The prevailing notion that our world is experiencing a moral decline is everywhere. Terms like “ensauvagement” and “decivilisation” are frequently used to describe this sentiment. But is this truly the case? A recent study published in the journal Nature suggests otherwise.
A Widely Held Perception
Adam Mastroianni and Daniel Gilbert delved deep into this topic by analyzing 177 different surveys conducted in the U.S. over the past 70 years. These surveys posed questions like, “Do you feel that people, in general, are becoming less honest?” A staggering 221,000 Americans responded, and in 84% of these questions, the answer indicated a perceived moral decline.
This sentiment isn’t uniquely American. Using the same methodology in 59 other countries, the researchers found similar questions posed to 354,000 individuals. The conclusion was strikingly consistent: 86% of the time, respondents felt that morality was on the decline.
Does Perception Match Reality?
Despite this overwhelming perception, there’s little evidence to support the idea of a genuine moral decline. When individuals are questioned about specific issues rather than general public morality, their views often differ. For instance, when asked about society’s treatment of Black individuals, LGBTQ+ community, or those with disabilities, a majority of Americans believe things are improving.
Other studies have consistently asked representative samples about their personal experiences, such as, “Were you treated with respect yesterday?” Responses to these questions remain stable over time. Furthermore, studies that place individuals in hypothetical situations, like the prisoner’s dilemma, generally conclude that people are becoming more cooperative, contradicting the perceived moral decline.
Interestingly, when people are asked about the behavior of those they personally know, they don’t see a decline in morality. In fact, they believe that those in their personal circles are becoming more moral, even if they perceive the broader world as less so.
Most importantly, objective indicators of immoral behaviors are decreasing. Works by scholars like Steven Pinker have shown that violence in all its forms is less frequent (and less extreme) today than it was 30, 100, or even 500 years ago. Contrary to what daily news might suggest, we live in a more peaceful, less violent, and, in essence, a more moral world than ever before.
Unraveling the Paradox
So, why this glaring paradox? Mastroianni and Gilbert offer two explanations. The first is our overexposure to bad news. We tend to pay more attention to a single horrific event than to everyday acts of kindness. Both traditional and social media are well aware of this bias and exploit it to the fullest. This constant barrage of negative news skews our perception of the world’s morality.
The second explanation is the positive bias of our memory. We don’t compare current events to equally horrific events from 20 years ago. Instead, we compare the present to an idealized past, one where people were supposedly more courteous and kind.
The Real-world Implications of a Myth
The belief in moral decline isn’t just a harmless misconception. It can have real-world consequences. For instance, in 2015, three-quarters of Americans believed that combating the country’s moral bankruptcy should be a top government priority. This perception can divert valuable resources from addressing actual problems. Moreover, if we believe that others are becoming less trustworthy, our trust in them diminishes. Trust is a cornerstone of our well-being and the economic health of our nations.
By debunking this persistent myth, Mastroianni and Gilbert provide a valuable service. The youth are not devoid of morals. The past wasn’t necessarily better. And no, everything isn’t falling apart. It’s high time we recognize and spread this truth.