The illusion of declining decency

Psychologists debate decency

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The Future. While people of all ages believe that humanity has gone downhill over time, new research indicates that this may actually not be true. Psychologists Adam Mastroianni and Dan Gilbert suggest that two well-known psychological phenomena might instead be working together to produce this illusion.

Has morality actually declined?
People often grumble, “Kids these days!” But there’s no real evidence to support the claim that previous generations were more ethical and honest.

  • When Mastroianni and Gilbert polled 220,772 Americans about the changes in people’s behavior over the last few decades, most participants said that morality had declined on 84% of the questions.
  • A separate team predicted that cooperation rates had declined over the past six decades, with people becoming greedier. Instead, they found that cooperation rates have actually increased by nearly 10%.

Why do people have this belief?
Mastroianni and Gilbert attribute the biased exposure effect and the biased memory effect to the illusion of moral decline.

  • We pay more attention to negative than positive information, and the media reinforces this tendency by focusing on bad news
  • When we think of positive and negative events from the past, we’re more likely to forget the negative ones or misremember them in a positive light — hence the term “rose-colored glasses.”

If we put these two biases together, we can see how we might get the impression that moral behavior is at an all-time low… when in fact, society might be in better shape now than it’s ever been.


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