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The cultural foundations of modern democracies


National democracy is a rare thing in human history and its stability has long been tied to the cultural values of citizens. Yet it has not been established whether changing cultural values made modern democracy possible or whether those values were a response to democratic institutions. Here we combine longitudinal data and cohort information of nearly 500,000 individuals from 109 nations to track the co-evolution of democratic values and institutions over the last century. We find that cultural values of openness towards diversity predict a shift towards democracy and that nations with low institutional confidence are prone to political instability. In addition, the presence of democratic institutions did not predict any substantive changes in the measured cultural values. These results hold accounting for other factors, including gross domestic product per capita and non-independence between nations due to shared cultural ancestry. Cultural values lead to, rather than follow, the emergence of democracy. This indicates that current stable democracies will be under threat, should cultural values of openness to diversity and institutional confidence substantially decline.

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Fig. 1: Results from the hierarchical time-lagged linear regression.
Fig. 2: Results from hierarchical time-lagged linear regression (including interaction term UD).

Data availability

All raw data are publicly available from the following sources: World Values Survey (, European Values Survey (, Madison Project ( and Polity IV project (

Code availability

Code used to generate regression results and plots can be found in the Github repository:


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D.J.R. is funded by the College of Arts and Sciences, the Office of Research and Engagement and the US National Science Foundation (grant no. ACI-1430508). The funders had no role in the conceptualization, design, data collection, analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information




D.J.R., T.K. and L.J.M. performed data analysis. D.J.K., L.J.M., T.K., Q.D.A. and R.A.B. wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Damian J. Ruck.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Primary Handling Editor: Stavroula Kousta.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Results, Supplementary Figs. 1–11 and Supplementary Tables 1–15.

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Ruck, D.J., Matthews, L.J., Kyritsis, T. et al. The cultural foundations of modern democracies. Nat Hum Behav 4, 265–269 (2020).

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