Different Perspectives from Different Sides of the Pond

Topic: Pearls of Wisdom

John C.A. Stevenson, CFA

July 29, 2016

Image used with permission: iStock/gerenme


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Different Perspectives from Different Sides of the Pond

The Pew Research Center conducts many interesting surveys on attitudes of the population around different issues. One such recent survey looked at how Americans and Europeans are different. Despite a shared tradition of democracy, a strategic alliance that has shaped the world politically and economically for decades, and numerous ancestral ties, American and European attitudes on a variety of topics vary widely. Some are not surprising, but we find all interesting nonetheless.

One may not be terribly surprised by the responses to the question, “Is it morally unacceptable for a married person to have an affair?” To this, 84% of Americans answered “yes”. (Editorial note: an article in Forbes suggests that between 15% and 18% of Americans have actually had an affair while married. We’ve seen other estimates that are noticeably higher.) In France, only 47% of the population think that adultery is immoral. Other European countries have a higher disapproval rate than in France, but none so high as in the U.S.

Perhaps related to this is the attitude toward religion. In the U.S., 53% of people say that religion is very important in their life. In France the number is 14%. In fact, the U.S. is an enormous outlier in this regard. Pew surveys of countries around the world show that there is a very strong correlation between national wealth and the importance of religion – the poorer a country, the more important is religion. Among wealthy countries, the U.S. stands apart from all others in how important its citizens view religion. The U.S. has much more in common with Lebanon and Turkey  in this regard than it does with Canada and Europe.

Interestingly, despite being a country of religious fervor, Americans are much more tolerant of speech that is offensive to religion or minorities. 77% of Americans are okay with insulting religion publicly and 67% think making offensive statements about minority groups is acceptable. Only 27% of Germans think this way.

Perhaps the way in which Americans are most differentiated, however, is their belief in individual liberty and the importance of individual effort. 58% of Americans believe individuals should have the freedom to pursue their goals without government interference and only 36% believe the government should ensure there is no one in need. In Spain, the ratios are reversed: 30% of the population thinks individuals have the right to pursue their goals without the government getting in the way and 67% think the government ought to ensure there is no one in need.

The most telling statistic of all in our minds, however, is the following. 73% of Americans think it is “very important” to work hard to get ahead in life. In Greece only 21% think this way. In France it is 25%. While far from the only reason, this strikingly different attitude towards work may well explain a good part of the economic success the U.S. has enjoyed over the last century.

Source: Richard Wike, “5 Ways Americans are Different From Europeans”, Pew Research Center, April 19, 2016.

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