Menus Subscribe Search

Puritan Values Still Resonate in Today’s USA

• November 03, 2010 • 2:17 PM

A new study finds the value system of the early colonists, which links hard work, conservative sexual behavior and spiritual salvation, still has a hold on Americans’ psyches.

A cursory look at contemporary American culture suggests our ancestors’ Puritan values have been definitively discarded. Given the quick-money ethos of Wall Street, the hook-up culture of college students and the vast pornography industry, it seems clear that the colonists’ strict moral code — pro-hard-work, anti-promiscuous-sex — is, for better or worse, behind us.

Well, hold onto your bonnets: The Puritans’ value system remains lodged deep in our psyches, shaping our emotions, judgments and behaviors. And its effects can be seen regardless of one’s political orientation or religious affiliation.

That’s the conclusion of a group of researchers led by Eric Luis Uhlmann of the HEC Paris School of Management. Writing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the scholars — including Yale University psychologist John Bargh — present evidence of “an overarching American ethos” binding work, sex and salvation.

They describe a series of studies backing up this notion, including one that compares our implicit attitudes with those of our northern neighbors. It was conducted by questioning people passing through public parks in the state of New York and the Canadian province of Ontario.

Participants (108 Americans and 207 Canadians) began the experiment by unscrambling a sentence. For half of those in each nation, the sentence was heavily weighted with salvation-related words such as “heaven,” “redeem” and “righteous.”

All then performed an anagram task, in which they were asked to make as many four or more letter words as they could out of four different words. Previous research has found this assignment is a good measure of one’s willingness to work; the more mental effort you put into the task, the more words you come up with.

The results: “American participants, but not Canadian participants, worked harder when they were primed with salvation,” the researchers report. Americans who had unscrambled the sentences containing religion-related terms “solved more anagrams than did participants in the neutral prime condition. In contrast, no priming effect was found for Canadian participants.”

Importantly, Uhlmann and his colleagues found the participants’ affiliation with any specific religion did not significantly impact the results. The mental link between salvation and hard work appears to be transmitted through the culture rather than any particular church or denomination.

A second study featured 101 ethnic Asians who were born in an Asian country but had lived in the U.S. for a considerable length of time (14 years on average). First, they completed a “consumer survey” designed to highlight either their Asian or American cultural identity. Half were asked to list their favorite Asian food, movie, song and holiday; the other half listed their favorite American food, movie, song and holiday.

They then unscrambled a series of sentences. For half the participants, most of the sentences included work-related words such as “job,” “employed” and “labor.”

Finally, the participants read two vignettes. In one, a school principal canceled a prom due to an excess of sexually charge dancing; in the second, a school instituted a conservative dress policy prohibiting revealing clothing. They then listed on a one-to-nine scale whether they agreed with the actions taken by the principal and school.

The results: “Implicitly priming the ethic of hard work led bicultural Asian-American participants to condemn revealing clothing and sexually charged dancing, but only when their American cultural identity had been made salient,” the researchers write.

In other words, for those Asian Americans thinking about their American identity, the concept of hard work seemed to trigger conservative beliefs about sexuality — an effect not found in those thinking about their Asian identity. “This provides direct evidence that American work and sex values are linked (at least in part) by virtue of their mutual association with American cultural identity,” Uhlmann and his colleagues conclude.

In both experiments (and a third involving deliberation vs. instant-reaction moralizing), the impact of implicit Puritanism could be felt even when Protestants — the people presumably most likely to be schooled in this traditional value system — were removed from the samples.

“Non-Protestant Americans condemn a promiscuous woman significantly less when primed to deliberate, perform significantly better on a work task when primed with salvation, and are significantly more likely to endorse restrictive sexual norms when primed with hard work,” the researchers write. “Such effects testify to the power of history and culture to shape the feelings, judgments, and behaviors of individual members of that culture.”

So, it appears Puritan beliefs aren’t confined to Evangelical churches, or classic novels. That famous scarlet A, and the value system it represents, may be branded on Americans’ brains.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.