Jun 10, 2023 - Science

Many people believe morality is declining — but it may be an illusion

Illustration of a pair of vintage glasses with rose colored lenses.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

People around the world say kindness, respect, and honesty are declining but that may be a cognitive illusion, researchers reported this week.

Why it matters: People's beliefs can guide their behavior toward each other, shape policy and influence how resources are allocated.

Driving the news: Survey data from 60 countries shows most people around the world believe morality is declining — and they've thought that for at least 70 years, according to new research published this week in the journal Nature.

  • The study — by Adam Mastroianni, a postdoctoral research scholar at Columbia Business School and author of the blog Experimental History, and Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert — focuses on "everyday morality," the kindness, respect, and honesty that most people agree are a reflection of morality.
  • The researchers also surveyed people in January 2020 and asked them to compare whether people were "kind, honest, nice, and good" in 2020, 2010, and 2000, as well as at various times in the past, including when they turned 20 years old and the year they were born.
  • Young and old people, liberals and conservatives, people who had graduate degrees and those who hadn't finished high school, parents and non-parents all said morality was declining. The belief was seen across races and genders as well. (The decline was perceived to be greater between some groups — for example, conservatives said there was more decline compared to liberals.)

The researchers then compared surveys taken over time that asked respondents to rate the morality of people in the present time by answering questions like, "Would you say that most of the time people try to be helpful, or that they are mostly just looking out for themselves?" The 107 surveys of more than 4.4 million people were done between 1965 and 2020, and participants were asked at least twice and at least 10 years apart.

  • "If, as people all over the world claim, morality has been declining steadily and precipitously for decades, then people's reports of current morality should also have declined over the years," they write.
  • But they didn't.
  • That suggests the perception of moral decline is an illusion, the researchers argue. (Mastroianni notes that just because morality is not worse, it doesn't mean it is good, and wars, climate change, racial injustices, and massive inequality remain.)

How it works: There are likely many ways the illusion is created, Mastroianni says.

  • One possibility is it arises from the combination of two psychological phenomena: our tendency to pay more attention to negative than positive information and for our negative memories to fade faster than positive ones.
  • Paying more attention to the negative behavior of people makes sense if you are to be aware of threats and to survive, Mastroianni adds.
  • And as time goes on, those past threats fade in our memory, says Norbert Schwarz, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California who wasn't involved in the study. There are notable exceptions, he says, including memories involving racism or horrific events like the Holocaust.

What they're saying: The findings are a "powerful demonstration of this illusion," offers Richard Eibach, a professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo.

  • There are limitations to the study: The authors note that some of the surveys ask about perceptions of moral values without defining it or are vague about the time in the past people were asked to compare to the present.

The big picture: The finding echoes other studies that converge on people tending to be pessimistic about the present compared to the past. For example, researchers have found parents say the world has become more dangerous — usually starting right around when their first child was born.

  • "When you become a parent, you have to be aware of risks and dangers that you could previously safely ignore ... and so you're paying attention to more dangerous information in your world and that may lead to this illusory perception that danger is actually increasing," Einbach says.
  • In a recent survey, most respondents who were asked about trends over the past 20 years, such as the percentage of people living in poverty or average wages, said they'd gotten worse. But they hadn't.
  • "Across nations and time, [findings] suggest [pessimism] is a function of basic cognitive processes as opposed to something unique to current time or a certain party," says survey author Greg Mitchell, a law professor at the University of Virginia.
  • Lisa Libby, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University, says: "The past is very malleable and in ways that the present is not, so you can manage your impression of the present by changing the past easier than it is to sometimes change the present."

The intrigue: When people were asked about the morality of people close to them or who lived before they were born and they didn't know, "the perception of moral decline was attenuated, eliminated or reversed," Mastroianni writes.

  • In other studies, there are areas where people perceive progress — with accuracy or even over-optimism, Mitchell says, pointing to work by Yale psychologist Jennifer Richeson that finds Americans overestimate progress in racial economic equality.
  • "If there has been enough attention given to certain topics, you can overcome people’s pessimism about things," he says.

"A nice moral to come away with from this story is when we find ourselves getting caught up in a drama of "Oh, things are so bad today," we should think about the people we actually know and encounter in our lives," Eibach says.

  • It may be people's behavior "isn't all that bad, or all that worse than it was in the past. That for me is a very heartening message."
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