Capturing a portrait of our time

A study which started in 2009 has developed into a tool for measuring all aspects of New Zealanders’ lives.

The study by Victoria alumnus and University of Auckland Associate Professor Chris Sibley includes measuring New Zealander’s political inclination, happiness and their ability to deal with adversity.

The New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study surveys a large and diverse sample of New Zealanders each year with the aim of understanding stability and change in values over time. The longitudinal study involves researchers from across the globe, and includes Victoria’s Associate Professor Joseph Bulbulia, who is one of four members on the study’s core management team, led by Chris.

“Experimental studies in the human sciences can help us understand values, but experiments are also limited because conditions in a laboratory are artificial and samples are typically small and often homogeneous. By following a large and diverse group of people over time we are able to use the world as a kind of natural experiment, comparing people who are similar in most respects, but who are different in what happens to them.

“For example, by comparing responses from the same people before and after the Christchurch earthquakes, we could understand how values and beliefs changed in Christchurch relative to the rest of New Zealand and test theories about whether having certain values, dispositions and habits helped people to get through,” says Joseph.

The study currently has a longitudinal sample of more than 15,000 participants and involves 40 academics around the world, including more than 10 academics and postgraduate students from Victoria.

Information is entered into a database where it can be analysed in depth to rigorously test social scientific theories about values and beliefs, and their role in everyday life.

“With so many New Zealanders participating, the study has impressive predictive power. For example, we accurately forecasted the results of the flag referendum and the most recent general election,” says Chris.

“We are figuring out what makes a difference to people’s health and happiness now—what people really value and care about. But even more fundamentally, we are recording social history with unprecedented precision, at the level of individuals. We are cataloguing a rich and diverse story of New Zealand for the future. It’s a huge responsibility,” says Joseph.