When we read the news, it’s hard not to get depressed about the state of the world. Stories of vitriolic politicians, unethical CEOs, and indifference to the suffering of others fill its pages, leaving us feeling like goodness and morality are nowhere to be found.
According to a recent Gallup poll, people in the United States think that morality is at an all-time low. But, according to a new study, this belief is likely an illusion, based on the way our minds work—not a conclusion based on evidence.
In the study, recently published in Natureresearchers looked at several surveys of hundreds of thousands of Americans and people from 59 other nations around the world. In the surveys, participants had shared their views on whether honesty, ethical behavior, and moral values had been increasing or decreasing in their society or country.
In every country polled, people tended to think moral, ethical behavior was on the decline. This belief held steady no matter when the survey was given, too (whether 1949 or 2019)—suggesting that people always tend to see morality as waning in their lifetime. This perception seems unlikely to be true, says lead researcher Adam Mastroianni, formerly a postdoctoral student at Columbia University.
“You might think that people are sensitive to things happening around them or in their country, and that dictates what they think about people getting better or worse (from a moral conduct standpoint),” he says. “But it doesn’t seem that way, because pretty much whomever you ask, and wherever and whenever you ask them, people give you the same answer—people are less kind today than they used to be.”
To further study this, he and his coauthor, Daniel Gilbert, conducted their own surveys polling Americans about their views of present versus past morality. They asked people to rate how “kind, honest, nice, and good” people were then compared to past years (2, 4, 10, or 20 years earlier) or compared to when the participant was born or turned 20 years old. The researchers also considered the age, political orientation, gender, race, education, and parental status of the participants, to see how that affected their answers.
In all cases, people believed that morality was in steady decline. It didn’t matter if the comparison was made between now and two years ago or now and 20 or more years ago.
“It’s not just that people think the 1950s were great, and then it got worse in the ’60s, and it’s been bad ever since then,” says Mastroianni. “People think, even in the recent past, that people treated one another with more kindness and respect.”
Some people saw more moral decay than others, though. Politically conservative participants thought morality was dropping more precipitously than liberal participants did (though liberals also saw morality in steady decline). Older people tended to see more decline in morality than younger people, too. But it didn’t seem to be because of their age, but rather because they were considering longer stretches of time (for example, comparing current morality to when they were born).
“Older people do say over the course of their lives that there’s been more decline than younger people do; but, of course, their lives have been longer,” says Mastroianni. “Young people are basically on track to look like older people when they get older—which suggests that this isn’t about the idiosyncratic experiences of individuals, but about the way that human minds work.”
Is it all in our heads?
None of this proves that morality isn’t in decline, though. Perhaps people’s perceptions are accurate, and we really are becoming less kind and ethical over time.
But past evidence suggests otherwise. As psychologist Steven Pinker notes in his books, based on hundreds of studies and surveys on societal trends over time, there is less violence and fewer wars in the world than there used to be (despite what people think), and crime is generally down. At least some research finds that people tend to be less selfish these days than in the past, and common myths about generational character differences—that Boomers are selfish or millennials are more entitled—appear to be unfounded.
Adding to that evidence, Mastroianni and Gilbert analyzed some other available surveys: Between 1965 and 2020, over 4 million respondents around the world had reported on their own and others’ moral behavior, in response to questions like “Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?” and “Would you say that most of the time people try to be helpful, or that they are mostly just looking out for themselves?” and “During the past 12 months, how often have you carried a stranger’s belongings, like groceries, a suitcase, or shopping bag?”
After analyzing these responses, Mastroianni and Gilbert found that, no matter the year, people saw their own behavior and the behavior of people around them as generally good, with little personal experience of immoral behavior to back up their belief that morality was slipping. This was true 90% of the time, says Mastroianni, and was true for both Americans and people from other countries.
This is why Mastroianni thinks that people’s views around moral decline are an illusion.
“If people are far less kind today than they used to be even just a couple years ago, it should be easy to find some evidence of that shift. So, if you ask people how they were treated today, fewer people should say ‘yes’ today than they did five years ago,” he says. “But we find no evidence of that going on. In fact, we find pretty strong evidence that it’s not going on.”
So, if morality isn’t going down the tubes, where does this misperception come from? There could be many reasons, but two stick out for Mastroianni: our tendency to focus more on the negative than the positive in life, which media exploit by emphasizing negative news; and our tendency to remember good things more fondly, while the badness of bad memories fades with time. When we are constantly bombarded with stories of unethical, immoral behavior from a handful of bad actors, we give them more weight than our own personal experience. Similarly, if we try to remember what the world was like in the past, we may look at it with rose-colored glasses.
“If you put these two phenomena together . . . you can produce an illusion where every day the world looks bad, but every day you also remember yesterday being better,” says Mastroianni.
Why we need to check our biases
Why does this matter? Mastroianni says that it’s important to know if society is actually in moral decline or not. We need goodness and kindness to function as a society, and if those are missing, we’ll need to focus on changing that.
On the other hand, if it’s an illusion, we could be spending time trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. He points to Gallup polls in which a majority of Americans say they think government should address the moral breakdown of the country—which might be a waste of time and money and take away from other important priorities.
Unfortunately, our biases, while leading us astray in some ways, are also fairly hard-wired—and for some good reasons. Being alert to negative news can make us more cautious and keep us safer, and looking at the past more benignly can help us feel good and move on from bad events in our lives that might otherwise keep us stuck.
Still, Mastroianni worries that if we have an overall pessimistic view about people’s morality, it may interfere with trusting others, which could lead to social problems. It might make it harder for people to do business with each other or have the courage to go on dates or form loving relationships.
While he wishes our daily news diet was less sensationalist and provided more context, he doesn’t see that happening anytime soon. But one thing people could do to lessen this warped view is to try practicing a bit more humility. When comparing the present to the past or past generations to younger generations, we should be a lot more cautious about making judgments about their morality or any other character trait.
“Just because a feeling comes to mind easily—like people are less moral than they used to be—doesn’t mean that you’re actually right,” he says. “The ease of thinking something is not an indication of its accuracy.”