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Americans have become more tolerant with each generation, study finds

Using 40 years of data (1972-2012) from an annual national survey of U.S.  adults, the authors examined the nation’s collective tolerance across time for five “controversial outgroups.”

Eighteen-year-olds tend to be more accepting of views they disagree with than 60-year-olds.
REUTERS/Julia Robinson

Americans have grown increasingly tolerant of people with views or lifestyles that differ from their own, even when those views are highly controversial, according to a study published online last week in the journal Social Forces.

That growing acceptance comes with one exception, however: Americans are not more tolerant of people with racist beliefs.

Using 40 years of data (1972-2012) from an annual national survey of American adults, the study’s authors examined the country’s collective tolerance across time for five “controversial outgroups”: people who are gay, people with pro-Communist views, anti-religious atheists, militarists (people who advocate doing away with elections and letting the military run the country), and racists (people who believe blacks are genetically inferior).   

For the purposes of this study, the researchers defined tolerance as a willingness to give members of those five groups unfettered public expression — specifically, by letting them speak publicly about their views, teach at colleges and universities, and have their books in public libraries.

Key findings

The study found that the tolerance level of the average American has been climbing steadily since the early 1970s. The biggest generational shift in tolerance occurred between baby boomers (born 1946-1964) and their “Silent Generation” parents (1925-1945), but subsequent generations — Generation X (1964-1981) and millennials (born after 1982) — have continued the upward trend in acceptance of opinions and lifestyles different from their own.

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“The main driver of variability in total tolerance,” the researchers note, is the year in which they survey was taken — a finding that suggests, they add, that the increase in tolerance over the past 40 years has been “a broad cultural trend.”

Older people of all generations tend to be less tolerant than younger ones, the study also found. In other words, 18-year-olds tend to be more accepting of views they disagree with than 60-year-olds. But that difference has significantly narrowed with each succeeding generation.

Interestingly, the greatest change in tolerance over the past 40 years has occurred among white men who did not attend college.

Acceptance of people who are gay increased the most since the early 1970s. In 1972, only 52 percent of Americans surveyed said a gay man should be allowed to teach at a college. That increased to 85 percent by 2012.

Tolerance of racist views was the only category that showed no increase. It has stayed around 56 percent since 1972. That percentage still seems incredibly high, but study co-author Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, sees the fact that it hasn’t increased as a certain kind of progress. To support that interpretration, she points to the recent widespread attention the media has given to incidents of racism on college campuses.

“A few decades ago, racism would barely have been noticed — it might have even been rewarded,” she says in a statement released with the study. “Now it’s noticed, and the consequences can be swift. It shows how much things have changed.”

A controversial interpretation

In previous studies and a book (“Generation Me”), Twenge has controversially proposed that the millennial generation is less empathetic and more self-centered than its generational predecessors. The finding of this latest study — that millennials tend to be more tolerant than previous generations — would seem to contradict that earlier research.

But Twenge and her co-authors suggest an explanation for these latest findings that enables them to hang on to Twenge’s millennials-as-narcissists theory — an explanation that is bound to be equally controversial. They propose that the increase in tolerance has more to do with a move in American culture toward individualism than toward liberalism:

The increase in tolerance co-occurred with increases in individualistic beliefs such as rejecting traditional social rules around gender, race, religion, sexuality, and drug use. At the group level, tolerance was higher in years with more individualistic language in books and a higher need for uniqueness. These analyses cannot infer causation, but these results are consistent with our hypothesis that increasingly individualistic attitudes may be one cause of increasing tolerance for outgroups. …

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The results [of the current study] could be interpreted as indicating a growing liberalization of attitudes among the US population, as tolerance for groups associated with liberal causes (homosexuals, Communists, atheists) has increased while tolerance for a non-liberal viewpoint (believing that Blacks are genetically inferior) has increased to a smaller extent. However, tolerance for people with a belief in military rule, which is also not a traditionally liberal view, has also increased. In addition, self-identifying as a liberal or Democrat has decreased in the [survey] since the 1970s, over the same time that tolerance increased. This suggests that the results are not due to the US population become more politically liberal. It is plausible that these views correlate with each other because they are associated with a more progressive rather than strictly liberal perspective, but the [survey] does not separate liberal from progressive values.

You can download and read the entire study at the Social Forces website.