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Moral decline may be an illusion (Axios)

17 June 2023


Axios Science title: Moral decline may be an illusion
By: Alison Snyder
Date: 9 June 2023

“People around the world say kindness, respect, and honesty are declining but that may be a cognitive illusion, researchers reported this week.

Why it matters: People’s beliefs guide policy and how resources are allocated.

Driving the news: Survey data from 60 countries shows most people around the world believe morality is declining — and they’ve thought that for at least 70 years, according to new research published this week in the journal Nature.

  • The study — by Adam Mastroianni, a postdoctoral research scholar at Columbia Business School and author of Experimental History, and Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert — focuses on “everyday morality:” the kindness, respect, and honesty that most people agree are a reflection of morality.
  • The researchers also surveyed people in January 2020 and asked them to compare whether people were “kind, honest, nice, and good” in 2020, 2010, and 2000, as well as at various times in the past, including when they turned 20 years old and the year they were born.
  • The belief that morality declined was seen across race, gender, age, education, and political leaning. (The decline was perceived to be greater between some groups — for example, conservatives said there was more decline compared to liberals.)

The researchers then compared surveys taken over time that asked respondents to rate the morality of people in the present time. The 107 surveys of more than 4.4 million people were done between 1965 and 2020, and participants were asked at least twice and at least 10 years apart.

  • “If, as people all over the world claim, morality has been declining steadily and precipitously for decades, then people’s reports of current morality should also have declined over the years,” they write.
  • But they didn’t.
  • That suggests the perception of moral decline is an illusion, the researchers argue. (Mastroianni notes that just because morality is not worse, it doesn’t mean it is good, and wars, climate change, racial injustices, and massive inequality remain.)

How it works: There are likely many ways the illusion is created, Mastroianni says.

  • One possibility is it arises from the combination of two psychological phenomena: our tendency to pay more attention to negative than positive moral information and for our negative memories to tend to fade faster than positive ones.

What they’re saying: The findings are a “powerful demonstration of this illusion,” offers Richard Eibach, a professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo.

  • There are limitations to the study: the authors note that some of the surveys ask about perceptions of moral values without defining it or are vague about the time in the past people were asked to compare to the present.

The big picture: The finding echoes other studies that converge on people tending to be pessimistic about the present compared to the past. For example, researchers have found parents say the world has become more dangerous — usually starting right around when their first child was born.

  • In a recent survey, most respondents who were asked about trends over the past 20 years, such as the percentage of people living in poverty or average wages, said they’d gotten worse. But they hadn’t.

The intrigue: When people were asked about the morality of people close to them or who lived before they were born and they didn’t know, “the perception of moral decline was attenuated, eliminated or reversed,” Mastroianni and Gilbert write.

  • There are also areas where people perceive progress — with accuracy or even over-optimism, says Greg Mitchell, a law professor at the University of Virginia, pointing to work by Yale psychologist Jennifer Richeson that finds Americans overestimate progress in racial economic equality.

“A nice moral to come away with from this story is when we find ourselves getting caught up in a drama of ‘Oh, things are so bad today,’ we should think about the people we actually know and encounter in our lives,” Eibach says.

  • It may be people’s behavior “isn’t all that bad, or all that worse than it was in the past. That for me is a very heartening message.”

– Axios Science, 9 June 2023: Moral decline may be an illusion
– Nature, 7 June 2023: The illusion of moral decline
– Sage Journals, 2022: Are Progressives in Denial About Progress? Yes, but So Is Almost Everyone Else
– APA PsycNet, 2011: The vigilant parent: Parental role salience affects parents’ risk perceptions, risk-aversion, and trust in strangers.


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