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Culture: Persistence and evolution

The persistence of cultural attitudes is an important determinant of the success of institutional reforms, and of the impact of immigration on a country’s culture. This column presents evidence from a study of European immigrants to the US. Some cultural traits – such as deep religious values – are highly persistent, whereas others – such as attitudes towards cooperation and redistribution – change more quickly. Many cultural attitudes evolve significantly between the second and fourth generations, and the persistence of different attitudes varies across countries of origin.

Are a person’s values and beliefs persistent, or do they evolve – possibly rather quickly – in response to the economic and institutional environment? This is a central question, for instance, if one is interested in assessing the likelihood of success of reforms that change rules within a country. Are such reforms doomed because a country’s culture cannot be changed, or can they succeed because they can change cultural attitudes by altering incentives, and if so, over what time horizon? It is also a central issue in forecasting and assessing the changes associated with significant immigration flows – for instance, how will the cultural and social make-up of the receiving country be affected, and what are the challenges posed for policymaking?

Evidence on the dynamics of culture

One way to gather evidence on the dynamics of culture is to study the behaviour of immigrants once they move to a new country – in our case, European immigrants to the US. Immigrants provide a useful laboratory for the study of the evolution of values and beliefs because their cultural attitudes are likely to bear the mark of the country from which they, their parents, or their grandparents emigrated, but are also influenced by their exposure to US society and its political and economic institutions – often very different from those of their country of origin. They thus provide an interesting quasi-experiment for the effect on cultural attitudes of a change in the economic and social environment.

In the literature there are two views on this question.

  • One argues that values and beliefs are deeply rooted in the country or ethnic group to which a person belongs and evolve very slowly over time (e.g. Guiso, Sapienza, and Zingales 2006, Roland 2004).
  • The other holds that cultural attitudes can change rather quickly in response to changes in economic incentives and opportunities, in technology, and in institutions (e.g. Fehr 2009, Gruber and Hungerman 2008).

Both views of culture (slow- versus fast-moving) have truth in them, in the sense that while some cultural traits certainly go back to the distant past and affect today’s economic and institutional outcomes, it is also true that values and beliefs (‘culture’) evolve in response to changes in technology, economic environment, and in political institutions. These changes can affect attitudes not in historical time, but in the space of a few years or few generations.

In Giavazzi, Petkov, and Schiantarelli (2014), we have investigated empirically the speed of evolution (or lack thereof) of a large number of cultural attitudes about religion, family, gender, sexuality, cooperation, redistribution, etc. – distinguishing between first, second, third, and fourth (or higher) generations of European immigrants to the US. The focus on European immigrants is largely imposed on us by the availability of sufficient data for multiple generations distinguished by country of origin. We use data contained in 21 waves (although the exact number varies across attitudes) of the General Social Survey collected between the end of the 1970s and 2012.

‘Epidemiological’ approach to the analysis of culture

Relying on the experience of descendants of immigrants from various countries of ancestry who live in the same country – in order to assess the effect of culture on economic or other social outcomes – is often referred to as the ‘epidemiological’ approach to the analysis of culture. Just like epidemiologists try to distinguish the effect of genetic and environmental factors as causes of a disease, similarly economists have used the experience of immigrants to a country to separate the effect of pre-existent beliefs and values from the effect of the technological and institutional environment.

There is indeed a vast and interesting literature that focuses on the experience of immigrants to analyse the dynamics of culture and its effects on outcomes. However, most existing contributions focus on the persistence of cultural traits for second-generation immigrants and on their effect on economic and social outcomes. We go beyond the second generation and show that this leads one to a richer and more nuanced conclusion on the evolution of attitudes.

We measure the speed of convergence of cultural traits over multiple generations in several ways. We first compute the evolution over generations of the standard deviation of each attitude across countries (sigma convergence) and test the equality of country-generation effects. We argue, however, that the number of countries of origin whose immigrants’ descendants have converged towards the dominant norm is more informative. More specifically, we focus on the proportion of countries whose immigrants’ descendants, by generation two or four, have cut at least in half the distance from the norm observed in generation one. We also conduct robustness tests allowing for a stricter or looser criterion.

Key findings

Our paper has three main findings.

  • First, we provide evidence of heterogeneity across cultural traits in the speed with which they evolve across generations.

