A group of researchers have had their fingers on our society’s pulse since they launched a sprawling survey seven years ago. Jamie Morton reports on some surprising results.

Racism. Sexism. Euthanasia. Changing the flag. Behind the din of talkback polemic, provocative newspaper columns and dinner table debates, a small group of researchers have been quietly feeling out where our collective sentiments on hot-button topics actually lie.

Are Kiwis becoming more sexist? Quite the opposite, but at a gradual rate.

Are Aucklanders really the least humble Kiwis? Comparatively, sure.

Were we always going to vote to stick with the Union Jack? Yes.


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Last July, when a nationwide row about racism erupted on the back of Asian buyers being blamed for Auckland's housing woes, these researchers happily demonstrated to us how our attitudes to Asian people were actually becoming more positive.

They've confirmed things we knew were true - Facebook makes us feel bad about our bodies - as well as things we wished weren't: Maori people who "look Maori" have a tougher time securing a mortgage.

Any question we might have about who we are as a nation - why do we deny climate change? are single people really happier? do better-off people underestimate poverty? - this team can answer it.

More importantly, they can track how our views are shifting over time.

From an office in the University of Auckland's Human Sciences Building, Associate Professor Chris Sibley monitors these subtle evolutions in our social posture.

He curates what's called the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study - a treasure trove of a data resource that can gauge the outlooks of some 20,000 Kiwis.

The programme - now bringing together researchers from Auckland, Victoria, Canterbury, Otago and Massey Universities - recently celebrated the publication of its 80th scientific paper.

Each day, Dr Sibley and PhD student Yanshu Huang are met with a new wave of filled-in questionnaires from a huge sample group constantly being quizzed on matters like feelings of warmth or anger towards different groups, or trust in various institutions.

The central questions behind the effort itself are obvious: why do we hold the values we do, which ones are changing, and how?

"For example, one of the interesting things that this type of data can be used to look at is 'why do some people change more than others' or 'why do some people stay so consistent in their values over time' whereas other people tend to change?", Dr Sibley told the Herald.

"To look at questions like this, you need longitudinal data."

In 2009, the literature landscape in the space was a patchwork of different studies, typically limited in scope and capturing just one moment in time.

Dr Chris Sibley says being able to look at the data over time helps understand why some people's attitudes change more than others. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Dr Chris Sibley says being able to look at the data over time helps understand why some people's attitudes change more than others. Photo / Jason Oxenham

When the NZAVS launched that year, its mission wasn't just to probe deeper, but revisit the issues over a period of two decades.

"For example, we've been tracking rates of sexism since we began in 2009, and we can now confidently state that we are seeing a gradual, but steady, decline in sexism in the New Zealand population.

"The key to our research project is that we can quantify this change, we can model exactly how quickly sexism is decreasing and to what degree - it's a small change each year, but it's reliably there in the data."

Another big gap in the research was data focused purely on the Kiwi experience.

"New Zealand is unique, and yet most of the big longitudinal datasets in social psychology are conducted overseas. So we needed something of our own that was focused on the New Zealand context, and on issues relevant to New Zealand."

At the outset, there were many doubts about whether the project could survive.

But a seed grant Dr Sibley received from the University of Auckland proved enough to fund the study for its first few years.

He and his colleagues began with a sample of around 6500 registered voters.

Today, that figure is over 18,000, with a recent analysis showing comparatively few respondents were dropping out.

Part of the mix are people from different ages, faiths, regions and ethnicities, with new people added each year.

"Our sample is quite close to what you find in the population, although women are more likely to respond to the study than men," he said.

"This is not too much of a problem ... and [we] can correct for it."

The first major paper investigated whether the Christchurch earthquakes had prompted changes in religion and psychological adjustments, helping track recovery rates in mental health, anxiety, distress and depression.

That work has carried on with a recent study led by PhD student Lara Greaves and published in the major journal PLOS One. The study confirmed people living in moderately damaged areas of Christchurch had the slowest rate of psychological recovery, probably because of a lack of closure or settlement.

PhD student Petar Milojev has, meanwhile, published some of the first large-scale studies to look at change in personality over a lifespan, shedding light on such big questions as why people's openness and extraversion transforms over time.

His research has been able to show how personality is fairly malleable among young adults, then changes very little in the 30s to 50s, before becoming more malleable again among older-aged people.

Master's student Nicole Satherley has been working on a paper showing that positive feelings toward Asian people have been gradually and steadily increasing since 2009.

"This is really important because it shows that tolerance is increasing in New Zealand."

Ms Greaves' other work includes building a picture of sexual orientation in New Zealand.

"Most people seem to have heard the statistic that 10 per cent of people are 'gay', but actual research looking at how common different sexual orientations are is rare," Dr Sibley said.

