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Polling Matters
Measuring Trends in Americans' Personal Values
Polling Matters

Measuring Trends in Americans' Personal Values

One of the important benefits of ongoing survey research is the ability to study change, particularly trends in Americans’ political views, their social values and their personal behaviors.

As one example, I recently reviewed our Gallup trends on how Americans approach a variety of social norms that relate to family and sexual reproduction. These measures have been included in Gallup’s Values and Beliefs surveys each May since 2001, using the same wording in the same survey context. The trends show a substantial lessening of prior social norms prescribing that having sexual relations and having children should be withheld until marriage. Americans are also less likely than in the past to believe that marriage should be only between one man and one woman.

Another important Gallup trend series documenting changes in American values asks respondents to rate how much importance they place on a variety of life dimensions. This past summer, my colleague Lydia Saad reported on a recent update of these questions, headlining her report “Community, Hobbies and Money Grow in Importance to Americans.” Out of eight life aspects updated, Americans rated seven as having equal or more importance in their lives now than 20 years ago -- community activities, hobbies or recreational activities, your money, your work, your friends, your health, and your family. The only aspect of life tested showing a significant decline in importance was “your religion.”

These two examples show that even as Americans appear to have moved away from certain social norms, and even as Americans have become less religious, they have become more attached to other aspects of their daily lives -- including hobbies, community activities, money and work.

Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal reported its assessment of changes over time in Americans’ values based on a poll conducted with NORC, with the headline “America Pulls Back From Values That Once Defined It, WSJ-NORC Poll Finds.” The article noted substantial drops since 1998 in the importance Americans assign to a number of the values tested, including patriotism, religion, having children and community involvement. At the same time, the Journal data showed an increase in the importance of money.

While several of the items measured in the Gallup and Journal surveys differ, precluding a comparison of trends, trends are available from both organizations on five topics: money, religion, patriotism, community and having children. This provides the opportunity for comparison that can help further our understanding of changes in American values over time.

Both organizations show the same broad trends on several of these values, while there are interesting differences in the trendline on others. These differences could reflect a number of factors, as I’ll get into below. Gallup and Journal surveys use different wording to describe similar concepts and use different rating scales in some instances. Plus, the 2023 Journal update was conducted using online interviewing, based on a sample drawn from a probability-based panel, while previous Journal polls were conducted using live telephone interviews. Gallup’s ongoing surveys have been consistent in their use of live telephone interviews over time.


Gallup’s trend on rating the importance of money is limited to two points in time -- 2002 and 2023. Back in 2002, 27% of Americans said money was extremely important in their life, with another 40% saying very important. The current 30% who say money is extremely important is virtually unchanged from 2002, but the 49% calling it very important constitutes a significant uptick. Thus, the combined top two categories in the Gallup data rose 12 percentage points, from 67% to 79%, over the past two decades.


The Journal also reported an increase in the percentage of Americans rating money in their top category (very important), rising from 31% in 1998 to 41% in 2019 and then registering 43% in 2023 -- a 12-point increase from the baseline year roughly two decades ago. Over time, the combined top two categories in the Journal poll show little change, with 88% rating money very or somewhat important in 1998 and 90% this year.

Thus, we can say that both polls showed somewhat of an increase in Americans’ perceived value of money -- or at least their willingness to say its importance has grown.


As is, by this point, well-known to most observers of American society, there has been a significant decline in measures of religiosity over the past decades. Thus, it is not surprising to find that both Gallup and The Wall Street Journal surveys show the importance of religion to Americans has decreased over time, although the two surveys reflect different patterns of how that decline has occurred over time.

The Journal’s trend data show that 62% of Americans rated religion as very important in 1998 compared with 48% in 2019 -- a 14-point decline in 21 years. The latest reading of 39% represents an even steeper drop, falling nine points in four years.

