People are not getting ruder and less nice than they were in the past.

People are not getting ruder and less nice than they were in the past.

The Illusion of Moral Decline: Why We Think People Are Getting Worse, When They’re Not

Airplane Chaos

There is no shortage of stories about airline passengers misbehaving, disrupting flights, attacking flight attendants, and just generally causing chaos on board — leading many to wonder when people got so out of control. But if you are among the majority of Americans who truly believe people, in general, are collectively getting worse, you may be suffering from “The Illusion of Moral Decline,” as a study published in the journal Nature in June was aptly titled.

The study, which analyzed new and historical survey data, found that people around the world and of all ages believe that morality is declining, and, in the US at least, have believed so for at least 70 years. “US Americans have been reporting moral decline at the same rate for as long as researchers have been asking them about it,” the paper said.

Study author Adam Mastroianni, an experimental psychologist and author of the blog Experimental History, said the surveys the paper analyzed showed a significant majority of Americans believed morality was declining, regardless of when the surveys were given. In a Gallup poll conducted in 1949, 78% of respondents said they believed the human race was getting worse when it came to moral conduct. Another Gallup poll from 2019 similarly found 77% of people believed moral values in the US were getting worse.

This perception of moral decline holds true for both the old and the young and for conservatives and liberals. Interestingly, survey data also suggested people believed the moral decline began around the time of their birth, regardless of when they were born.

But is morality actually declining? The evidence suggests otherwise. Some of the surveys asked Americans questions about encountering incivility at work, being treated with respect, and rating the state of moral values today. However, despite the belief in a decline, the answers to these questions have largely remained the same over time. The data shows flat lines, indicating that morality has not actually been decreasing.

Gallup polling, for instance, asked Americans annually how they would rate the current state of moral value in the US, and every year people gave low, but consistent ratings. If morality were truly declining, that rating should have decreased over time, but it has not.

In fact, there is evidence to suggest that people have higher morals than in the past. Objective indicators of immorality, such as murder, rape, and slavery, have decreased over time, which contradicts the belief in a continuous decline in honesty, kindness, and goodness.

Another interesting study looked at “economic games” conducted from 1956 to 2017, where people were asked to make decisions with financial incentives. Contrary to expectations, researchers found that people were actually more likely to choose the generous option over the greedy one in recent years.

So why do we feel like everyone is getting worse? The study suggests two psychological phenomena are at play: encounters with negative information about strangers and biased memory effects. Humans are more likely to come across negative stories about strangers, whether through news media or gossip. Additionally, the tendency to remember bad memories more negatively than good memories contributes to the illusion of moral decline. Our memories of the past may seem better than they actually were.

Furthermore, the increasing number of people interacting with each other may also contribute to the perception of morality decline. With more avenues for interaction, there are more opportunities for negative behavior to occur. For example, the rise of social media has created new platforms for people to be mean to one another. While it may be true that the number of rude interactions is increasing, it does not necessarily indicate a societal decline in morality.

Overall, if there were a major overall trend of moral decline, it would be evident in the extensive data analyzed in the study. However, the data consistently shows that morality has not been declining. It’s possible that there are pockets of improvement or deterioration, but the idea of a broad decline in morality is an illusion.

So, the next time you come across a story about bad behavior or believe that people are getting worse, remember that it may not be an accurate reflection of the overall state of morality. Despite the negative stories we often hear, humanity as a whole is not on a downward spiral.