Feb 5, 2007

From the Archives

American Lifestyles Mix Compassion and Self-Oriented Behavior

A new nationwide survey from The Barna Group shows Americans exhibit both traits – willingness to sacrifice and impulses toward self-oriented behaviors.

Barna Access Plus

Strengthen your message, train your team and grow your church with cultural insights and practical resources, all in one place.

The research examined 20 lifestyle elements, exploring what Americans do in a typical month – both to engage with people around them as well as to indulge their own perceived needs and preferences. On balance, adults are more likely to claim acts of kindness and responsible civic behavior than to admit to self-oriented activities. But the study also demonstrates millions of Americans engage in routines that benefit themselves, often flouting moral boundaries to do so.

Thinking of Others

Americans think of themselves as recyclers. The most commonly practiced of the 20 activities is recycling some used product or material. Three-quarters of Americans have done this in the past month (74%).

They also consider themselves to be engaged in helping their communities. Nearly half of Americans (48%) indicate that in the past month they have helped a poor or homeless person in their community in some other way than handing them money. In the past week, one-quarter of adults have volunteered some of their free time to help a church; and the same proportion have volunteered to help some other non-profit organization in the last seven days.

Americans also frequently engage others in conversations about faith and spirituality. More than two out of every five (44%) say they discussed a specific spiritual issue or belief in the last month with someone who belongs to a different faith.

Indulging Themselves

However, beyond community and faith engagement, Americans are carving out new lifestyles of self-oriented behavior, which affects their interpersonal relationships, their sexuality, their perspectives about property and finances, their abuse of substances, and their sense of spiritual guidance. The survey explored 15 areas of self-indulgent and morally questionable behavior.
Relationships.   In the context of their relationships, Americans are increasingly willing to exhibit their rage and self-centeredness. One-third of adults say they have used profanity in public in the last month (33%). One-quarter claims to have said mean things to others about someone else when that person was not present (28%). One out of every eight Americans (13%) admits to having told someone something they knew was not true, while 10% of adults say they have gotten even for something someone did to hurt or offend them. Few Americans admit to fighting or abusing someone else (2%), but that proportion equates to nearly five million adults who have taken out their aggression on someone else in the past month.

Sexuality.   Inappropriate sexual gratification is another self-indulgence of many Americans. One-quarter of adults say they have read a magazine or watched a movie or video that contained explicit sexual images in the past month (28%), while one out of every 10 Americans have visited a website that showed explicit or uncensored sexual content in that same span of time (10%). Moreover, more than one out of every seven adults (14%) admits to having had an intimate sexual encounter during the past 30 days with someone to whom they were not married.

Property and finances.   Few Americans admit to stealing: just 4% of respondents which corresponds to nearly 9 million adults , say they took something that did not belong to them in the past month. Apparently music does not always factor into their concept of property, because a higher proportion of adults – 6%, which is about 13 million people – have inappropriately traded or downloaded music in the past month. Gambling is a frequent lifestyle choice of Americans. One-third say they have purchased a lottery ticket in the past month (31%), while nearly one-fifth indicate they have placed a bet or gambled in the same time frame (18%).

Substance use.   Alcohol is more commonly abused than other drugs. In total, 16% of adults – about 36 million people – have consumed enough alcohol to be intoxicated or considered legally drunk at least once during the last month. Those who admit to recent use of illegal, non-prescription drugs accounted for about 7 million adults (3%).

Spirituality.   The survey also found that one out of 20 adults – about 11 million Americans – has consulted a psychic or medium for spiritual guidance in the past month (5%).

Barna Access Plus

Strengthen your message, train your team and grow your church with cultural insights and practical resources, all in one place.

The Role of Faith

Faith commitments sometimes play a role in what people do – but less often than might be assumed. In comparing the lifestyle choices of born again Christians to the national norms, there were more areas of similarity than distinction. (Note that in Barna surveys, the born again segment is not based upon whether a person uses that label, but based upon their profession of faith in Christ and confession of personal sin.) Born again Christians are more likely to volunteer for their church; however, they are no more likely than average to help the poor and homeless. Born again Christians were also among the least likely groups to recycle.

In evaluating 15 moral behaviors, born again Christians are statistically indistinguishable from non-born again adults on most of the behaviors studied. They are less likely to view sexually explicit movies and magazines, to use profanity in public, and to buy a lottery ticket. However, even in these cases, the gap between born agains and the norm is not wide – roughly one-third of the non-born again audience say they had engaged in the three activities compared to one-quarter of born again Christians.

The fourth area of difference is the lower rate of music piracy among born again Christians (2% versus 9% among non-born agains).

