These 16 Polls Show How American Thinking Has (And Hasn't) Changed In 80 Years

Generations past and present weigh in on everything from hitchhikers to financial windfalls to the honesty of Congress.
Americans' views of the world have changed just a bit over the past 80 years. So has the way pollsters ask their questions.
Americans' views of the world have changed just a bit over the past 80 years. So has the way pollsters ask their questions.
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For more than 80 years, pollsters have been asking Americans from all walks of life to share their opinions and experiences on pretty much every imaginable topic, from the horrors of a world war to the mundanity of grocery shopping. Thousands of those surveys are archived by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University.

As this year ends, HuffPost wanted to take stock of how things have ― and haven’t ― changed over the past decades. So we looked in those archives to find a range of questions, dating as far back as 1938, that explored how earlier generations felt about everything from fashion to faith in Congress to fear of technological change. Then, in conjunction with YouGov, we asked 1,000 Americans today to respond to those same queries.

Bear in mind that survey technology has changed a lot in the past 80 years. In the 1930s, when well over a third of American households had no telephones, pollsters conducted their surveys face to face. Later, as home phones became close to universal, most pollsters switched over to making phone calls. And today, as people’s relationship to the telephone changes again, HuffPost/YouGov surveys are among those conducted online using a nationally representative panel (more details on that here). These developments add a few wrinkles to any effort to compare yesterday’s answers with today’s.

But even with that caveat, the responses to these 16 poll questions suggest real and abiding shifts in American culture since pollsters first asked the public to weigh in.

80 Years Ago

Only 31 percent of Americans now say they’ve given a ride to a hitchhiker, down from 43 percent in 1938. But that’s a comparatively minor decrease compared to one on a question about gender. Eighty years ago, more than three-quarters of the public believed that married women shouldn’t work if their husbands could support them. Now, just 8 percent feel that way.

70 Years Ago

We asked Americans about their reading habits to highlight a form of once popular entertainment that’s fallen largely out of vogue. Judging by the response, the question may have been too obscure ― it seems possible that some people may have thought we meant short news articles, not short fiction in magazines. Also fallen out of favor: the idea of a world government led by the United Nations, which appealed to 39 percent of Americans in 1948, but only to 11 percent today.

60 Years Ago

Some things haven’t changed in six decades: People still like the idea of using an unexpected windfall to travel or buy a new home or car. Others have: It’s likely the interviewers in 1958 didn’t have to explain what a hi-fi was. And while in 1958, about half the public said they couldn’t understand why people from other countries would dislike the U.S., fewer than a third of Americans still say the same.

50 Years Ago

In 1968, 55 percent of Americans thought the pace of scientific research was changing the world too fast, and half of all parents said they wouldn’t let their teenage sons grow their hair long. In 2018, a smaller 41 percent are worried about rapid scientific change, and just 15 percent of parents still have a problem with long-haired boys.

40 Years Ago

Compared to four decades ago, fewer people now say that “Americans are immoral in the amounts of goods and services they consume.” In a bigger shift, Americans are now only a quarter as likely as they were in 1978 to believe that congressional representatives are basically honest.

30 Years Ago

Americans of 2018 still largely disapprove of recreational drug use, but that attitude is not as overwhelming as it was in 1988, when just 1 percent of those polled said they considered using drugs for enjoyment to be generally a good thing. On the flip side, modern Americans look much less kindly on the current state of air travel. Thirty years ago, 58 percent of those who’d taken a trip of at least 100 miles by air said they considered flying pleasant. Just 27 percent of the public now says the same.

20 Years Ago

Two decades ago, most Americans were personally more concerned with increasing economic growth than with decreasing the gap between the rich and the poor. Now, there’s equal support for both goals. Meanwhile, Americans remain divided on whether the internet’s benefits outweigh its disadvantages, and the share of voters who think their neighbor would support a female presidential candidate has ticked up from 33 to 46 percent.

10 Years Ago

In 2008, an ABC news poll asked Americans to “honestly assess” their own levels of racial prejudice. Thirty-five percent said they had at least some feelings of racial prejudice, with 5 percent saying they were strongly prejudiced. In the 2018 HuffPost/YouGov poll, 44 percent of Americans reported having at least some racial prejudice, with 7 percent saying they were strongly prejudiced. The numbers can’t tell us whether that indicates more bigotry, greater soul-searching or statistical noise.

Use the widget below to further explore the results of the HuffPost/YouGov survey, using the menu at the top to select survey questions and the buttons at the bottom to filter the data by subgroups:

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted Dec. 27-29 among U.S. adults, using a sample selected from YouGov’s opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.

HuffPost has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov’s nationally representative opinion polling. More details on the polls’ methodology are available here.

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some, but not all, potential survey errors. YouGov’s reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.

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