People Think Morality Is Declining. Surveys Suggest They're Wrong.

Asked about people in general, respondents perceive moral decline. But when asked about specific acts or people in their personal worlds, the data tell a different story.


Think people are getting more depraved? You're not alone—but you're probably wrong. So suggests a new paper published in the journal Nature. It's the work of Adam M. Mastroianni, a social psychology researcher at Columbia University, and Harvard psychology professor Daniel T. Gilbert.

Their review of the data shows that Americans believe overall morality is declining, "that they have believed this for at least 70 years," and that they attribute it "to the decreasing morality of individuals as they age and to the decreasing morality of successive generations," write Mastroianni and Gilbert. But "people's reports of the morality of their contemporaries have not declined over time, suggesting that the perception of moral decline is an illusion."

Fears that society is getting less moral go back way more than 70 years, of course. More than 2,000 years ago, the Roman historian Livy warned about the "sinking of the foundations of morality" leading to "the final collapse of the whole edifice" and "the dark dawning of our modern day." In more recent times, the one thing we can count on from each aging generation is lamentations about "kids today."

"Why have so many different people in so many different times and places been convinced that their fellow citizens are now less moral than they once were?" ask Mastroianni and Gilbert. Obviously, one possibility is that this perception is true. Another possibility is that it's "a psychological illusion to which people all over the world and throughout history have been susceptible."

Their research points to the latter explanation: It's all in our heads.

People agree: humans are worse now…

To reach this conclusion, the researchers first established that people do indeed think morality is declining. This can be gleaned from U.S. surveys between 1949 and 2019 that ask Americans about honesty and ethics in society, "the state of moral values," and things like that; on 84 percent of such questions, a majority of participants reported perceptions of moral decline.

Data from around the world paint a similar picture. In surveys spanning 354,120 participants in 59 nations between 1996 and 2007, the majority of participants reported moral declines in 86 percent of relevant questions.

Mastroianni and Gilbert also conducted their own surveys of Americans in 2020, asking people how "kind, honest, nice, and good" people were at the moment and at various other points in time. Across the board, people largely thought their fellow humans had gotten worse. People attributed this decline both to individuals getting less moral over time ("personal change") and younger people today being less moral than younger people in the past ("interpersonal replacement").

Could these perceptions be right? It's not an easy question to answer subjectively, as individual views will necessarily depend on personal values and ethics. If you believe that acceptance of, say, homosexuality or interracial relationships are major markers of moral decline, you might be more inclined to believe that things have gotten worse—and to be right on your own terms. If belief in individual rights for all people is a big part of your moral calculation, then society is obviously doing much better.

And people's perceptions invariably rely on distorted or imperfect knowledge as well. A lot of people are convinced that things that were common but less talked about once upon a time just weren't happening until recently.

…But Evidence Suggests otherwise

It's hard to deny that some major—and commonly-agreed-upon—wrongs are less common today.

"Societies keep (or at least leave) reasonably good records of extremely immoral behaviour such as slaughter and conquest, slavery and subjugation or murder and rape, and careful analyses of those historical records strongly suggest that these objective indicators of immorality have decreased significantly over the last few centuries," note Mastroianni and Gilbert. "On average, modern humans treat each other far better than their forebears ever did—which is not what one would expect if honesty, kindness, niceness and goodness had been decreasing steadily, year after year, for millennia."

But what about the smaller things—what the researchers term "everyday morality"?

To address this, Mastroianni and Gilbert again look to the polls. This time, they consulted surveys asking people things like "Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?" "Would you say that most of the time people try to be helpful, or that they are mostly just looking out for themselves?" "Within the past 12 months, have you been assaulted or mugged?" and "During the past 12 months, have you let a stranger go ahead of you in line?"

If everyday morality really was cratering, answers to these questions over time should show it. But that's not what Mastroianni and Gilbert found.

Looking at surveys administered to more than 4.4 million people between 1965 and 2020, they found 107 questions about contemporary morality that were asked at least twice at times at least 10 years apart. And the results "were clear: people's reports of the current morality of their contemporaries were stable over time."

