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You probably think people are getting ruder and less nice than they were in the past. You’re also probably wrong.

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Travelers line up to check in for United Airlines flights at San Francisco International Airport on July 01, 2022 in San Francisco, California.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The majority of Americans believe morals are declining, a new study found.But evidence suggests this is not the case, even though people have believed it for decades.It could be because people tend to hear negative stories about strangers, and have a negative memory bias.

There is no shortage of stories about airline passengers misbehaving, disrupting flights, attacking flight attendants, and just generally causing chaos on board — leading many to wonder when people got so out of control.

But if you are among the majority of Americans who truly believe people, in general, are collectively getting worse, you may be suffering from “The Illusion of Moral Decline,” as a study published in the journal Nature in June was aptly titled.

The study, which analyzed new and historical survey data, found that people around the world and of all ages believe that morality is declining, and, in the US at least, have believed so for at least 70 years. “US Americans have been reporting moral decline at the same rate for as long as researchers have been asking them about it,” the paper said.

Study author Adam Mastroianni, an experimental psychologist and author of the blog Experimental History, said the surveys the paper analyzed showed a significant majority of Americans believed morality was declining, regardless of when the surveys were given.

In a Gallup poll conducted in 1949, 78% of respondents said they believed the human race was getting worse when it came to moral conduct. Another Gallup poll from 2019 similarly found 77% of people believed moral values in the US were getting worse.

This was true for the old and the young and for conservatives and liberals. Interestingly, survey data also suggested people believed the moral decline began around the time of their birth, regardless of when they were born.

At the same time, Mastroianni said the survey data suggests there hasn’t actually been moral decline — just a consistent perception of it.

My whole life, I’ve heard people complain about the demise of human goodness. “Used to be you didn’t have to lock your doors at night!” etc. Is this just a vocal minority, or do most people believe this?

Turns out, it’s most people. 177 surveys, N = 220,772. Here’s a sample: pic.twitter.com/gdL8aM5Jrd

— Adam Mastroianni (@a_m_mastroianni) June 7, 2023

The evidence suggests morality is not declining, even though most think it is

Some of the surveys asked Americans questions like: “How often do you encounter incivility at work? Were you treated with respect all day yesterday? How would you rate the state of moral value today?”

“If there is in fact this decline that people believe in, we should be able to find it somewhere in these questions,” Mastroianni told Insider, noting that instead, the answers to these questions have largely remained the same over time. “We should see these lines go down over time, and instead, over and over again, we find flat lines.”

Gallup polling, for instance, asked Americans annually how they would rate the current state of moral value in the US, and every year people gave low, but consistent ratings. In other words, they did not think people in the US had high morals but rated the amount of morality the same every year. If morality were actually declining, that rating should decrease over time, and yet it does not.

Rather than morality declining, there’s actually some evidence to suggest that people have higher morals than in the past. The study noted that “objective indicators of immorality” — like murder, rape, and slavery — have decreased over time, “which is not what one would expect if honesty, kindness, niceness, and goodness had been decreasing steadily, year after year, for millennia.”

Mastroianni noted another paper, published last year, that looked at “economic games” that social scientists conduct in labs in which people are asked to make decisions and given a financial incentive. The decisions typically involve choosing to do something that benefits yourself or benefits the collective group in the lab. The paper looked at studies conducted from 1956 to 2017.

“What they expected to find is that people are more likely to choose the greedy option today than they were in the past. In fact, they found the opposite. People were 10 percentage points more likely to choose the generous option,” Mastroianni said.

We found 140 surveys (N = 12 million) where people were asked multiple times about the current state of morality around them. We found strong evidence of no change over time. For instance: pic.twitter.com/SarhSipHQv

— Adam Mastroianni (@a_m_mastroianni) June 7, 2023

So why do we feel like everyone is getting worse?

There’s likely a host of reasons why humans consistently feel like morality is declining, but the study suggests two well-established psychological phenomena are combining to produce that perception.

First, humans are more likely to encounter information about strangers that is negative. That could be in the form of news media, like all the stories about disrespectful behavior on airplanes, or in the form of plain old-fashioned gossip. The second is the biased memory effect, in which “the badness of bad memories fades faster than the goodness of good memories,” Mastroianni said, meaning you may remember the past as better than it actually felt at the time.

For instance, if you get dumped at a high school dance it may be devastating when it happens, but 20 years later you might look back on it as a funny story. At the same time, if you have a positive memory of your high school dance, it’s likely to stay positive over time.

Another potential explanation for the illusion of morality decline could simply be the number of people in the world interacting is increasing.

“As you open up different ways for people to relate to one another, for instance, you create new opportunities for people to be mean to one another, right?” Mastroianni said. “The rate of people being mean to one another on social media in 1985 was zero because it didn’t exist.”

So in the case of air travel, it may be true that the sheer number of rude interactions is increasing as more and more people are flying — and in fact, the Federal Aviation Administration has reported an increase in unruly passengers in recent years, especially during the pandemic mask mandates.

But that does not necessarily mean the rate of those interactions is increasing, or, even if it was, that it would be indicative of any sort of broader decline in morality society-wide.

“It’s totally possible that there are pockets where things get worse, other pockets where things get better,” Mastroianni said. “But if there were some kind of major overall trend, we would be able to spot it somewhere in this big data set, and we just don’t see it anywhere.”

