The Illusion of Moral Decline

The idea that the world is getting worse is a nearly universal human belief. But I’ve often found it strange to believe that people today are less moral than they were, say, 100 years ago. Pick the time period and people have always been a mix of good and evil.

A belief in moral decline probably happens because it’s easy to find evidence of (1) evil in our newsfeeds and (2) good in our memories, making us believe that people are worse than they used to be. This creative paper in Nature by Mastroianni and Gilbert explains the mechanism, and shows how this belief in moral decline contradicts how we see those who are close to us.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that people believe that morality is declining. In a series of studies using both archival and original data (n = 12,492,983), we show that people in at least 60 nations around the world believe that morality is declining, that they have believed this for at least 70 years and that they attribute this decline both to the decreasing morality of individuals as they age and to the decreasing morality of successive generations. Next, we show that people’s reports of the morality of their contemporaries have not declined over time, suggesting that the perception of moral decline is an illusion. Finally, we show how a simple mechanism based on two well-established psychological phenomena (biased exposure to information and biased memory for information) can produce an illusion of moral decline, and we report studies that confirm two of its predictions about the circumstances under which the perception of moral decline is attenuated, eliminated or reversed (that is, when respondents are asked about the morality of people they know well or people who lived before the respondent was born). Together, our studies show that the perception of moral decline is pervasive, perdurable, unfounded and easily produced. This illusion has implications for research on the misallocation of scarce resources, the underuse of social support and social influence.

The illusion of moral decline | Nature


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Written by

Aaron Miller

Aaron Miller

Provo, UT