APRIL 19, 2016

5 ways Americans and Europeans are different

Americans and Europeans share many things: a commitment to fundamental democratic principles, a strategic alliance that has shaped the world order for more than half a century, and despite serious economic challenges in recent years, some of the highest living standards in the world. Still, there are notable differences across the Atlantic. As our polling has found over the years, Americans and Europeans often have different perspectives on individualism, the role of government, free expression, religion and morality.
Americans stand out on individualism
1Americans are more likely to believe they control their own destiny. In a 2014 survey, 57% of Americans disagreed with the statement “Success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control,” a higher percentage than in any of the European nations polled. (At the same time, it’s worth noting that on this and other questions there are differences within Europe too. For example, on this question, the United Kingdom looks a lot like the United States.) Americans are also especially likely to believe that an individual who works hard can find success: 73% said hard work is very important for getting ahead in life compared to a European median of 35%.
2Individual liberty vs. state guaranteesAmericans tend to prioritize individual liberty, while Europeans tend to value the role of the state to ensure no one in society is in need.Nearly six-in-ten in the U.S. (58%) believe allowing everyone to pursue their life’s goals without interference from the state is more important. Majorities in all European nations polled in 2011 said guaranteeing that nobody is in need is more important.
3There is greater tolerance in the U.S. than in Europe for offensive speech. A solid majority (77%) of Americans believe citizens should be allowed to make statements that are offensive to people’s religious beliefs, a significantly higher share of the public than in any of the European Union nations included in our 2015 survey. In Poland, Germany and Italy, fewer than half think this kind of speech should be legal. Similarly, Americans are more likely to say offensive statements about minority groups should be permitted.
Americans more tolerant of speech offensive to religion and minorities
4Religion is significantly less important to Europeans than to Americans. Just over half in the U.S. (53%) say religion is very important in their life, nearly double the share who hold this view in Poland, which registered the highest percentage among EU nations polled in 2015. In France, only 14% consider religion very important. Globally, there is a strong relationship between a country’s wealth and its level of religiosity. Nations with higher levels of gross domestic product per capita tend to have lower percentages saying religion is very important in their lives. However, the U.S. is a clear outlier to this pattern – a wealthy nation that is also relatively religious.
Generally, poorer nations tend to be religious; wealthy less so, except for U.S.
5Disapproval of adultery particularly high in U.S., less so in FranceAmericans and Europeans don’t always agree on questions about morality, especially on issues related to sexuality. For instance, while just 30% in the U.S. think sex between unmarried adults is morally unacceptable, this is nonetheless significantly higher than what our 2013 poll found in Europe. And while adultery is widely frowned upon in the EU – except, notably, in France – Americans are even more likely to say having an affair is morally unacceptable.
  1. Photo of Richard Wike
     is director of global attitudes research at Pew Research Center.


  1. Kevin Wilcoxon • 10 months ago
    IMHO, the United States is the land of hypocrisy. People espouse one set of values but behave very differently behind closed doors. Just met a person who moved from a very small town in Texas to San Francisco. He was incredulous how conservative the people spoke and at the same time were very high consumers of alcohol, regularly traded wives/husbands, gossiped endlessly, and divorced frequently. I never believe self-reported behavior in the USA.
  2. Anonymous • 10 months ago
    Great article. Lots of interesting statistics that have been proven to be true, IMO. I’m American but live in the UK with frequent extended trips to the European continent. I find a vast difference in how British & Europeans think compared to the US.
    Greece, Spain, the Baltic countries…these nations are going through extremely difficult financial problems and it affects how questions concerning their happiness, well-being, optimism for the future, etc. are answered. Germany and France are more stable and will naturally be more optimistic. The UK is one of (if not “the) most financial successful of all the EU nations but it might not be forever…the social welfare system is draining it without having a fall-back position in global manufacturing needs, etc.
    I do love living in the UK and having constant connections with Europe. What I think might improve this part of the world (if I can be so bold as to suggest it) is a much greater emphasis on developing global products, obtaining patents, encouraging young people to use their initiative rather than relying on social welfare and other programmes, etc. China seems to be adopting these philosophies to their benefit. This type of thinking is what brought the US out of recession following the war. It’s of value to encourage contrib… Read more
  3. Anonymous • 11 months ago
    One of the best things about this site is they bring FACTS to a debate. Something that many of the commenters do not. Your opinion and experience are a single data point.
