The world is not in moral decline, it’s just an illusion, according to a new study by psychologists Adam Mastroianni and Daniel Gilbert says this is a powerful and persistent illusion. The study, published in the journal Nature, challenges the common belief that global society is experiencing rapid moral decay and deterioration.
The researchers examined 70 years’ worth of archived questions or prompts from major survey research providers, including Pew, Gallup, the Economist, and the Wall Street Journal. These questions were directed at approximately 220,000 Americans, inquiring about their beliefs regarding shifts in people’s morality over time. In about 84 percent of the cases, the majority of Americans stated that morality had declined. Similar findings were observed in survey responses from 59 other countries. However, when Mastroianni analyzed other survey questions from 1965 to 2020, which involved 4.5 million respondents evaluating current morality, the responses appeared to be stable. This provided little support for the notion that morality is on a downward spiral.
“This intense feeling we get that all this nastiness that we see today is new — that is an illusion,” said Mastroianni, the lead author on the paper, which was published last week in Nature. “The fact that it feels like you know [that morals have declined], is not good evidence that you do know.”
That is not intended to diminish the actual challenges that society confronts, he stated. “To suggest that things have not deteriorated is not to imply that things are satisfactory,” Mastroianni observed. It is more akin to, “We are currently experiencing an epidemic of one drug. We tend to overlook the epidemic of the previous drug,” he further added. “It always seems as though the problems of the present are exceptionally severe.”
The researchers suggest that people may believe that morals are deteriorating due to biased exposure or biased memory. Biased exposure means that people are more likely to encounter or seek out information that confirms their negative beliefs about morality. Biased memory means that people are more likely to recall or forget information that supports or contradicts their negative beliefs about morality.
The study also found that the perception of moral decline is not related to objective indicators of social well-being, such as crime rates, life expectancy, or education levels. In fact, some of these indicators have improved over time in many countries.
This perception of moral decline, as the researchers refer to it, has a lasting impact. The researchers write that two thousand years ago, the Roman historian Livy lamented the “weakening of moral principles” that led to the “bleak beginning of our present era.” This is the type of nostalgia that politicians attempt to exploit during their campaigns, and the type of generational resentment that some family members express during meals and gatherings.
The inclination to romanticize the past has always bothered Mastroianni. “I’ve spent a lifetime listening to people lament that things are not as good as they once were,” he expressed. People often make statements like, “You could leave your door unlocked at night. You could trust politicians,” but frequently, they are unable to substantiate those assertions, he added.
The perception of moral decline may have negative consequences for individual and societal well-being, according to the researchers. It may increase anxiety, pessimism, distrust, and intolerance. It may also reduce motivation, cooperation, and innovation.
Interestingly, the researchers have discovered a potential method to reduce the illusion by prompting individuals to contemplate the morality of people in their personal lives.
“Everyone is standing on an island, saying ‘the people on my island are improving, while the people on every other island are getting worse,’” Mastroianni said. “But the people on the other islands are saying the same thing.”
– Morality is declining, right? Scientists say that idea is an illusion, Nature, June 7, 2023
– Is the World Really in Moral Decline?, Psychology Today, June 29, 2023
– Think morality is declining? That’s an illusion, researchers say., The Washington Post, June 15, 2023
– Ideology of the good old days: Exaggerated perceptions of moral decline and conservative politics, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, June 1, 2023