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One question for Adam Mastroianni, a psychologist at Columbia University where he studies how people perceive and misperceive their social worlds.

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Photo courtesy of Adam Mastroianni.
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Is morality in decline?

No, it’s not. Participants in our studies tell us that people are less kind, less nice, less honest, less good, that this has been happening their whole lives, that it’s been happening recently, and that it’s been happening everywhere. Which should make it pretty easy to find some evidence of this somewhere, and we find no evidence of it anywhere. In fact, we find pretty good evidence that it hasn’t happened

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A big collection of archival data, going back all the way to 1949, suggests people believe morality is declining. People are asked questions like, “Do you think morality is declining?” and “Do you think people are less honest today than they were 50 years ago?” in 100 different ways, in dozens of different countries. And over and over again, people say, “Yes, people are less kind than they used to be. No, I’m not just saying that. This isn’t just nostalgia. This really happened.” 

What’s the evidence that their perception is off? The answers to big “M” moral items—things like, “Do people kill each other as often as they used to?” or “Are people as likely to abuse their children?”—are no. That’s Steven Pinker’s work. But that’s also not primarily what people mean when they say that morality has declined. What they really mean is, “People don’t treat each other with respect anymore.” They’ll say things like, “It used to be you could leave your door unlocked at night, but now you can’t.” 

Young and old people agree on the rate of moral decline.

We collected another big set of survey data where people were asked about these exact things over decades. We find no change. Every year, about 90 percent of people say, “Yes, I was treated with respect yesterday,” and it doesn’t change over time. “Can you trust people?” “Can you not be too careful?” The answers to those questions don’t really change over time. “Have you done various kinds of things for other people, like look after their pets when they’re away?” “Or give up your seat on a bus?” “Or donate blood?” “Or give money to someone who’s living on the street?” These things also don’t seem to change over time. 

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Another line of evidence was a meta-analysis that came out last year on people’s decisions in economic games, like the prisoner’s dilemma and public goods games. This meta-analysis helpfully asked the question, “Have cooperation rates changed in those games over time?” In these games, there’s a generous choice and a greedy choice. The authors of that meta-analysis expected to find that people would cooperate less today than they did back in 1956, when their data began. In fact, they found the opposite—cooperation rates went up by 10 percentage points. 

We have an explanation for where this illusion comes from that uniquely accounts for the data that we find, and predicts some data that we didn’t. If you combine two psychological phenomena, you actually can produce an illusion of moral decline. Those are biased exposure, and attention to negative information—basically, if it bleeds, it leads, and that’s what we pay attention to. And second is the fading affect bias, where the negativity of negative information fades faster than the positivity of positive information. 

If you put those together—biased exposure and attention to negative information, and the fading affect bias—you can create a scenario in which, every day, it looks like people are bad. But everyday, it seems like people yesterday were better. That accounts for some of the more surprising findings that we have—for instance, you might expect that older people are the ones who complain the most about moral decline. But we find that young people do this as well. And in fact, young and old people agree on the rate of moral decline. 

Our model predicts that, if you can turn off biased memory, by asking about times in which people were born, you should get less decline or no decline in people’s perceptions. And that is what happens when we ask people to rate people today, then in the year in which they were 20, the year in which they were born, and then 20 years before that, and 40 years before that. They tell us basically that moral decline began when they arrived on Earth. Which is consistent with this being a memory phenomenon. 

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The component parts of the illusion could actually be quite helpful, especially the fading affect bias, which is a way by which people remain satisfied and content with their lives. The reason why negative memories fade faster, and lose their negativity faster, is because we rationalize and reframe them. We distance ourselves from them. If we didn’t do that, then every bad thing would continue to sting just as badly as it did at the time. For example, if you get turned down for your high school prom, that sucks at the time. And 20 years later, it’s maybe a funny story. That’s good. Whereas if you don’t get turned down, at the time it’s great. And 20 years later, it’s a nice memory. I like living with a brain that does that.

Lead image: jorgen mcleman / Shutterstock

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