Ms Greaves' results, however, indicated that 94.2 per cent of the population identified as straight or heterosexual, with the remainder gay or lesbian (2.6 per cent), bisexual (1.8 per cent), bicurious (0.6 per cent), "pansexual" (0.5 per cent) and "asexual" (0.3 per cent).

Such papers have drawn interest from researchers in Germany, the UK and the US, and across the Tasman.

"One of the great things is that we ... are starting to see some pay-offs," Dr Sibley said.

"The main reason to keep the study going is because it allows us to answer completely novel questions about how New Zealanders are doing, how we as a community and nation are changing over time - and to see the upcoming challenges we may have to face in the future."

Our views on euthanasia

Last year, 15,270 participants in the NZAVS were asked: "Suppose a person has a painful incurable disease. Do you think that doctors should be allowed by law to end the patient's life if the patient requests it?"

On a scale ranging from 1 (definitely no) to 7 (definitely yes), roughly two thirds were in favour, and mostly at the "definitely" end of the spectrum.

"The mean response to the question was 5.6 out of 7 - this indicates that most New Zealanders were, on average, supportive of euthanasia," said Sonali Dutt, who conducted the study as part of her summer research scholarship.

About 12.3 per cent were opposed.

The lowest rates of support were among those aged 80 to 84, while the highest levels came from young people aged 18 to 19.

"In the last few years, between 60 and 90 per cent of New Zealanders have been in favour of a change," said Hamilton voluntary euthanasia advocate Faye Clark, who has been asking for the right to end her own life since she was diagnosed with myeloma, an incurable bone marrow cancer, seven years ago.

"I think our politicians need to ... reflect the wishes of the electorate."

Changing the flag

Tauranga city councillor Catherine Stewart values tradition. Photo / Alan Gibson
Tauranga city councillor Catherine Stewart values tradition. Photo / Alan Gibson

Even two years before Prime Minister John Key floated the idea of changing the flag, most Kiwis were keen to stick with the status quo.

While preliminary results have shown 56 per cent of New Zealanders who voted in the flag referendum opted to stick with the Union Jack, that figure was nearly par with a snapshot taken in 2012.

The survey of 12,182 adults showed that then 53.1 per cent did not support a change.

Tauranga city councillor Catherine Stewart was among those who voted to that effect four years later.

"I suppose I value history and tradition and I don't think the change came from the community - it came from the Prime Minister," she said. "I just feel it's all been a large waste of money."

The NZAVS data showed about 29.5 per cent backed a change, but 14.4 per cent were unsure.

Analysis showed 61 per cent of National voters wanted to keep the flag, as did 51 per cent of Labour voters, 48 per cent of Greens voters, 49 per cent of Maori Party voters, and 59 per cent of NZ First voters.

Making sacrifices to save cash

Buying cheaper food and enduring cold homes was a harsh reality for many Kiwi households last year, according to data crunched by Helena Newton as part of her summer research scholarship with the NZAVS.

Nearly 40 per cent of just under 15,000 respondents reported they'd been forced to buy cheaper food to pay for other things they needed.

And a total 27.6 per cent of 15,099 respondents said they'd had to put up with cold to save on heating costs over the course of 2014 and 2015.

Most respondents, however, were in jobs or had someone to win the bread - about 85.1 per cent - compared with 14.9 per cent who were either unemployed or whose principal household earner was out of work.

Who does the most commuting

Aucklanders, unsurprisingly, have the longest average time spent commuting of all Kiwis - just under five hours each week.

But for about a quarter of Aucklanders, like the Automobile Association's Barney Irvine, getting to and from work each week takes up more than eight hours.

"To avoid the worst of the traffic, I leave home early in the morning, and most days I leave the office a little early too," said Mr Irvine, whose commute from the city outskirts totals up to 9.5 hours each week.

"A lot of Aucklanders do this, and I think we'll see a lot more doing it as congestion in the CBD worsens."

He wasn't surprised by the figures, adding they highlighted why congestion was high as a concern for Aucklanders.

"Though the Auckland region has the longest average commute time, the Wellington (4.4 hours) and Canterbury (4.2 hours) regions are not far behind," said Sarah Christiansen, who compiled the new research for her summer research scholarship with the NZAVS.

It was a world away from Nelson's weekly travelling time of 2.2 hours.

A little Q&A with ourselves

The New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study:

• Regularly quizzes around 20,000 adult Kiwis for their views and attitudes on topics.

• The sample represents the fabric of New Zealand society, with correct proportions of sex, age and ethnicity carefully reflected in the dataset.

• More than 80 research papers from its data have been published in journals, looking at everything from sexism to poverty.

• The study has tracked changes in our views since it was launched seven years ago.

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