Some are very persistent – for instance, deep individual religious values (as reflected in the answers to the questions regarding belief in life after death, frequency of prayer, approval of prayer in public schools), some family and moral values (ease of divorce, obedience of a child as an important quality, access to abortion for any reason, views of homosexuality), and general political views. As a result of such persistence, values of fourth or higher generation immigrants still bear the imprint of their ancestors who migrated to the US many decades earlier, and have not converged yet to the prevailing US norm.

Others, such as attitudes towards cooperation (the trustworthiness, fairness, and helpfulness of others), the importance of effort for one’s success, cultural attitudes towards redistribution, children’s independence, premarital sex, and access to abortion – with restrictions – converge rather quickly, as successive generations adapt to the norms of the new society in which they live. The same relatively fast convergence is observed for the frequency of attendance to religious services and the intensity of affiliation with one’s religion. The former reflects the social dimension of the religious experience and the latter its role in defining identity. Interestingly, they both differ from the personal religious values mentioned above.

Finally, results concerning the speed of convergence of cultural attitudes towards women’s role outside the home are mixed, with attitudes towards women in the workplace converging faster than those related to general women’s role in society.

  • Second, time since the original immigration of the ancestors matters – results obtained studying higher-generation immigrants differ from those obtained from analyses limited to the second generation.

Thus, finding that the attitudes of second-generation immigrants still closely reflect those of the country of origin, does not imply per se that attitudes are very persistent. Actually, limiting the analysis to the second generation would bias the results in favour of the conclusion that cultural attitudes are persistent, while many of them display substantial and often significant further evolution from the second to the fourth generation.

  • Third, we find that persistence is ‘culture-specific’ in the sense that the country from which one’s ancestors came matters in defining the pattern of integration (or lack of) with respect to a specific cultural trait.

Moreover, the strength of the family in each country of ancestry, the ease or difficulty in learning English for its immigrants, and the degree of residential segregation are important determinants of the speed with which cultural traits evolve through generations.

‘Vertical’ vs. ‘horizontal’ cultural transmission

Our empirical evidence can be looked at through the lens of the theoretical literature that studies the evolution of culture. A fundamental distinction in those models is between ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ transmission of values and beliefs (see Bisin and Verdier 2011).

  • Vertical transmission denotes transmission within the family – its intensity may be purposefully chosen by parents, and tends to induce persistence.
  • Horizontal transmission refers to the mechanism through which values and beliefs are transmitted via social interactions with peers or with adults external to the family, responding to incentives such as the net reward from adopting a dominant trait, and thus may change more rapidly.

We find that the attitudes that converge more quickly across generations are those for which horizontal transmission is likely to be more important, while those for which differences tend to persist are those for which transmission within the family is likely to be comparatively more effective.

Our paper also has a bearing for the economic and sociological literature that analyses the cultural and social integration of immigrants. For the US, the fundamental and long-debated question is whether the ‘melting pot’ metaphor is accurate or needs revisiting. The implication of our results is that the melting pot was certainly at work for European immigrants for many cultural traits and beliefs. However, descendants of immigrants from different countries of ancestry have maintained over several generations a degree of cultural distinctiveness along some other traits. Thus, the temperature in the melting pot was hot, but not uniform throughout.

Concluding remarks

One must be very cautious in transporting these results through time or space. What they suggest, however, is that the differential speed of evolution of different cultural traits, their evolution over multiple generations, and for different countries of ancestry (and receiving countries) are issues that certainly deserve further investigation.


Bisin, Alberto and Thierry Verdier (2011), “The Economics of Cultural Transmission and Socialization”, in Jess Benhabib, Alberto Bisin, and Matthew O Jackson (eds.), Handbook of Social Economics, Vol. 1A, Amsterdam: North-Holland: 339–416.

Fehr, Ernst (2009), “On the Economics and Biology of Trust”, Journal of the European Economic Association, 7(2–3): 235–266.

Giavazzi, Francesco, Ivan Petkov, and Fabio Schiantarelli (2014), “Culture: Persistence and Evolution”, NBER Working Paper 20174.

Gruber, Jonathan and Daniel M Hungerman (2008), “The Church Versus the Mall: What Happens When Religion Faces Increased Secular Competition?”, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 123(2): 831–862.

Guiso, Luigi, Paola Sapienza, and Luigi Zingales (2006), “Does Culture Affect Economic Outcomes?”, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20(2): 23–48.

Roland, Gerard (2004), “Understanding Institutional Change: Fast-Moving and Slow- Moving Institutions”, Studies in Comparative International Development, 38(4): 109– 131.

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