June 9, 2023


The illusion of moral decline (ADAM MASTROIANNI, JUN 7, 2023, Experimental History)


In psychology, anything worth studying is probably caused by multiple things. There may be lots of reasons why people think morality is declining when it really isn't.

Maybe people say that morality is declining because they think it makes them look good. But in Part I, we found that people are willing to say that some things have gotten better (less racism, for instance). And people still make the same claims when we pay them for accuracy.

Maybe because people are nice to you when you're a kid, and then they're less nice to you when you're an adult, you end up thinking that people got less nice over time. But people say that morality has declined since they turned 20, and that it's declined in the past four years, and all that is true for old people, too.

Maybe everybody has just heard stories about how great the past is--like, they watch Leave It to Beaver and they go "wow, people used to be so nice back then." But again, people think morality has declined even in the recent past. Also, who watches Leave It to Beaver?

We know from recent research that people denigrate the youth of today because they have positively biased memories of their own younger selves. That could explain why people blame moral decline on interpersonal replacement, but it doesn't explain why people also blame it on personal change.

Any of these could be part of the illusion of moral decline. But they are, at best, incomplete.

We offer an additional explanation in the paper, which is that two well-known psychological phenomena can combine to produce an illusion of moral decline. One is biased exposure: people pay disproportionate attention to negative information, and media companies make money by giving it to us. The other is biased memory: the negativity of negative information fades faster than the positivity of positive information. (This is called the Fading Affect Bias; for more, see Underrated ideas in psychology).

Biased exposure means that things always look outrageous: murder and arson and fraud, oh my! Biased memory means the outrages of yesterday don't seem so outrageous today. When things always look bad today but brighter yesterday, congratulations pal, you got yourself an illusion of moral decline.

We call this mechanism BEAM (Biased Exposure and Memory), and it fits with some of our more surprising results. BEAM predicts that both older and younger people should perceive moral decline, and they do. It predicts that people should perceive more decline over longer intervals, and they do. Both biased attention and biased memory have been observed cross-culturally, so it also makes sense that you would find the perception of moral decline all over the world.

But the real benefit of BEAM is that it can predict cases where people would perceive less decline, no decline, or even improvement. If you reverse biased exposure--that is, if people mainly hear about good things that other people are doing--you might get an illusion of moral improvement. We figured this could happen in people's personal worlds: most people probably like most of the people they interact with on a daily basis, so they may mistakenly think those people have actually become kinder over time.

They do. In another study, we asked people to answer those same questions about interpersonal replacement and personal change that we asked in a previous study, first about people in general, and then about people that they interact with on a daily basis. When we asked participants about people in general, they said (a) people overall are less moral than they were in 2005, (b) the same people are less moral today than in 2005 (personal change) and (c) young people today are less moral than older people were in 2005 (interpersonal replacement). Just as they did before, participants told us that morality declined overall, and that both personal change and interpersonal replacement were to blame.

But we saw something new when we asked participants about people they know personally. First, they said individuals they've known for the past 15 years are more moral today. They said the young folks they know today aren't as moral as the old folks they knew 15 years ago, but this difference was smaller than it was for people in general. So when you ask people about a group where they probably don't have biased exposure--or at least not biased negative exposure--they report less moral decline, or even moral improvement.

Our lives have become so comfortable that we inflate trivialities into world historical crises and even characterize positive developments as threats. Imagine explaining to your subsistence-level ancestors how awful it is that machines are doing all our work and leaving us nothing but leisure time.

Posted by at June 9, 2023 11:51 AM


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