Home / Chroniques / Moral decline: why do we still think « things were better before »?
An image of an unrecognizable man standing with his back in front of whom many people turned away from him on a city street. Cancel culture concept, ignoring society
π Society

Moral decline: why do we still think « things were better before »?

Adam Mastroiani
Adam Mastroianni
Postdoctoral Researcher at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management  
Key takeaways
  • The idea of moral decline has been present in societies over history.
  • An analysis of surveys conducted around the world since 1949 shows that the idea of a decline in moral values is omnipresent, whatever the social or historical context.
  • According to the respondents, this moral decline is linked to getting older, and to the arrival of new, less virtuous generations.
  • Studies contradict this perception: everyday morality is not declining. We can therefore speak of the “illusion of moral decline”.
  • This erroneous belief is reinforced by two cognitive biases: the negativity bias and the memory bias.

We often hear “things were bet­ter before”. The idea is that in the past you could trust oth­er peo­ple, that peo­ple respect­ed each oth­er, and that from now on that’s no longer the case. “If that’s true, it’s a very pow­er­ful descrip­tion of the world and a dis­as­ter. If not, there is a very inter­est­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal ques­tion: why do peo­ple think there is a moral decline?” asks Adam Mas­troian­ni, psy­chol­o­gist and researcher at Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. Over a five-year peri­od, togeth­er with Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty psy­chol­o­gy pro­fes­sor Daniel Gilbert, Adam Mas­troian­ni reviewed hun­dreds of stud­ies and con­duct­ed three to answer this ques­tion. The study, enti­tled “The illu­sion of moral decline1”, was pub­lished in the jour­nal Nature last June, and its title leaves no doubt as to its con­clu­sion. The myth even dates back to antiq­ui­ty, with the Roman his­to­ri­an Titus Livius, quot­ed in the intro­duc­tion, com­plain­ing about the “process of moral decline” fac­ing his society.

A perception that is “ubiquitous, enduring, unfounded and easily created.”

Since 1949, all sorts of ques­tions have been asked to find out what peo­ple think of their fel­low human beings. Are peo­ple less hon­est, gen­er­ous, polite, respect­ful or kind than they used to be? Has soci­ety become less eth­i­cal in recent decades? The authors of the study analysed 177 sur­veys con­duct­ed between 1949 and 2019, involv­ing 220,000 peo­ple in the Unit­ed States, and 58 sur­veys involv­ing more than 350,000 par­tic­i­pants in 59 coun­tries between 1996 and 2007. The result is the same every­where: peo­ple feel that their sense of moral­i­ty is declin­ing. And this is true no mat­ter how the ques­tion is asked. The authors for­mu­lat­ed the ques­tion in a hun­dred dif­fer­ent ways. On his web­site, the psy­chol­o­gist writes: “Our stud­ies show that the per­cep­tion of moral decline is ubiq­ui­tous, long-last­ing, unfound­ed and eas­i­ly created.”

Nor does age, gen­der, eth­nic ori­gin or polit­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy play a sig­nif­i­cant role in this belief. Every­one per­ceives a dete­ri­o­ra­tion in moral val­ues, but con­ser­v­a­tive par­tic­i­pants see more of it, as do old­er peo­ple. In fact, for old­er peo­ple, this is sim­ply explained by the fact that they have lived longer. “If you divide the total vol­ume of moral decline by their age, you get one moral decline per year, and that’s vir­tu­al­ly the same fig­ure as for younger peo­ple,” says the researcher. How do peo­ple explain this per­cep­tion? “The respon­dents think that this decline is due both to a drop in moral­i­ty over the years, as peo­ple get old­er, and also to the replace­ment of more moral peo­ple by less moral peo­ple, in oth­er words the arrival of less moral gen­er­a­tions,” Adam Mas­troian­ni explains. On aver­age, this loss of val­ues begins around the time of birth. “Peo­ple don’t think things were bet­ter in the 1950s or 1980s. They seem to tell us that every­thing was fine before they arrived on earth, what­ev­er the date” explains the psy­chol­o­gist2.

Are people really behaving in a less moral way than they used to?

