Value structure of Hungarian society, 2009

A group of civic minded citizens, most likely economic leaders of the country, hired Tárki to conduct a survey to take stock of Hungarian society's attitude toward cultural values and the general state of societal interactions. The impetus for the study was the recognition that social attitudes have an impact even on the country's competitive advantage. That competitive advantage, especially of late, has been waning. Those who ordered the survey wanted to know the cause of this decline. Tárki used the framework of the World Value Survey to come up with "The Normative Limits of the Market Economy (Economic Culture)." The World Values Survey is an ongoing academic project by social scientists to assess the state of sociocultural, moral, religious and political values of different cultures around the world. The detailed findings of the World Value Survey project can be found on its website.

Tárki's findings may not be revolutionary. Perhaps we all knew about some of the Hungarian attitudes toward each other and toward institutions, but it is reassuring to have more solid proof for many of our assumptions based on anecdotal evidence. There are also some surprises. For example, "given the level of economic development, the Hungarian value system is more secularized" than countries of a similar background. By "secularization" Tárki means that Hungarians are less prone to follow the precepts of authority or those of a traditional society. Thus, apparently they are more individualistic than I would have thought.

The next finding didn't surprise me at all. Here the social scientists wanted to know how important for members of Hungarian society are such values as self-fulfillment, democracy, openness, trust, tolerance, civic cooperation, personal contacts, and use of democratic institutions. In this respect Hungary was placed at the very edge of the western, Christian cultural sphere and showed itself to be a closed, inward-looking society. Hungarian readers of the assessment might be offended because Hungary is placed closer to countries like Bulgaria, Moldavia, Ukraine and Russia than to Slovenia or other countries west of Hungary.

Hungarians find civil and political rights less important than people in countries west of Hungary. They are less interested in daily politics and are less likely to take an active part in the political life of the country. They are less tolerant of opinions that are contrary to the accepted norms of the majority. They are also less trusting.

As far as trust goes, Hungary finds itself between western Europe and the former socialist states when it comes to trusting individuals. However, Hungary is the very last of all European countries, including the former socialist states, in trusting institutions. The distrust in political institutions is most likely especially high because of the real and assumed corruption of politicians. However, Hungarians have put little stock in state and local institutions in general for centuries. Trust is especially low in those on whom one should rely: politicians, bankers, and journalists. After all, politicians are supposed to make decisions affecting our future, bankers are entrusted with our money, and journalists are supposed to inform us accurately.

Another surprising finding, at least to me, is that there is little human intercourse in Hungary. People don't often entertain or organize outings with their friends. They are also not too eager to help each other. Very few people belong to different civil organizations, clubs, or some kind of charitable organization.

Two-thirds of Hungarians think that they themselves are honest and upright but others are not. Interestingly enough, that attitude is coupled with an unusual tolerance toward those who break the law.

As far as the difference between the highest and the lowest income brackets is concerned, Hungary belongs to the average among European countries. However, Hungarians are convinced that the gap between rich and poor is "too great". Actually much greater than in reality. And one more telling finding: among fifty countries, the Hungarians are the most convinced that economic success can be achieved only at someone else's expense. In other words, "I'm poor because someone else is rich." Economic cooperation is unlikely in a country where the majority of the population thinks that wealth accumulation is a zero sum game.

There are a couple more noteworthy findings. One is that the percentage of those who think that educational attainment is a key to success is very low. The common belief is that success in life has more to do with one's social background than with one's actual achievements. I'm not terribly surprised about this: it is enough to look at the names of some of shining lights of the Hungarian elite. Hungarians are utterly convinced that "one cannot succeed in life if he is honest." Only crooks make it to the top. Again, a very unhealthy attitude that is not at all conducive to the appreciation of economic success.

Finally, and again not suprisingly, the survey proved that the "Hungarian population is very prone to expect results offered by state intervention." The average Hungarian citizen even demands benefits from the state that he himself knows the state cannot provide.

This anti-entreprenurial, distrustful mindset, the authors conclude, is deeply rooted in the Hungarian cultural/historical tradition. It has only been reinforced by the social philosophy of the intellectual and political elite. It is going to be very difficult to change these societal attitudes.


  1. Unfortunately for me and my wife, we failed to take this characterization of Hungarians into account when we decided to invest in Hungary. We saw that Hungarians are talented, intelligent, and hungry to succeed, so we assumed that those positive attributes would propel the country into the western sphere along with the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland. We knew that there was plenty of corruption, but decided that the positives outweighed the negatives. We could have kept all of our assets in the United States, thus taking the cautious route, but we believed in the future of Hungary.
    Now we realize that all of our Hungarian friends were not just cynical and negative, but actually had a much keener sense of what Hungarians are really like. We knew about the “zero-sum” attitude and how it causes Hungarians to drag others down to their level, rather than rise to the challenge. We thought that the prospect of being part of Europe and not part of the Russian “sphere of privileged interests” would spur Hungarians to cooperate with one another in order to place themselves on the side of those who, while taking some of their sovereignty, give plenty of economic freedom and self-determination in exchange. We were wrong.
    Arguably, in the long term, our investments in Hungary might not end up any worse than our investments in the U.S., and at least this way we have hedged our bets on both sides of the Atlantic. Still, I can’t help but think that, considering the choices Hungarians are about to make politically, our money might be safer in the Czech Republic or even Poland. I’m betting that many investors, who are not so small-time as us, are thinking along the same lines. The saddest thing is not that Hungary is probably doomed to remain shackled to Romania and Bulgaria in the wealth, corruption, and democracy tables, but that Hungary is wasting such a great amount of potential. As my wife pointed out to me a long time ago, almost all of the great Hungarian success stories, from billionaires to Nobel prize winners to mathematicians, have not been successful until they left Hungary.

  2. I generally get to play the role of the negative one, and much of what I have written in the comments section of this blog over the past year very much corresponds with the above entry. I think I actually made the zero sum point earlier this week or last. Furthermore, I feel on a regualr basis the lack of social cohesion and the very much atomization of life in Hungary (the Hungarian version of “Bowling Alone”). Having said all that, when looks at this on a comparative perspective over the last 15 years, it has not always been this way. A decade or more ago, on almost all of these objective criteria the Hungarians seemed far ahead of the Czechs and Poles, and by many measures it appeared that the Hungarian transition to liberal democracy would be much smoother than in these other countries. The massive wave of liberalization and privatization in Hungary in the early to mid 1990s did not provoke a huge outcry and a fracturing of the society (at least immediately). It was generally agreed that corruption in the Cz Republic was far more entrenched than in Hungary (just look at early stage provatization in the Cz Republic). In fact, I would say, in a lot of ways things really were looking up for Hungary for a while.
    Without disputing the thrust of the blog entry, I do think some of what we now see is cyclical and a function of people’s current frustrations. No doubt as others have discussed at length, the absolutely polarized nature of politics in Hungary have had a significant corrosive effect on the society and the population’s attitude to institutions. The economy will turn around eventually. Whehter the politics can also be normalized is a bigger question.

