Research — By on May 7, 2013 9:14 am

How much sexism is there in New Zealand? How do Māori and Pākehā feel about each another? And why have some people coped with the Christchurch earthquakes better than others.

Questions like these are being examined by the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS). Created by University of Auckland social psychologist Dr Chris Sibley, the NZAVS has become a large collaborative project involving researchers around the country, and is generating real interest overseas because there’s nothing quite like it anywhere in the world.

Chris studies the relationships between groups in society, for instance different ethnicities, genders or socioeconomic groups: “I’m interested in long-term societal change. My main area of research is looking at how you increase tolerance, decrease negative stereotypes, reduce discrimination, and promote wellbeing for everybody in the country.”

The NZAVS follows the same people – more than 6,000 at last count – every year, tracking everything from aspects of personality to their health and wellbeing, political attitudes, views on climate change, and ideas about New Zealand history and biculturalism.

“The study allows New Zealand-based researchers to hold a lens up to the psychology of what it means to be a New Zealander,” says Associate Professor Marc Wilson from Victoria University of Wellington, one of Chris’s long-term collaborators. “It also allows us to look at changes over time – but more than that it allows us to make inferences about what causes what.”

The NZAVS had just completed its first year of data collection when the 2011 Christchurch earthquake hit, providing dramatic proof of how a long-term study can capture changes in society and answer questions that cannot be examined any other way. There are hints from the study that aspects of personality may help some people to recover psychologically more rapidly than others. People who are higher on measures of “Emotional Stability” were more resilient to psychological distress following the earthquakes. However, these findings are still very new, and are being tested to confirm their validity. The next step will be to work out how to share those coping mechanisms with other people.

As a result of the earthquake the NZAVS now has a much greater focus on psychological wellbeing. “I really hope the study can be useful in talking about how people are doing and tracking recovery, and looking at the protective factors that might help,” Chris says.

The NZAVS also offered insight into longstanding questions about the role of religious faith following a crisis. Theories abound as to whether natural crises turn people toward or away from religion, and what support it may provide, but this was the first time large-scale, real-world data were available to directly test these ideas.

Chris and collaborator Dr Joseph Bulbulia from Victoria University found that Cantabrians bucked the national 50-year trend of a slow decline in religious affiliation, with a 3.4 percent increase after the earthquake. But religious conversion did not offer an extra “buffer” of support, as some theories suggest. In fact, people appeared to find support both within and outside of churches, and their levels of wellbeing were comparable. Only those people who lost their religion reported reduced health after the earthquake, perhaps due to the loss of an important source of support. More research is planned, to look into this.

Events like the earthquake cannot be anticipated, though, and the main purpose of the study is to test very specific hypotheses. One original goal of the NZAVS is to test a model developed by The University of Auckland’s Professor John Duckitt to describe how individual psychology may interact with social conditions to predict levels of prejudice and tolerance.

The model says two major factors predict prejudice in society: one is competition-based and the other threat-based. “So if I am afraid of you or view you as morally different, or if I see myself in competition with you, then that can lead to prejudice – but only when broader social factors, such as high levels of danger or inequality, also come into play,” says Chris. The model is unique in social psychology in the way it links personality and environmental factors to identify two distinct processes leading to prejudice.

“I wanted to really test this out longitudinally, and to do that you need massive, nationally representative, population data. I set up the NZAVS with that as my goal, but the study has become so much bigger than that, because the data’s valuable for so many reasons and to so many different groups of people in New Zealand.”

The study provided the first opportunity in a large, national sample to bust the recurrent myth that “Pākehā” is a derogatory term. It showed that Māori and Pākehā have generally warm attitudes toward one another and, as Dr Carla Houkamau of The University of Auckland Business School explains: “The choice by Māori to use the term Pākehā was linked to how strongly they identify as Māori. The choice to use Te Reo is part of identity – rather than anything to do with Māori attitudes toward New Zealanders of European descent.”

Carla, who works often with Chris, explains that with the NZAVS “we can track different aspects of Māori identity – how much you like being Māori, how well you speak Māori, your spiritual beliefs – and make links with social, economic, cultural and wellbeing outcomes in a way that’s very useful for policymakers.” “We’ve also been working hard to develop a questionnaire specifically for Māori peoples administered in parallel with the NZAVS”, says Carla. By finding out which aspects of Māori identity help people to do well, policymakers can make sure they’re being actively promoted.

In an entirely different realm, the NZAVS has examined whether narcissism – excessive feelings of entitlement and the belief that you are better than others – is increasing in New Zealand, in line with the “narcissism epidemic” in the United States. The data show that young New Zealanders are indeed more narcissistic than older people, but only time will tell whether they remain more narcissistic throughout life or whether this is a characteristic that mellows with age.

The study is also exploring sexist beliefs in New Zealand, and the good news is that there’s comparatively little overt or hostile sexism. But what about the less obvious, and potentially more sinister, phenomenon of benevolent sexism – traditional views of men and women’s roles that tend to keep people in their “place”?.

PhD student Matt Hammond, with cosupervisors Chris and University of Auckland interpersonal relationships expert Dr Nickola Overall, is investigating this, and Matt’s work captured national attention with a cover story in the Listener this year.

Using the NZAVS he found that benevolent sexists are actually happier than non-sexists. The attitudes work in the favour of men, while benevolently sexist women are more satisfied with life because it provides a justification for the inequality they see. The result is that it’s very difficult for women to step outside the stereotypical role of delicate creatures in need of protection.

Chris says he would never have thought of the questions or ways that Matt and many others have used the data, and that the NZAVS is now so much bigger than his own “small area of interest”.

Setting up the study was a huge gamble for a young researcher. Now 34 years old, Chris is a senior lecturer at the University and spent his entire new-staff fund to get it started: “I literally wrote one cheque, to cover postage and printing for that first year,” sending the survey to a random sample of New Zealanders. “I didn’t have enough money secured to cover the data entry , or follow up on people over time – I was doing that all myself. But it’s worked.”

In the four years since, more and more collaborators and students have come on board, lending momentum to the work. “I’ve been so lucky to have such an enthusiastic, hard-working group of graduate students interested in the study,” he says. “You learn so much from them. I really enjoy that part of the job.”

Chris is especially grateful to Lara Greaves, an enterprising student who approached him after a second-year social psychology lecture to ask how she could contribute. She initially worked without pay just to keep the study going. She’s about to have her third academic paper published, and is now an honours student with Chris.

The NZAVS is still accepting new participants. More information can be found at: www.psych.auckland.ac.nz/uoa/new-zealand-attitudes-and-values-study

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1 Comment

  1. Rita says:

    I have lived and studied in NZ for over 20 years and am now living in my country of birth again. I came across this study, as I am working on an exhibition about NZ. I find your findings very interesting and completely in sync with my own impressions about Aotearoa, one which I have had trouble with was the female sexism: Women in NZ are much more sexist than German women, were my personal impression. Your findings were an explanation for this phenomenon.
    I hope you find out more, that can explain the kiwi attitudes and lifestyle. Many of them vary greatly between the north and south island and others between those living in large cities, such as Auckland and Welly and dwellers of the country. But I am very exited to see this study taking shape and continuing to do so.
    Well done Chris (and all the others too of course!! :-) )