Gallup’s comparable trend asks, “How important would you say religion is in your daily life?” and also shows a decline, but at a steadier pace. Similar to the first two measurement points in the Journal trend, our “very important” reading was 61% in 1998 and 49% in 2019 -- a 12-point decline in 21 years. However, Gallup’s data show a modest four-point dip to 45% this year, roughly half the pace of decline measured by the Journal.

This year’s Gallup update finds that 45% say religion is very important in their daily lives, with another 25% saying it is fairly important. The 39% from the Journal and the 45% from Gallup are roughly similar, as are the percentages in the second category in both surveys.


Overall, as noted, the two trends both confirm that Americans are becoming less religious, at least as measured by survey indicators.

Some of the decline from 2019 to this year in the Journal survey may reflect the change in mode. As the Journal notes in its report, “Differences in how the new poll and prior surveys were conducted might account for a small portion of the reported decline in importance of American values tested.” For now, Gallup trends continue to be measured using consistent traditional telephone interviewing with live interviewers, with increasing emphasis on mobile rather than landline phones, thus holding the mode of sampling and interviewing constant over time.


The Journal survey asks Americans to rate the importance of “patriotism.” Gallup doesn’t measure the importance of patriotism per se, but we do have a measure asking Americans how proud they are to be an American -- presumably measuring the same underlying concept. Additionally, the Journal question has four response options -- very important, somewhat important, not that important and not important at all, while the Gallup question has five response options -- extremely, very, moderately, only a little or not at all proud.

In our latest asking this year, 39% of Americans said they were extremely proud to be an American and 28% said very proud. The Journal’s polling in this year’s update found that 38% say patriotism is very important to them, with another 35% saying it is somewhat important.

There are differences in the trending over time on the two measures of patriotism. Gallup’s measure of those saying they are extremely proud to be an American shows a decline from 55% in 2001 to 45% in 2019, and then a modest decline to 39% this year. The combined top two categories in Gallup’s polling (that is, adding extremely and very proud together) show a leveling off over the past three years.


The Wall Street Journal trend shows a decline in the percentage choosing the top category (patriotism rated as very important) from 70% in 1998 to 61% in 2019 -- when both surveys were conducted by telephone -- but a very steep drop to 38% this year, when the survey was conducted by web. The combined top two categories (very and somewhat important) went from 93% in 1998 to 88% in 2019 to 73% this year.

Thus, while both studies show a decline over time using their respective measures of patriotism, Gallup does not see the very large decrease evident in the Journal data over the past four years. Again, how much of the Journal decline may be due to the change in the mode of interviewing is unknown. However, the consistency of Gallup telephone methods suggests that the observed leveling off since 2019 may be the more valid indicator of what is happening in the underlying population.


Gallup and The Wall Street Journal use slightly different wordings when asking about the value of community. Gallup asks about “your community activities,” while the Journal asks about “community involvement.”

On a relative basis, the Journal finds that community involvement is about in the middle of its list of 10 issues: 27% say community involvement is very important, with another 53% saying somewhat important, for a combined score of 80%. Gallup finds 18% of Americans saying “your community activities” are extremely important and another 37% very important, for a combined score of 55%, putting this at the very bottom of Gallup’s list of eight issues.

The Wall Street Journal trend shows an up-and-down pattern over time. The importance of community involvement rose in its telephone polls between the 47% saying very important in 1998 to the 62% in 2019, followed by a very precipitous drop in importance in this year’s web poll to 27%.

Gallup, by contrast, finds an increase in perceived importance between the 2001/2002 measures and this year’s update. The extremely important percentage rose from 6% to 18% over the past 21 years (comparing 2023 to 2002), while the very important percentage rose from 26% to 37%.


The increase in community importance between 1998 and 2019 in the Journal’s polling largely aligns with the trajectory of the Gallup telephone polling increase between 2002 and 2023. The sharp drop in the Journal’s measure of community involvement this year using the web mode would usefully be confirmed by additional data.