Giv­en the evo­lu­tion of our soci­eties, the per­cep­tion of this moral decline seems rather counter-intu­itive. Cer­tain pop­u­la­tion groups, such as homo­sex­u­als or peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, are treat­ed much bet­ter today than they were a few decades ago. Vio­lent phe­nom­e­na such as slav­ery, mur­der, rape, and mas­sacres have declined over the last few cen­turies, but this does not seem to have any effect on the way peo­ple per­ceive their fel­low human beings. So is there real­ly a decline in kind, civ­il, polite and gen­er­ous behav­iour in every­day life, in the street and at work? “We don’t have pre­cise, his­tor­i­cal data on every­day moral­i­ty, but sub­jec­tive mea­sure­ments are pos­si­ble. Sur­veys have been car­ried out for years on the behav­iour and char­ac­ter of oth­ers: are peo­ple help­ful? Have you helped some­one with their belong­ings? Were you treat­ed with respect today? Have you wit­nessed inci­vil­i­ty at work? Have you done some­thing nice for a neigh­bour,” says Adam Mastroianni.

If virtue has fall­en, these pos­i­tive every­day behav­iours would also fall. The study there­fore analy­ses 107 sur­veys, includ­ing 4 mil­lion Amer­i­cans, between 1965 and 2020, and the result is clear: dai­ly moral­i­ty is sta­ble, with less than 0.3% vari­a­tion in respons­es. The result is the same else­where in the world. Can this be explained by the mean­ing of words chang­ing? No, because con­verse­ly, when the ques­tions relate to clear­ly immoral behav­iour, such as queue-jump­ing or assault, the fig­ure does not increase either.

Two cognitive biases create this illusion

If peo­ple are not expe­ri­enc­ing a decline in vir­tu­ous behav­iour on a dai­ly basis, why do they have the impres­sion that “it was bet­ter before”? Daniel Gilbert and Adam Mas­troian­ni put for­ward an expla­na­tion: this illu­sion is cre­at­ed by the com­bi­na­tion of two well-known psy­cho­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­na, two cog­ni­tive bias­es: the neg­a­tiv­i­ty bias and the mem­o­ry bias. Neg­a­tiv­i­ty bias refers to the fact that human beings pay more atten­tion to neg­a­tive infor­ma­tion. In the media, this trans­lates into greater cov­er­age of vio­lent news, for exam­ple. Adam Mas­troian­ni refers to the say­ing “if it bleeds, it leads”. Peo­ple there­fore gath­er more neg­a­tive than pos­i­tive infor­ma­tion about the cur­rent moral state of the world, and con­clude that it is low. The sec­ond bias is mem­o­ry bias. Our neg­a­tive mem­o­ries fade faster than our pos­i­tive ones. “If some­thing good and some­thing bad hap­pens to you today, in five years’ time the bad thing will seem less neg­a­tive and the good thing will not have lost its pos­i­tive aspect”, explains Adam Mas­troian­ni. “The first bias makes the present seem like a moral waste­land, the sec­ond makes the past seem like a fab­u­lous­ly moral uni­verse”, the study sums up.

How­ev­er, for the psy­chol­o­gist, these bias­es should not be called into ques­tion. “These two phe­nom­e­na are deeply root­ed in our brains. They exist for a rea­son, par­tic­u­lar­ly the mem­o­ry bias, which allows us to ratio­nalise and dis­tance our­selves from neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences” says Adam Mas­troian­ni. Instead, the researcher advo­cates humil­i­ty about our per­cep­tions of the world and the past. “We don’t have the data, we have an illu­sion of under­stand­ing,” he warns. This dis­tort­ed per­cep­tion can have con­crete con­se­quences for our soci­eties. There is a risk of peo­ple becom­ing iso­lat­ed, no longer inter­act­ing with their envi­ron­ment, or not ask­ing for help, because they believe that oth­ers are bad. Fur­ther­more, “the illu­sion of moral decline can make indi­vid­u­als dan­ger­ous­ly sus­cep­ti­ble to manip­u­la­tion by mali­cious actors,” says the study, refer­ring in par­tic­u­lar to polit­i­cal fig­ures who could call for more pow­er to be con­cen­trat­ed in their hands, in order to stem this false crisis.

Sirine Azouaoui

Our world explained with science. Every week, in your inbox.

Get the newsletter