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People Aren’t Getting Worse

Ever since I was in secondary school (high school in US terms) I have thought it is bizarre that people think that humans are getting worse. Adam Mastroianni and Dan Gilbert wrote a paper in Nature on this phenomenon which they call The Illusion of Moral Decline. In many ways, they have written the paper I wanted to write for many years. There are two major differences to my thoughts. 1) They did it much better with an astonishing range of data. (Okay data size alone isn’t the only thing to worry about but having responses from over twelve million respondents, n=12,492,983, is pretty dramatic). 2) They actually wrote the paper. (The message for Ph.D. Students is that doing the work and writing it up is vital to successful research publication). Their conclusion is simple: in general, we tend to perceive moral decline, but people aren’t getting worse.

The Persistence Of The Illusion Of Moral Decline

One of the fascinating things about the illusion of moral decline is how long people have held the illusion for. The authors point to Livy (the Roman Historian) mentioning it. (I remember this from my “A” levels — the exams you took in England at 18 — back in the 1980s). Apparently, according to folk wisdom, people have been morally declining for two thousand years. This is weird because the Romans were pretty awful (slaves, crucifixions, gladiators, making deserts and calling it peace etc…). If we have morally declined from them then we should be very scared. The good news is that people aren’t getting worse. It is all nonsense. It is just like when someone tells you that the US was better in the 1950s, or that opera wasn’t designed as a form of punishment.

Clearly, the authors couldn’t go back to surveys conducted in the Roman period. Somehow the Romans’ engineering advances happened without a thriving market research industry to establish the demand for those advances. The authors were able to go back seventy years looking at data conducted in this area. Their finding:

…Americans have been reporting moral decline at the same rate for as long as researchers have been asking them about it.

Mastroianni & Gilbert, (2023)

People Aren’t Getting Worse: In Some Ways, We Know This

Interestingly, the survey participants they investigated see moral decline generally. Still, the same respondents could see improvement in the way others are treated when asked about specific issues.

59% of participants reported improved treatment of African Americans, 51% reported improvement treatment of people with disabilities and 50% reported improved treated of gay people.

Mastroianni & Gilbert, (2023)
People Aren’t Getting Worse: In Some Ways, We Know This

There is an obvious question — what world are the 50% of participants living in who don’t think the treatment of gay people has improved? (Homosexuality only became legal in the UK three years before I was born). Despite these numbers being far too low to my mind, it is clear that many respondents see improvement. Furthermore, the authors looked at contemporaneous reports of helping behavior and found that helping behavior hasn’t been going down. We don’t seem to be getting any worse. It is simply an unfounded belief.

Why The Illusion?

Yet, we do see ‘us’ collectively as worse. Why?

The authors supply a mechanism involving bias in our exposure to information and bias in the way we remember. We are more likely to have our attention drawn to the bad things in the modern world while we tend to forget the bad things in the past.

Interestingly, humans seem to think that things started to go wrong around when they were born. This explains why older people tend to be more negative. Older people think we have fallen further as we have had longer to fall. (This decline from the time of our birth seems a bit odd to me as I personally think things got a lot better when I was born).

Why Is This Unfounded Belief Bad?

The authors note that the illusion of moral decline is a challenge in that it makes us prey to charlatans who promise to make our countries great again. To take us back to a more moral time that never existed. (Who could they possibly mean?)

When you hear others talking about how bad people are nowadays, ask them if they see any progress at all. There has been a lot of progress. The good news is that people can often see progress in specific areas. The bad news is that this just doesn’t necessarily impact their overall view. Still, you might as well try.

When you hear others talking about how kids today are — whatever terrible things they think about kids today — remember the kids really aren’t responsible for any of the problems that we have today. They will be responsible for tomorrow’s problems. (What is more young people can’t be blamed for opera).

In Conclusion

I really liked their summary.

Participants in the foregoing studies believed that morality has declined, and they believed this in every decade and in every nation we studied. They believed the decline began somewhere around the time they were born, regardless of when that was, and they believed it continues to this day. They believed the decline was a result both of individuals becoming less moral as they move through time and of the replacement of more moral people by less moral people. And they believed that the people they personally know and the people who lived before they did are exceptions to this rule. About all these things, they were almost certainly mistaken.

Mastroianni & Gilbert, (2023)

We aren’t declining morally. Human beings have many flaws but the flaws are nothing new. Plus, we have made significant progress in a number of areas, we just need more progress.

For more on random bits of history with at least some tangential relevance to business see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Read: Adam M. Mastroianni, , and Daniel T. Gilbert. “The illusion of moral decline.” Nature (2023): 1-8.

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