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Ethics and Morality

Is the World Really in Moral Decline?

The biased exposure effect, and how to get past it.

Key points

  • Both within the United States and globally, individuals perceive that morality is rapidly declining.
  • A new study reveals that moral behavior is in fact either very stable or improving over time.
  • We may believe that morals are deteriorating due to biased exposure or biased memory.
Source: NASA/Unsplash
Source: NASA/Unsplash

New research published in the journal Nature in June 2023 questions the common perception that global society is experiencing rapid moral decline. Co-authors Mastroianni and Gilbert show that despite archival and survey data suggesting that people across the globe believe that human moral behavior is declining, other data suggest that human morals are consistent or even improving.

Mastroianni and Gilbert note that throughout recorded history, people have bemoaned a sharp decline in kindness, honesty, ethical behavior, civility, and decency. As the authors note, moral deterioration would indeed be happening extremely quickly if we could perceive those changes within our lifetimes. However, our perceptions of precipitous moral decline may be illusory.

First, the researchers reviewed databases for previously published research assessing changes in moral values and attitudes, honesty, and ethical behavior over time within the United States. They found very strong evidence that respondents believed that morality had declined over time.

Furthermore, the authors found that “Americans have been reporting moral decline at the same rate for as long as researchers have been asking them about it.” Although participants reported more moral decline when they were asked about longer periods of time (e.g., the last 10 years versus the last year), people also acknowledged gains in morality on specific issues such as respect for individuals with disabilities or individuals with different sexual orientations.

Second, the researchers explored previous research from countries across the globe for similar studies assessing changes in morality over time. They found strong evidence that people from 60 different nations across South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa also reported declining morality over time.

Third, the researchers collected their own data using nationally representative samples within the United States to assess perceptions of kindness, honesty, and goodness at several time points over the course of participants’ lives. Generally, they found that participants perceived people to be “less kind, honest, nice, and good” in 2020 versus 2010 and “in the year that participants turned 20” versus “the year that participants were born.”

They also found that although both liberal and conservative participants reported declining morality over time, this effect was stronger for more conservative individuals. Similarly, older individuals reported increased moral decline relative to their younger counterparts. Interestingly, participants believed that the morality of individuals declined over time (people were becoming less moral as they aged) and that successive generations were becoming increasingly amoral.

Contradictory Evidence

Although the authors acknowledged that individuals believe that global morality is declining over time, they gathered research suggesting that, in some ways, morality is improving or staying stable. For example, the authors note that objective records of repugnant behaviors such as slavery, murder, and rape have declined over time.

Second, when survey research assessed current moral behavior toward individuals (e.g., “Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?” or “Would you say that most of the time people try to be helpful?”) and researchers considered participants’ responses over time, individuals’ reports of current morality stayed consistent across decades. Similarly, the authors review research suggesting increased cooperation over time even when individuals believe that cooperation has declined.

Why We Believe Morality Is Declining

The authors suggest two reasons that people believe that morality is rapidly declining. First is the “biased exposure effect,” which suggests that not only do individuals tend to look for negative information more frequently than positive information, but we also pay more attention to that negative information. The authors also note that the media “disproportionately focus” on negative rather than positive behaviors.

Second, the “biased memory effect” suggests that events from the past, even negative events, are remembered more positively, perhaps due to their weakening emotional impact.

When the Effect Disappears

Finally, the researchers show that under certain circumstances, the perception that morality is declining is either reduced or eliminated. For example, when individuals rated those within their personal spheres (such as friends, family members, and co-workers), individuals perceived moral improvement over time rather than moral deterioration.

Furthermore, although participants tended to rate individuals as less honest, kind, and nice when they were 20 versus when they were born, they did not rate individuals as less honest, kind, and nice in the year they were born versus 20 years before they were born, and perceptions of honesty and kindness were actually rated as improving from 40 years before they were born versus 20 years before they were born.

Limitations and Implications

The authors do note that the archival data they referenced were not necessarily collected to explicitly assess moral decline over time. Furthermore, when asking about changes in “moral values,” survey questions did not always specify to which “moral values” they referred. Lastly, the authors acknowledge that other factors besides biased exposure and biased memory may drive our perceptions of moral decline.

Mastroianni and Gilbert suggest some important implications for the inaccurate perception of moral decline such as deflecting funding away from genuine problems to address a problem that may be nonexistent—or individuals not seeking help because they do not believe others will be willing to provide it. This important research suggests that precipitous human moral decline is neither imminent nor inevitable.

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Mastroianni, A.M., Gilbert, D.T. The illusion of moral decline. Nature (2023).

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