The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on societies, with possible consequences for their fundamental values. Inglehart’s revised modernization theory links societal values to the underlying subjective sense of existential security in a given society (scarcity hypothesis), while also claiming that influences on values diminish once individuals reach adulthood (socialization hypothesis). An acute existential crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic offers a rare opportunity to test these assumptions. We analyze data from representative surveys conducted in Japan shortly before and after the onset of the pandemic. Remaining survey sample differences are statistically controlled via propensity score weighting and regression adjustment, while post-stratification weights allow conclusions about the Japanese population. In three sets of analyses, we reveal that the pandemic and the experienced psychological distress are negatively associated with emancipative and secular values, entailing a reversal to traditionalism, intolerance, and religiosity. First, we document a substantial decline in both emancipative and secular values in the first months of the pandemic compared to five months earlier. This decline remained stable a year later. Second, we find that value change was stronger in prefectures more severely affected by the pandemic. Third, individuals who experienced higher psychological distress emphasized the same values more strongly, as evident in two surveys from May 2020 and April 2021. In contrast to the socialization hypothesis, our study provides evidence that, under extraordinary environmental conditions, values can shift even within a negligibly short time period.
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