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Travelers line up to check in for United Airlines flights at San Francisco International Airport on July 01, 2022 in San Francisco, California.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The majority of Americans believe morals are declining, a new study found.But evidence suggests this is not the case, even though people have believed it for decades.It could be because people tend to hear negative stories about strangers, and have a negative memory bias.

There is no shortage of stories about airline passengers misbehaving, disrupting flights, attacking flight attendants, and just generally causing chaos on board — leading many to wonder when people got so out of control.

But if you are among the majority of Americans who truly believe people, in general, are collectively getting worse, you may be suffering from “The Illusion of Moral Decline,” as a study published in the journal Nature in June was aptly titled.

The study, which analyzed new and historical survey data, found that people around the world and of all ages believe that morality is declining, and, in the US at least, have believed so for at least 70 years. “US Americans have been reporting moral decline at the same rate for as long as researchers have been asking them about it,” the paper said.

Study author Adam Mastroianni, an experimental psychologist and author of the blog Experimental History, said the surveys the paper analyzed showed a significant majority of Americans believed morality was declining, regardless of when the surveys were given.

In a Gallup poll conducted in 1949, 78% of respondents said they believed the human race was getting worse when it came to moral conduct. Another Gallup poll from 2019 similarly found 77% of people believed moral values in the US were getting worse.

This was true for the old and the young and for conservatives and liberals. Interestingly, survey data also suggested people believed the moral decline began around the time of their birth, regardless of when they were born.

At the same time, Mastroianni said the survey data suggests there hasn’t actually been moral decline — just a consistent perception of it.

My whole life, I’ve heard people complain about the demise of human goodness. “Used to be you didn’t have to lock your doors at night!” etc. Is this just a vocal minority, or do most people believe this?

Turns out, it’s most people. 177 surveys, N = 220,772. Here’s a sample: pic.twitter.com/gdL8aM5Jrd

— Adam Mastroianni (@a_m_mastroianni) June 7, 2023

The evidence suggests morality is not declining, even though most think it is

Some of the surveys asked Americans questions like: “How often do you encounter incivility at work? Were you treated with respect all day yesterday? How would you rate the state of moral value today?”

“If there is in fact this decline that people believe in, we should be able to find it somewhere in these questions,” Mastroianni told Insider, noting that instead, the answers to these questions have largely remained the same over time. “We should see these lines go down over time, and instead, over and over again, we find flat lines.”

Gallup polling, for instance, asked Americans annually how they would rate the current state of moral value in the US, and every year people gave low, but consistent ratings. In other words, they did not think people in the US had high morals but rated the amount of morality the same every year. If morality were actually declining, that rating should decrease over time, and yet it does not.

Rather than morality declining, there’s actually some evidence to suggest that people have higher morals than in the past. The study noted that “objective indicators of immorality” — like murder, rape, and slavery — have decreased over time, “which is not what one would expect if honesty, kindness, niceness, and goodness had been decreasing steadily, year after year, for millennia.”

Mastroianni noted another paper, published last year, that looked at “economic games” that social scientists conduct in labs in which people are asked to make decisions and given a financial incentive. The decisions typically involve choosing to do something that benefits yourself or benefits the collective group in the lab. The paper looked at studies conducted from 1956 to 2017.

“What they expected to find is that people are more likely to choose the greedy option today than they were in the past. In fact, they found the opposite. People were 10 percentage points more likely to choose the generous option,” Mastroianni said.

We found 140 surveys (N = 12 million) where people were asked multiple times about the current state of morality around them. We found strong evidence of no change over time. For instance: pic.twitter.com/SarhSipHQv

— Adam Mastroianni (@a_m_mastroianni) June 7, 2023

So why do we feel like everyone is getting worse?

There’s likely a host of reasons why humans consistently feel like morality is declining, but the study suggests two well-established psychological phenomena are combining to produce that perception.

First, humans are more likely to encounter information about strangers that is negative. That could be in the form of news media, like all the stories about disrespectful behavior on airplanes, or in the form of plain old-fashioned gossip. The second is the biased memory effect, in which “the badness of bad memories fades faster than the goodness of good memories,” Mastroianni said, meaning you may remember the past as better than it actually felt at the time.

For instance, if you get dumped at a high school dance it may be devastating when it happens, but 20 years later you might look back on it as a funny story. At the same time, if you have a positive memory of your high school dance, it’s likely to stay positive over time.

Another potential explanation for the illusion of morality decline could simply be the number of people in the world interacting is increasing.

“As you open up different ways for people to relate to one another, for instance, you create new opportunities for people to be mean to one another, right?” Mastroianni said. “The rate of people being mean to one another on social media in 1985 was zero because it didn’t exist.”

So in the case of air travel, it may be true that the sheer number of rude interactions is increasing as more and more people are flying — and in fact, the Federal Aviation Administration has reported an increase in unruly passengers in recent years, especially during the pandemic mask mandates.

But that does not necessarily mean the rate of those interactions is increasing, or, even if it was, that it would be indicative of any sort of broader decline in morality society-wide.

“It’s totally possible that there are pockets where things get worse, other pockets where things get better,” Mastroianni said. “But if there were some kind of major overall trend, we would be able to spot it somewhere in this big data set, and we just don’t see it anywhere.”

Read the original article on Business Insider
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