This strongly suggests "that the widespread perception of moral decline is an illusion," write Mastroianni and Gilbert. "Moreover, studies that use the rare objective measure of changes in everyday moral behaviour suggest the same thing." For instance, "rates of cooperation in the Prisoner's Dilemma game have increased significantly between 1956 and 2017," they point out. Yet "people mistakenly believe that such cooperation has declined."

Moral decline is an illusion…but an understandable one

Reading this study, I'm reminded of my parents' conviction that there are many more murders and violent crimes in our city today than there were when they were young. This is incorrect—even with much better crime-solving techniques today, rates of murder and all sorts of crimes are significantly lower now. But their knowledge of these crimes tends to be more complete today, for a number of reasons (more avenues for learning about these crimes, more access to news, more likelihood of paying attention to crime news now than when they were young, the perceptions of those around them, etc.).

These same sorts of explanations may explain larger perceptions about moral decline, Mastroianni and Gilbert suggest."When two well-established psychological phenomena work in tandem, they can produce an illusion of moral decline," they write. The first phenomenon is known as the biased exposure effect:

Human beings are especially likely to seek and attend to negative information about others, and mass media indulge this tendency with a disproportionate focus on people behaving badly. As such, people may encounter more negative information than positive information about the morality of 'people in general', and this 'biased exposure effect' may help explain why people believe that current morality is relatively low.

The second phenomenon is known as the biased memory effect: "When people recall positive and negative events from the past, the negative events are more likely to be forgotten, more likely to be misremembered as their opposite, and more likely to have lost their emotional impact." So, looking back on past times, people may remember interactions as more positive, people as more pleasant, and society in general as more moral than it actually was.

Taken together, these effects can give people the impression that not only were previous times better than they were but that things today are also worse, widening a gulf in perceived morality between the two periods. Or, as the researchers put it:

Biased exposure to information about current morality may make the present seem like a moral wasteland, biased memory for information about past morality may make the past seem like a moral wonderland and when people in a wasteland remember being in a wonderland, they may naturally conclude that the landscape has changed.

People perceive moral improvement in their personal worlds

To tease out the effects of bias on perceptions of morality, Mastroianni and Gilbert asked the same people about moral decline generally and then asked the same questions about people they knew or interacted with personally. On average, folks said that people overall—and young people in particular—were not as kind, honest, nice, or good in 2020 as they were in 2005.

However, they believed people in their personal worlds were just as good as ever in 2020—in fact, participants said that the people they knew had become more moral over time.

And while they said young people they knew personally in 2020 were not as good as older people they knew in 2005, "this difference was smaller among people in their personal worlds than it was among people in general."

In another study, Mastroianni and Gilbert found that respondents were likely to believe people were worse today than in the year they were born or in the year they turned 20. But respondents did not think people got worse during the 20 years before they were born, or that they were any better two decades prior to their birth than they had been four decades prior.

"In short, participants believed that moral decline began at about roughly the same time they appeared on Earth," note the researchers. This provides further evidence that people are basing their perceptions of moral decline on biased information.

Illusions with real-world effects

Here's how Mastroianni and Gilbert sum things up:

Participants in the foregoing studies believed that morality has declined, and they believed this in every decade and in every nation we studied. They believed the decline began somewhere around the time they were born, regardless of when that was, and they believed it continues to this day. They believed the decline was a result both of individuals becoming less moral as they move through time and of the replacement of more moral people by less moral people. And they believed that the people they personally know and the people who lived before they did are exceptions to this rule. About all these things, they were almost certainly mistaken.

This mistaken belief can have serious real-world consequences, however—including pushes for more government intervention to stop perceived moral backsliding.

"In 2015, 76% of US Americans agreed that 'addressing the moral breakdown of the country' should be a high priority for their government," note Mastroianni and Gilbert.

This not only prompts people to demand authorities spend time addressing imaginary rather than real issues, but can lead to heavy-handed actions that impinge on personal freedom and civil liberties.