  4. Anonymous • 11 months ago
    Americans are pretty much brain-washed about being able to control their destiny. They are brain-washed about guns and are fear-mongered beyond belief about all kinds of stuff. This individualism doesn’t draw people together, but distances them. I miss very little about the the USA and it’s blathering on about “individualism” when the corporations attempt thru TTIP to suck the soul out of every other nation. Go suck on that one.
    1. Anonymous • 11 months ago
      its getting better i’ve lived here my whole life and i’ve always been a step apart from the rest but from what i’ve seen the new generation of Americans is more “European” than the last generation and hopefully the trend continues.
  5. Anonymous • 11 months ago
    Your research contributes to understand better Americans and Europeans.
    Do you have data about Hondurans and/or other Central American countries –being also Americans but Europeans in many areas– in relation to the same variables you analyzed?
    If so, please send me, and I am willng to comment in Spanish this article at proceso.hn
    in the Criterios Section, the Honduran digital newspaper.
    Thanks in advance.
  6. Jessica Gizzi • 11 months ago
    Why do my comments show me as anonymous on some of them?
  7. Tracy Nuzzo • 11 months ago
    As an American who has been living in France now for over two years, I found this analysis pertinent and largely true. While I cannot speak for all of Europe, what I have seen in France is a nation which is much more pessimistic than the one of my birth. Depression rates also appear to be much higher, and people seem to be fatalistic: the victims of circumstance (As outlined in point number 1). Genuine altruism really surprises people. They fear there is a price tag or an underlying motive when they see acts of pure generosity.
    Well, that’s my two cents from someone who has lived in both worlds….
    1. Andrew Norris • 11 months ago
      USA ranks way down in happiness rankings of developed nations, and Europe is right at the top.
      Americans (on average!) tend to believe they have to act happy / put on an act. Europeans just be how they are are / themselves more. And are happier in their own shoes. The happiest countries also consistently are shown to have better social care / health care/ support networks etc.
      America also ranks very low for upward mobility compared to Europe, which makes it not the land of opportunity than was thought. fastcoexist.com/3049643/the-amer…
      America also does less for charity then Europe
      1. Anonymous • 11 months ago
        Odds are in the US the cities with the lowest upward mobility also have the highest African American populations. I would guess that AA upward mobility overall is a tiny fraction of the rest of the populace. This is a much different problem from simply saying that USA sucks for upwards mobility. Comparing the US to individual european countries almost always a flawed comparison. Compare the US to Europe as a whole. Western Europe is the East and West coasts, Eastern Europe is the Midwest, the south is the south, and the Balkans are Appalachia and the Mountain West.
        Also if you are going to fact quote specific facts to back up your argument, at least use a source that does a better job of hiding its inconsistencies. Just as one example, 21st out of 125 is not the middle of the pack. Secondly, compare the US to Russia and China and core Islamic countries. Those are the 4 major players in the world.
        1. Anonymous • 10 months ago
          Well said. This gentleman Top 10 Lists included mostly homogeneous, Northern Europe countries. It seems to me that he just wanted to dump on the United States.
      2. Mark Jones • 11 months ago
        Europeans are delusional, at least its a happy delusion
      3. Anonymous • 10 months ago
        Andrew Norris, you need to study your data before you comment. None of the countries on your Top 10 Lists were included on this survey. The happiest countries also consistently are shown to have better social care / health care/ support networks etc. UK, Germany, France, etc. were not on the lists. Get your fact straight before making apples to oranges comparisons.
  8. dum dum • 11 months ago
    That is a good question. I believe as time goes on it becomes more difficult to answer the question on what unites citizens of the US. They appear very divided these days regarding so many aspects. What the US is today is not what the US will be in about 20 years, and I mean that in terms of political ideology, etc. The youngest generations in the US seem to be largely left-wing, with most of the right-wing people dying off in the coming generations. Therefore, the US is likely to “swing” left similar to that of some European nations, but still not as far. Sadly, as of right now, many US citizens are united in beliefs they do not actually possess. Liberty, freedom, etc. It’s sad how they don’t even realize that so many of their constitutional amendments have been violated by their own government, but as long as they keep the 2nd amendment (guns), most seem ignorant to everything else. Soon the US will be at a turning point, so I think your question will be answered in the next 5-15 years.