Gallup does not measure the importance of having children directly, but we do have a measure that allows us to arrive at an estimate of the importance of having children across the adult population. We ask those who are 40 and younger who don’t currently have children if they want to have children, and we ask those over 40 without children if they wish they had had children. We couple these results with the large percentage who have children at the time of the interview to arrive at an overall total of 90% of all American adults who either have children, want children or wish they had children.

The Wall Street Journal asks Americans directly about the importance of having children. Their 2023 data show that 65% of all Americans say that having children is either very or somewhat important, with 30% saying it is very important and another 36% saying somewhat important. That leaves 33% of Americans in the Journal poll saying that having children is not that important or not important at all. This contrasts with just 8% in the Gallup data saying they don’t have children and don’t want them.

Gallup data on the desire to have children show very little change over time, from 93% and 94% back in 1990 and 2003 to the 90% measured this year. Gallup also shows very little change from 2018 to today.


By contrast, The Wall Street Journal data show a drop from 59% saying that having children is very important in 1998 to 43% in 2019 to 30% today. Combining the very and somewhat important categories, the Journal trend declined from 84% in 1998 to 77% in 2019 to 65% this year. Either way you look at it, the big decline over time in the Journal poll is not reflected in the trend on Gallup’s [different] combined measure.

In this case, the differences in the trends may reflect the differences in the measurement stimulus. The Journal asks respondents directly to rate the importance of having children, while Gallup imputes that those who already have children are glad they did, coupling that with those without children who want them or wish they had them.

Both of these measures give us meaningful insights, providing different perspectives on how Americans view having children -- particularly with a comparison of the Journal telephone data from 1998 and 2019 and Gallup’s telephone data from 2003 to 2018. Fertility data provided by the U.S. Census show that while Americans may still want to have children (as evident in Gallup polling), they are apparently delaying having children as they prioritize other aspects of their lives (reflecting the decline in the importance of having children as measured by the Journal polling). The very steep drop in desire to have children over the past four years in the Journal survey may, as noted previously, be a reflection of the mode change in the Journal’s interviewing.

Bottom Line

Over time, Americans have become less likely to value religion and have become less patriotic than in the past while becoming more likely to value money. These trends are evident in Gallup data and The Wall Street Journal data, although the two surveys present different pictures of the magnitude of change, particularly in recent years.

Americans place more value on community activities than in previous years, according to Gallup data. This type of increase was evident in the Journal’s polling between 1998 and 2019 as well, although it shows a big drop this year concomitant with the shift in interviewing mode.

And while Americans who don’t have children have maintained a generally constant interest in having children or regret that they did not, Journal data show a decline in perceived importance of having children over time. Given the differences in the two organization’s question wordings about children, the Journal findings on desire to have children may offer some additional perspective on how Americans’ desire to raise families is evolving, helping explain the de facto drop in U.S. births in recent decades.

Gallup trends on these and other social, political and economic measures are based on a general consistency in methods over time, particularly over the past four decades since the transition from in-person to telephone interviewing. It is always important to place our data in the context of data measuring the same concepts from other well-regarded survey organizations, including, in this instance, The Wall Street Journal. As noted previously, no two surveys are identical even when they are measuring the same concept within the same sampled population, and differences in question wording, question order within the survey, and other survey artifacts can affect the measured outcomes.

In recent years, the increased popularity of web-based interviewing (in large part because of its efficiency and lower costs) has given rise to significant debates over the impact of these types of mode changes on trends. The Wall Street Journal accounted for this in its reporting, saying that a portion of the changes it has seen could be due to the shift to web polling in its latest update. Continuing research can help discern the degree to which these kinds of mode changes can affect outcome variables.

These matters are important because they clarify Americans’ orientation toward key aspects of life and society and help us understand the significance of change in Americans’ values structure.

Our efforts to understand public opinion on these issues and to report that understanding to the public will continue to need to reflect careful attention paid to the details of the type of methodological issues discussed in this review.

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Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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