No sex please, we're Americans

America’s early English settlers thought virtue was the passport to heaven. Laziness and extramarital sex, on the other hand, were tickets to nowhere good. In the age of funemployment and Lady Gaga, do those values still influence secular Americans?

Most definitely, says Eric Uhlmann ’06PhD, an assistant professor of management at HEC Paris. A study he conducted while at Yale, with T. Andrew Poehlman ’07PhD and psychology professor John Bargh, suggests that contemporary Americans—regardless of their politics or religious beliefs—are still influenced by their forerunners’ views of work and sex. (The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.) “Our theory is that America’s Puritan-Protestant heritage had an influence on America’s culture as a whole,” Uhlmann says. Those settlers “set the tone.”

The researchers asked groups of U.S. and British students to unscramble sentences. Some students’ sentences contained words related to deliberation, such as “brain” and “rational.” Others’ contained words related to intuition, such as “hunch.”

Then the students had to judge how much they respected a woman who’d had five one-night stands. The Americans who had seen intuition-themed words condemned her more harshly than did those primed for deliberation—showing, Uhlmann says, that “Americans’ implicit and explicit beliefs about sex differ. Implicitly, we’re more puritanical.” The British students? They were more tolerant than the Americans, regardless of which words they’d seen.

In another experiment, Americans and Canadians were shown either neutral words or words related to divine salvation, which the Puritans associated with hard work. Americans who saw words like “redeem” and “angel” subsequently worked harder to solve a puzzle than those primed with neutral words. Salvation had no effect on the Canadians’ work ethic.

Will America ever shake the Puritan influence and embrace six-hour workdays and casual sex? Uhlmann doubts it. “Culture tends to persist,” he says.  


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