  9. Anonymous • 11 months ago
    You cannot generalize about the customs and morals of the 450 MILLION people who make up the 28 states of the European Union; we speak 24 languages. We all all free Christian democracies and we have similar laws governing morals, property rights, and businesses. Seen from abroad USA seems like a hodgepodge of proudly diverse characters who are bent on demanding exceptional treatment because of their minority status. So this begs the question: Besides a common currency, what is it that unites the United States?
    1. Anonymous • 11 months ago
      Individualism and freedom to define what that means.
    2. Jessica Gizzi • 11 months ago
      Thank you. You are right. America sucks now. I am an American. It sucks for citizens because they get treated very badly nowadays here by the minority aliens who are actually becoming a majority but make us pay for everything and they steal our social security numbers and ruin our work and credit histories and call us racist if we don’t like being abused and then they get amnesty.
      1. Anonymous • 11 months ago
        Are you actually trying to say America is worse now because of illegal immigrants? Citizens or not those are people too. You talk about what’s wrong with America yet your ignorant stance is In complete correlation to what is really wrong with America.
        1. Gerry Gentile • 11 months ago
          Hmmm. What part of “illegal” are you having trouble with? And the correct term is illegal “aliens”, not immigrants. Immigrants–real immigrants, legal immigrants–follow the rules and take their chances on becoming citizens. Illegal aliens break the rules, demand the right to advance to the head of the line, and skreek about how unfair we are for insisting they follow the rules. They hide out in my country, using fake ID with someone else’s social security number (can you say “identity theft”, boys and girls?).
          Yeah they’re people. Just like anyone else who breaks the law. Just like anyone in prison. Just don’t ask for me to have much sympathy for them if they get caught.
          1. Jessica Gizzi • 11 months ago
            Thank you Gerry. Anonymous is confused.
          2. Jessica Gizzi • 11 months ago
            You rock Gerry. Thank you for defending the rule of law in USA
          3. Anonymous • 11 months ago
            I’m a legal alien and you should read a book
          4. Anonymous • 11 months ago
            Gerry makes excellent points.
          5. Craig Gosling • 11 months ago
            Gerry, perhaps we need to change our migration laws to let needed workers and their families fill the labor needs and add to the economy of the USA. This influx of workers needs to be regulated by updating old immigration laws. Don’t you agree?
        2. Jessica Gizzi • 11 months ago
          Yes. I am saying illegal immigration makes the usa worse. My boyfriend’s uncle has a fake document ring and his whole family uses stolen ss numbers and drivers license numbers here. My boyfriend never filed taxes while working with stolen a ss number and he would claim exemption on payroll withholdings so the real owner of that ss number is going to owe the government money.
      2. Craig Gosling • 11 months ago
        Jessica – when was the US better than it is today? During slave days? During world wars? During recession years? Considering the problems the world faces with increased population and climate change, I think the USA is doing reasonably well. The influx of immigrant workers is needed if our economy is to grow. They eagerly take those jobs Americans will not take. It is true that the nation faces many problems, the worst is not illegal immigration but more likely catastrophic climate change.
        1. Anonymous • 11 months ago
          There is a major deficit in California from the cost of illegal immigrants. They cost more than they put back in. If employers need to hire people from abroad they should be forced to go through legal channels to hire foreign workers.
    3. Anonymous • 11 months ago
      The only thing that american citizens who are raised by american citizens all have in common, is our tolerance for other people’s right to say offensive things publicly. It is our most important constitutional right. And our right to private religious beliefs. And our right to bear arms. And. . okay… We believe word for word in the literal interpretation of our constitution and the bill of rights.
  10. Anonymous • 11 months ago
    Has someone assessed the US vs Europe regarding science and the value of science to society?
