Worried About Moral Decline? It’s Just an Illusion

“The world is always ending…

— Arthur Miller

“Remember when people used to be nice to each other?” I have heard some version of this on countless occasions and have voiced it myself. The perception that the world used to be a kinder gentler place is widespread. People across the aisle, across the world, and of all ages lament the demise of morality. Declining human decency seems to be one of the few areas where most people are actually in agreement.

But it isn’t true…

In a paper published this month in Nature, experimental psychologist Adam M. Mastroianni and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University explored the illusion of moral decline—specifically the erosion of kindness, honesty, respect and basic human decency. In a nutshell, here is what they found:

  • Participants believed that morality has declined across the board—in every decade and in every nation studied.
  • They believed the decline began somewhere around the time they were born, regardless of when that was, and they believed it continues to plummet.
  • They believed the decline was a result both of individuals becoming less moral over time and because the “good people” have died off and been replaced by less good people.
  • They believed that people they personally know and the people who lived before they did are exceptions to this rule.

The authors conclude:

About all these things, they (the participants) were almost certainly mistaken.

Using data surveys administered between 1965 and 2020 that asked about moral behavior, Mastroianni and Gilbert found that the decline is all in our head. They didn’t find any meaningful change in acts of kindness such as volunteering or lending a hand to a stranger. Moreover, they found that people are more cooperative than they used to be. Of note, the 2022 World Happiness Report found a sizable increase in helping, donating, and volunteering across the globe. A related study published in Scientific Reports found that small acts of kindness are frequent and universal. In fact, people help each other about every two minutes. In other words, goodness is alive and well.

If decency hasn’t declined, why do we think it has?

Mastroianni’s awesome Substack Experimental History boils it down to two converging psychological tendencies:

1. When thinking about the past, we wear rose-tinted glasses.

Studies have shown that when people recall events from the past, the negative ones are more likely to be forgotten or even misremembered as a positive. Remember that test you failed in high school? At the time, it felt catastrophic. Today, you look back and roll your eyes at how dramatic you were being. This is also known as the Fading Affect Bias.

2. When thinking about the present, we wear doom-and-gloom glasses.

We have a bias toward negative information in the current moment. It disproportionately captures our attention. Watching the news and scrolling through Twitter is a constant reminder of how horrible people are to each other. Non-stop exposure to awful behavior contributes to the illusion of moral decline. Unless you are a fan of Goodable, which I highly recommend, it can feel like we are all going to hell in a handbasket.

Believing morality is on the wane has consequences. In addition to the aspiring despots who prey upon this faux nostalgia, it impacts how people relate to one another. When we underestimate kindness in others, we are reluctant to ask for help or comfort. We are also less likely to provide it if we don’t trust the person in need.

“Life becomes easier and more beautiful when we can see the good in other people.”

— Roy T. Bennett

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman