The Illusory Decline in Morality

We disagree a lot on what’s right and wrong, good and bad. We disagree between individuals, cultures, and countries. And our views on these matters change over time. 

Actions once deemed off-limits have become admissible, and vice versa—take attitudes on same-sex marriage, slavery, drugs, assisted suicide, animal rights, eating meat, foul language, abortion, religion, child labour, etc. 

Would you say we’re getting better or worse? More moral or less? 

Naturally, your answer will depend on your personal moral compass, making it a difficult thing to measure objectively, but one thing we should all agree on is that kindness and respect towards others is an essential part of morality. 

Compassion is the basis of morality.” — Arthur Schopenhauer

In this respect, most of us think we’re getting worse, and have been for some time.

Moral Perceptions

This perceived decline in morality comes from a paper by researchers Adam Mastroianni and Dan Gilbert. 

They went looking for perspectives on moral dimensions like kindness, honesty, generosity, helpfulness, and respect—what we might call being nice to one another.

They crawled through past surveys and conducted their own, covering over 200 studies and 550,000 people from around the world. And in 84% of those studies, the majority of people felt that we’re on a moral decline. 

The perception wasn’t just a recent one either. People have felt this way for years, and the older people are the more they feel it’s declined. Conservatives saw more decline than liberals, but liberals agreed it was happening. 

“So now it really really seems like people all over the world believe that people in general are less fundamentally good than they used to be”, writes Mastroianni in his newsletter. “They think this decline has been going on their whole lives, and that it’s still going on today. And that belief cuts across every demographic group.”

Are we right? Are we all becoming immoral sods? 

Measuring Morality

We know there have been changes in attitudes towards same-sex marriage, child labour, abortion, etc, and Steven Pinker has made the case that there is less murder, war, slavery, and child abuse, among other things. 

These changes might reflect an evolving moral landscape, but it can’t be part of the calculus people are using to evaluate respect, kindness, honesty, and the like, because surely most people wouldn’t claim all that stuff is going in the wrong direction.

“If morality has been in freefall for decades or even centuries, it’s a bit odd that people don’t squish each other’s skulls as much as they once did.”

While the world might be getting better across many dimensions, and ebbing and flowing in others, apparently we’re still all becoming worse people along the way. 

To test the accuracy of that view, they explored a dataset of 130+ surveys involving over 11 million individuals worldwide. These surveys were conducted between 1965 and 2020 and featured questions like “Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?” 

They found no evidence of moral decline. The answers remained static. They also pointed out some research in economic games like the prisoner’s dilemma and public goods game, that suggests we’ve grown less selfish and more cooperative since 1956.

So in terms of being nice to each other, we appear to be fairly consistent, perhaps even better in some regards. Compare these graphs from the paper:

Our collective state of morality is deemed rather bad, but hey, at least we’re out there respecting one another. 

How can the world be getting better in many important aspects, while we seem just as kind and respectful as ever, yet our perception of our collective morality is that it’s steadily declining and has been for over 50 years? 

The Psychological Trick

Mastroianni and Gilbert considered a few possibilities that may be part of the issue but failed to fully explain the data.

For example, maybe we see a moral decline because people are nice to us when we’re kids but less nice when we grow up, or maybe we’ve all just heard those stories about how great the past was. 

While these might contribute, they don’t explain why people didn’t only see morality as having declined when they were kids, they saw it in decline, no matter the age—the older they were, the further we had fallen. 

In the end, they settled on two psychological biases that work in tandem to have us constantly bemoaning the declining morality of our fellow citizens:

Biased Exposure 

We pay a disproportionate amount of attention to negative stimuli. The news is full of bad news, the worst opinions get the most attention on social media, insults stick in our minds far longer than compliments. 

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky found that we tend to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains, which likely leads to preferential attention towards risks rather than rewards. 

Relatedly, for many of us anxiety is an everyday burden. We worry about events and decisions that don’t deserve so much psychological turmoil, a worry which does little to improve the outcomes.

Biased Memory

Negative feelings tend to fade faster from memory than the positive—called the fading affect bias. This is not saying that the specific content of the memory changes, but the feelings they invoke. 

For example, you go on holiday and overall it’s stressful, but you get back and a little while later you start to remember it as a lovely trip. 

Or, you look back with nostalgia at your childhood, all that freedom from responsibility, but it probably wasn’t as pleasant to experience as you’re now remembering it. 

“Biased exposure means that things always look outrageous: murder and arson and fraud, oh my! Biased memory means the outrages of yesterday don’t seem so outrageous today. When things always look bad today but brighter yesterday, congratulations pal, you got yourself an illusion of moral decline.”

Turning Things Around

They continued their study by exploring where the illusion breaks down. To test biased memory, they asked people about moral standards in the years before they were born, given they had no memory of it.

“People said, basically, ‘moral decline began when I arrived on Earth’”.

They also tested biased exposure by asking people questions on respect and kindness about people they know personally, and the respondents said that those they’ve known for over 15 years are more moral now.

If we’re looking to escape the illusion of moral decline—and we should, if we perceive morals as declining we’ll want to engage in drastic measures to save it, which might do more harm than good—biased exposure seems the more effective route. 

By not focusing so heavily on the worst of current events, making a conscious effort to find more positive news, questioning and reinterpreting the bad news, and being grateful for what we have, we should be able to avert the illusion. 

Filling our heads with positive information will also make us happier people, we’ll spread more optimistic opinions, and we’ll be nicer to be around—and perhaps that will encourage others to see a moral improvement in the people around them.

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