No navel-gazing here

News And Views

News & Views

  • 12 May 2020
  • Richard Price


Nice guys finish last. Only the good die young. Greed is good. These messages have been permeating society for decades now – and you would be forgiven for reaching the conclusion that it’s only getting worse.

Let’s face it, in the era of Trump, Bolsonaro and Brexit the public mood has been one of division and, at times, naked self-interest.

So it was a breath of fresh air this week to come across a fascinating new book by the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, which challenges all those facile assumptions about humanity. Never heard of him? Get yourself a copy of Humankind: A Hopeful History and any cynicism will evaporate. Trust me.

His message – that human beings are essentially kind, community-spirited and helpful – resonated particularly strongly here at 3 Monkeys Zeno, because we have been digging into it for years. We call our study The Human Project ™: an ongoing, detailed examination of the hopes, fears and values that influence human behaviour.

At the best of times it provides an interesting snapshot of the public mood. Core societal values, however, rarely shift. And when they do it is at a glacial pace.

But these are far from the best of times. And this is where our latest research project, An Historic Moment: The Values Shift in a Pandemic United Kingdom, gets really interesting.

The pandemic is, indeed, proving to be a game changer – but in a good way. Core values have changed more dramatically in just 60 days than we have seen since the aftermath of World War II. A parallel study we carried out in the United States tells a similar story, outstripping even the aftermath of 9/11.

On both sides of the Atlantic we are witnessing a shift away from self-interest to community spirit. Away from individualism and towards the wider collective. In every demographic – from Gen Z to Boomers – the number one rising value is Protecting the Family.

Here in the United Kingdom there is a physical manifestation of these shifting values. The NHS, which Nye Bevan built from the ashes of WWII, has been transformed from political punchbag to national treasure virtually overnight.

This renewed sense of community is also reflected in Helpfulness and Duty becoming key rising values in our study. Besides this, Thrift, Simplicity and Self Reliance all feature in the top ten.

Meanwhile Power and Ambition are increasingly seen as negative values, as are Status, Wealth and Self-Interest.

It is fascinating to compare this to Bregman’s conclusions in Humankind: A Hopeful History. In it he tells the story of a real-life Lord of the Flies scenario, in which six boys were marooned on an island, cut off from all adult influence or discipline.

Whereas William Golding’s fictional account famously descends into the darkest depths of man’s inhumanity to man, the real-life version (which happened in 1965) was its polar opposite. Rather than turning on each other in a time of crisis, the boys joined together, co-operated and thrived. They are friends to this day.

It is my contention that we are witnessing something similar, on a far grander scale, amid the Covid-19 crisis. We all know an anecdote about friends, colleagues or neighbours whose behaviour has been transformed by the pandemic. Now we have a piece of research which puts that anecdotal evidence to the test.

If there is a sting in the tail, it is that Romance and Having Fun are also in sharp decline. Understandable in the circumstances – but hopefully these will rebound just as fast once the threat passes.

So what are the implications for our clients of these dramatic, pandemic-era value shifts?

Brands ultimately need to reflect their customers. When those customers undergo a life-changing experience, companies should pause, reflect and be ready to realign against what could become the new consumer reality.

We anticipate a premium on problem-solving and community support. The public will want employers and brands to act in ways that demonstrate they are on their side, and will be wary of overt branding and promotion.

With Helpfulness the second most risen value, is this likely to influence our expectations of brands? In the future we believe consumers will want to see them helping others, not just themselves.

This is a snapshot of three extraordinary months but we can already see a clear pattern emerging. When we repeat the research in the Autumn, the picture of this seismic societal shift will become even clearer.

For now, to misquote my new favourite Dutch historian, we can cautiously look forward to A Hopeful Future. The crisis seems to be bringing out the best of humanity.

If you would like a bespoke talk through of the findings on how COVID-19 has affected your audience, please do get in touch at and we will set up a time for you to hear how your company or brand should respond. Alternatively, the broader key takeouts are available to listen to on this podcast and available here.