Other Factors

Personal background also affects people’s behaviors. One of the strongest demographic patterns relates to age. Adults under 40 – and especially those ages 18 to 22 – were more likely than average to engage in many of the morally questionable activities (the only clear exception was gambling, an activity in which younger adults are equal to that of older adults). The use of profanity is an example of shifting generational values: three out of ten Boomers had cursed in public during the past month compared to nearly half of the Buster generation and two-thirds of Mosaics. Busters and Mosaics exhibit lower than average levels of volunteerism, to churches and other non-profits – and are less likely to admit helping the poor. Defying their reputation as environmentally conscious, Mosaics were also the least likely generation to recycle.

Single adults who have never been married are also particularly likely to push moral boundaries, particularly sexually. Nearly half had consumed sexually explicit content in magazines or movies; one-fifth had done so online. And two out of five never-married adults say they had an intimate sexual encounter in the last month. Singles also were among the most likely groups to abuse drugs and alcohol, to use profanity, to take something that doesn’t belong to them, to illegally download music, and to get payback on someone.

Compared with political conservatives, liberals are more likely to recycle. But they are also more likely to use sexually explicit material, to have a non-marital sexual encounter, to steal music, to use profanity, to gamble or buy a lottery ticket, to use an illegal drug, to say mean things about others, and to get payback.

Men were much more likely than women to view sexually explicit movies and magazines (35% to 19%) as well as use uncensored sexual-content websites (14% to 2%). The self-indulgence of men also surpassed that of women when it came to profanity, gambling, playing the lottery, lying, and illegal drug use. However, sexual encounters outside of marriage were admitted to in equal proportion by both genders.

Education and income showed an uneven influence on people’s behaviors. Downscale adults were less likely than upscale individuals to recycle or engage in faith-related conversations. Confirming the notion that legalized gambling takes advantage of those with little means, half of downscale adults had purchased a lottery ticket and one-fifth had gambled in the past month – far more common than was true of upscale adults. Interestingly, upscale adults indulged gossip more often and were no more likely than downscale adults to help poor and homeless individuals.

Regional differences also emerged. Residents of the West and Northeast were much more active in recycling than were those living in the Midwest and the South. Northeastern residents were also more likely to use profanity, to illegally download music, and to watch sexually explicit movies, but they were less likely than average to have been drunk (those in the West held the distinction of being most likely to be intoxicated). Residents of the South were the least likely to gamble, while Midwesterners were most likely to do so.

Barna Access Plus

Strengthen your message, train your team and grow your church with cultural insights and practical resources, all in one place.

Moving Forward

David Kinnaman, who directed the study of American lifestyles, commented on the implications of the research. “Americans are a unique blend of contradictions. Mosaics want to be known as activists, but their recycling pales to that of older adults. People think of themselves as engaged in assisting needy people, but the vast majority of Americans merely dabble in helping others. Individuals who have financial means are no more likely than others to assist the poor. Never-married adults envision themselves as independent and self-sufficient, but their levels of substance abuse and sexual behaviors suggest otherwise. Political liberals want to be known for their open minds, but their profanity, cutting remarks, and frequent use of ‘payback’ undermines their attitudes of acceptance. The respect, patience, self-control and kindness of born again Christians should astound people, but the lifestyles and relationships of born again believers are not much different than others.

“The difficulty,” Kinnaman continued, “is that with increasingly personalized and self-oriented behaviors and routines, the contradictions in people’s lives will become even more apparent. Americans will become even less aware of who and what they are. As people become more interested in the latest diversion and more tuned into personal satisfaction, their capacity and energy for connecting with others – or understanding themselves – will diminish.”

The president of the California-based firm, Kinnaman suggested the moral challenges facing Americans are tied to how much they help others. “Living morally is not just obeying thou-shall-not commandments, but also actively enriching the lives of those around us. It is easy to criticize Americans’ self-indulgences and their moral lapses. It is much more difficult to find creative, customized, and meaningful ways to expose them to the needs of others. By getting the focus off themselves, Americans might experience much-needed transformation within their own lifestyles and perspectives.”

Research Details

The data in this report are from a national survey conducted by The Barna Group with a random sample of adults, age 18 and older, conducted in October 2006. In total, 1003 adults were interviewed. The data related to volunteering in the past week is drawn from a separate random sample of 1003 adults, conducted in January 2006. The same sampling error rates apply. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with each sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.

“Born again Christians” are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “orn again.”p>

“Boomers” are individuals born from 1946 through 1964 (currently ages 42-60). “Busters” are those born between the years of 1965 and 1983 (ages 23 through 41). “Mosaics” are those born from 1984 through 2002 (the leading edge of this generation are adults, ages 18 to 22).

“Upscale” adults are those who have a college degree and whose household earnings are at least $70,000. “Downscale” adults are those with no college experience and earn $20,000 or less.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

Get Barna in your inbox

Subscribe to Barna’s free newsletters for the latest data and insights to navigate today’s most complex issues.