  3. “Another surprising finding, at least to me, is that there is little human intercourse in Hungary. People don’t often entertain or organize outings with their friends. They are also not too eager to help each other. Very few people belong to different civil organizations, clubs, or some kind of charitable organization.”
    I think, maybe one must be Hungarian to be surprised by this. Ever since we arrived here 20 years ago, it struck us how little ‘social’ life most people have. This is not only true for the big city – which is maybe more normal – but even for villages. In our village, almost the only organised social activity comes from the church. And as well-intended as that often may be, it is also very much politisized. Back ‘home’, on the other hand, many people are actively involved in sports clubs, music clubs (a choire, a brass band), dancing, fitness and walking associations, or for the more political oriented nature, environmental, housing, animal etc. organisations at local level. And all these common activities create a very important sense of society, working together, and appreciating the unimportance of political differences. Where does this lack of communality come from? Is that communism at work, or does it go back deeper, to Habsburg times?
    Why does every French, Italian, and Spanish village (or Dutch, German, even Austrian)have a nice and lively central square with a church, a pub, some benches under the shady trees, and people sitting around, chatting, playing, being a village, where most Hungarian villages are just some houses along a road? It beats me.
    NWO: “I do think some of what we now see is cyclical and a function of people’s current frustrations.”
    I really hope so. Yes, the modd was – at least partially – different in the 90s and the political elite – first of all Fidesz in my opinion – bears a great responsibility for splitting society in two alienated and opposing camps. And I keep telling myself that things changed dramatically in Poland. Four or five years ago, when that country was ruled by the Kacinszky brothers and the most conservative strata of the catholic church, my friends in Warsaw were desperate. Some seriously thought of emigrating, and others at least reverted to some kind of internal emigration, shutting their minds for all the idiocy going on around them and just doing their own thing. But look at Poland now. Let’s hope Hungary will go the same way, but I’m afraid we’ll first have to endure some years (or more)of rule by the “strong men” of Fidesz.

  4. You might want to have a look at Tárki’s website. They held a day conference to release the survey results and have placed helpfully links to their power point presentations on the web. Here is the overall link:
    Certainly when one looks at the chart examining the closed/open, traditional/sceptical axes (,8,Slide 8), the closeness to Bulgaria and Macedonia, Russia and Ukraine is striking. But have you noticed where Poland sits? According to this survey it is much more traditional, and less sceptical, but there isn’t a huge difference in its position on the closed/open access. Furthermore of the Visegrad countries only two – Poland and Hungary – are on the chart, so we can’t actually draw the conclusion that Hungary is as much an outliner as the blog post suggests because the only country we would expect Hungary to be directly comparable with is not in a fantastically different position. (I don’t believe for all kinds of reasons that Slovenia and Hungary are in any sense comparable).
    The next slide is really interesting, because it compares Hungary’s position now to when they conducted it in 1999 (,9,Slide 9). Slovakia and te Czech Republic were surveyed in 1999, and were more “western” than Hungary then – though we have no comparable data now. The really interesting thing is that Hungary was more traditional and more closed in 1999 than it is now! Furthermore, Hungarian society has liberalized more in terms of attitudes than those Orthodox countries to which it seems directly comparable.
    There is an enormous ammount to comment on just by clicking through the presentations – and I’m not going to do so now. The main issue though is that they do not support the conclusion that this is a reaction to the current crisis. Nor do they support the conclusion that there was a golden age in the 1990s when Hungary led its neighbours in terms of social liberalization (in fact they show that in 1999 Hungary was no more liberal than Russia, where it can be said to be a bit more liberal now). What in fact they do suggest is that the process of(and I want to use the Hungarian word polgárosodás, and not use in the restricted sense of embourgeoisiement) was going to be a long and protracted task in Hungarian circumstances in the post-socialist era. This task was not as different to some of its neighbours – most notably Poland – as it is being represented. Those who said Hungary could lead this process though always had an unrealistic view of the country’s capacities. It is in the last decade presumably because of higher wealth (the MSZP may have had some effect!), consumerism, greater opportunities to travel, and more openess (cultural and otherwise) to the rest of the EU that there has been some movement. Part of problem is clearly this has been uneven because of inequality – and examining the chart on the attitudes of those with high educational qualification in comparison to the average bears this out.
    Thinking about their data, the authors’ conclusions are rather weird, and reflect more the public mood in Hungary than their survey results.

  5. Mark: “Furthermore of the Visegrad countries only two – Poland and Hungary – are on the chart, so we can’t actually draw the conclusion that Hungary is as much an outliner as the blog post suggests”
    Blame the Tárki press release upon which I based my assessment.

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