    1. Anonymous • 11 months ago
      One indirect measure which you can see in the PEW data is over climate change. There is interesting relation between concern for climate change being inversely related to the level of emissions, nations with higher emissions are less concerned. Within that data, however, there are interesting differences with US citizens less concerned about climate change than people in Europe. The consensus among scientists about climate change is at 95% world wide, but many Americans, particularly Republicans live in a state of denial. There is also considerable work done by Chris Mooney, on the Republican Brain which finds a significant difference regarding views and trust of science between members of the two political parties. There is no such neat distinction between European political parties.
      1. Jessica Gizzi • 11 months ago
        The only reason many Americans don’t believe what the liberals tell us about climate change, is because they unequivocally lie to us about other important topics, like illegal immigration. And they call us racists because we have lost our jobs and cannot afford to send our children to college, while people unlawfully in the country are handed things on silver platters paid for by working class taxpayers who make too much to get welfare but too little to survive after taxation. So we do not believe anything else the liberals tell us. They have no credibility in our long-suffering eyes.
        1. Noah Tenney • 11 months ago
          Except that people here without papers are ineligible for tax-funded benefits.
          1. Liliana Del Rio-Badham • 11 months ago
            And that “liberals” don’t hold a monopoly on science. Reading and understanding the science that supports climate change has nothing to do with being a liberal or a conservative. When you educate yourself, you don’t need to “believe” what folks tell you or what you watch on TV. You can just reach informed conclusions for yourself. It’s called “learning.”
          2. Anonymous • 11 months ago
            Oh wow. You are not aware of the tax payer funded benefits that they as a fact receive? Their U.S. born children receive benefits even though our own children do not receive benefits under their name, because American parents are held financially responsible for their children. Their children get free tuition to college. You don’t know about that?
          3. Anonymous • 11 months ago
            In response to Liliana, Anonymous asserts that Republicans are the climate deniers and that it has something to do with their brain. …. They wrote: ” The consensus among scientists about climate change is at 95% world wide, but many Americans, particularly Republicans live in a state of denial. There is also considerable work done by Chris Mooney, on the Republican Brain which finds a significant difference regarding views and trust of science between members of the two political parties. There is no such neat distinction between European political parties.”
          4. Anonymous • 11 months ago
            What a silly argument. Denying climate change makes absolutely no impact at all on the environment. It is unlawful to do things that are illegal, so doing anything the the government has said is against the law, having to do with climate change, would be unethical, immoral behavior. I will never break laws.
        2. dum dum • 11 months ago
          That is such a typically comment by an American. Instantly making everything politically-based in the eternal struggle of right vs left, liberal vs conservative, the immoral vs moral, etc. As an American, I can tell you that sadly many Americans do not believe in the climate change and global warming, largely because they’re idiots, who are ill-informed. The truth of the matter is the scientific community agrees (97% or so) that it is taking place. The people who do these jobs for a living are the ones you should get your information from, instead of assuming its a lie. I know that “conservatives” have problems with facts, since they tend to get in the way of your arguments, but use your brain..seriously. Check out what the scientific community says, not some idiot you take your political ques from. Educate yourself, because if the world has to wait on the half of Americans who are stupid to become less stupid, we will not have time to fix global warming by then..and we will all be screwed.
          1. Jessica Gizzi • 11 months ago
            What are you over reacting to?
        3. Tricia Anderson • 11 months ago
          Oh Dear, Jessica, my friend, you are sounding a bit like Hitler blaming the Jews for the downfall of Germany. What exactly are all these illegal immigrants being handed by our government? I agree with you that it is so wrong for others to steal our SS#’s, even if they are using them to get jobs to support themselves and their families. But they have nothing to do with the price of college or the loss of jobs. We can thank big banking and “To Big To Fail” for all of that. Those crossing our boarders illegally did not bring on the housing bubble burst and the downfall of our economy. Greed and dishonesty has brought our Country to this condition. And not a one of those who brought this all on have spent a single day in Prison. You have every right to be angry, but you need to be angry at the right people and institutions.
          1. Jessica Gizzi • 11 months ago
            Well my boyfriend is an illegal immigrant. So i do know. Nice try.
          2. Jessica Gizzi • 11 months ago
            How offensive of you Tracy. The rule of law is now equal to Hitler!? Okay. I will start working on stolen social security numbers and then I will get welfare on my own ss number. That will increase my income!