Have you ever felt that the world is becoming morally more bankrupt by the day? Well, you're not alone. Perhaps the words of this astute observer capture your very thoughts:
“The process of our moral decline” began with the “sinking of the foundations of morality”. This brought us “finally to the dark dawning of our modern day, in which we can neither bear our immoralities nor face the remedies needed to cure them.”
You might feel like this perfectly summarizes the decadence of life in the 21st century. Except this is a quote from Livy, a Roman historian who lived more than 2,000 years ago.
In fact, people throughout history have consistently believed that morals are on a downward spiral. This feeling of moral decline has persisted throughout the ages, as evidenced by historical accounts from various eras.
But if that was truly the case, it must mean that at some point in time -- let's call it "T zero" -- human society must have been the personification of ethics. With each passing generation, the moral fabric of society eroded, bit by bit, until here we are today: in the age of decadence, and on our way to pure evil.
Now that I put it that way, all of this sounds pretty ridiculous. But most people still think that morality is worse than a generation ago. Why is that?
New research led by Adam Mastroianni, a researcher at New York's Columbia University, suggests that this perception is merely an illusion, fueled by nostalgic memories of the past and a disproportionate focus on the negative aspects of the present.
The myth of moral decline through the ages
"Lots of people claim that people are less fundamentally good today than they used to be. 'You just can’t trust someone’s word anymore,' etc. We wanted to investigate that claim, because if it’s true, it’s a huge problem and we all should be trying to fix it," Mastroianni told ZME Science.
To unravel the truth behind this perceived moral decline, the researchers conducted a meticulous analysis of 177 opinion polls spanning 70 years, across more than 100 countries starting from 1981. These surveys probed responses to questions about whether people believe that "most people can be trusted" and "most people try to take advantage of you if they get a chance."
The researchers also recruited volunteers for their own surveys. Participants were asked to rate how kind, honest, nice, and good people were at various points in time. The researchers used this data to test whether people believe that morality is declining.
Finally, the researchers analyzed data from the General Social Survey, which is a large-scale yearly survey conducted in the United States since 1972. They analyzed people's responses to see if they thought morality was declining over time -- but also, more importantly, whether they thought that their contemporaries were moral or immoral.
This last leg proved perhaps the most revealing, showing that people's perceptions of the morality of their contemporaries have not declined over time -- which is key.
Overall, the researchers collected over 12 million data points. According to Mastroianni, they found the following:
- "A majority of people believe that people are less kind than they used to be. They believe this all over the world, they believe it’s been happening at least since they were born, and they believe it’s still happening today."
- "People are properly wrong about this. We looked at over a hundred surveys of people’s perceptions of morality over time, and they did not change."
- "People may believe in the illusion of moral decline because of the combination of two psychological phenomena: biased exposure to negative information about people in general, and biased memory for that information."
It's not about age, gender, or politics
Age and political affiliations do not seem to be significant factors in this shared perception. Contrary to expectations, both older and younger generations expressed concerns about the state of morality.
It appears that everyone, regardless of age, believes that everything started going downhill around the same time they entered the world. Sounds a bit convenient.
Moreover, the study found that both conservatives and liberals shared this apprehension, although liberals thought so to a slightly lesser degree. This dispels the notion that political leanings are the sole drivers of the perceived decline.
"Biased exposure refers to the fact that you predominately encounter negative information about people you don’t know. The news, for instance, is mainly an account of people you’ve never met doing bad things," says Mastroianni.
"Biased memory refers to the Fading Affect Bias, a psychological phenomenon in which the negativity of negative memories fades faster than the positivity of positive memories."
"If you got turned down for your high school prom, for instance, that memory probably feels far less bad than the experience felt at the time. If you had a great high school prom, on the other hand, that memory probably still feels pretty pleasant.
"When you put biased exposure and memory together, you can get this situation where every day it seems like morality is bad, and every day it seems like it’s getting worse."
The notion that our moral compass has been consistently off-kilter appears to be an enduring psychological illusion, based on these findings.
But while we're at it, does this mean that morality in society has always been constant throughout history? No study will ever be able to answer this question with a satisfying degree of confidence. Yet, it would be perhaps equally wrong or even naive to think that overall morality is constant just like it is an illusion that morality is always declining compared to the previous generation.
Acting with morality isn't merely about following rules. It's about making choices and taking actions that align with what we perceive as right, equitable, just, and ethical. Morality is deeply rooted in our sense of empathy, compassion, fairness, and respect for the well-being and dignity of others.
However, every person's values are tested during great times of turmoil. The truth is that -- despite many challenges and evidence of injustice across the world -- things have never been better.
The global life expectancy in 1900 was 31 years. Now it's 73.1 years.
The worldwide rate of death from interstate and civil war combined has trended downward from almost 300 per 100,000 world population during World War II, to less than 1 per 100,000 in the 21st century.
Food has never been more abundant and the global rate of poverty is at an all-time low. In 1990, 1.9 billion people lived in extreme poverty, representing 36% of the world's population. By 2019, this number had fallen to 9.2% — about 703 million people.
Make morality great again. Oh wait...
Considering we're currently living in relatively prosperous and peaceful times, one may assume that people may be more inclined to be kinder -- or at least to be just as fair and to act with morality as their parents and grandfathers.
Nevertheless, it's people's perceptions -- most often subjective rather than objective -- that shape their worldviews. And if people believe that society's moral compass is wack, they will naturally try to fix it when presented with the opportunity.
But this can be a huge trap -- a psychological shortcoming that can be used to manipulate you into serving the interests of nefarious agents. Agents like, say, some politicians.
"If you believe that people are nasty today but they used to be nice, then you must believe some switch in society got flipped, and you’d very much like to un-flip it," says Mastroianni.
"Despots and charlatans often rise to power by promising to do exactly that––give them your money, put them in charge, and they will reverse this catastrophe. But there isn’t a catastrophe. It’s like activating the sprinkler system in a building that’s not on fire."
The findings appeared in the journal Nature.