by Bob Brockie

A week ot two back, two American psychologists launched their scientific article with the following quote: “The social fabric appears to be unravelling. Civility seems like an old-fashioned habit, honesty and trust like a relic from a former time . . . The foundations of moral life have collapsed, concluding with the dark dawning of the modern day”.  The psychologists then tell us that the Roman historian Pliny wrote this 2,000 years ago. 

In Nature journal, Professors Adam Mastroianni and Daniel Gilbert report on their massive surveys of over 12 million people in sixty countries, asking about moral decline. They find that over 80% of people think the world is ‘going to the dogs’.

The psychologists analysed millions of opinions gathered over earlier decades, and millions more opinions of present-day Americans. Many were asked: “How often have you carried shopping bags, or suitcases for a stranger? Have you recently helped somebody across a street?   Have you given directions to a tourist?  Were you treated with respect yesterday, or in the past? How would you rate moral behaviour with that 10, 20, 30 years ago?” Participants were asked about their thoughts on changing goodness, kindness, honesty, and respect. 

The scientists found that nearly everybody thought their own moral behaviour and that of their contemporaries was beyond reproach. Other people were the problem, especially the younger generation.  Pessimism was shared equally by country, race, age, sex, religion, educational level, and parental status. 

Is there any truth in this? 

The professors suggest that two biases skew people’s thoughts — faulty memory and media negativity. Many studies show that people are quite selective in their memories, remembering positive events from their past but forgetting negative memories.  As a result, they’re inclined to remember a rosy past and compare it with today’s supposed wasteland.  Old Livy certainly felt so. 

 The media is also partly to blame because the public seek bad news and not very interested in good news. The mass media indulge this tendency by focusing on public crises and people behaving badly. “If it bleeds, it reads” is an old newspaper adage 

The professors conclude that the idea of moral decline is an illusion. 

In reality, people are  becoming more civilised.   Fellow American psychologist Steven Pinker shows that the scale of wars, slaughter, subjugation, slavery, cruelty, torture, murder, and rape, have all declined over the world in the long and short term, while minorities, women, and animals are better respected than they once were.  

The illusion of declining morality may have disturbing results. Governments and churches could waste scarce resources trying to reverse an imaginary trend. 

Bob Brockie reporting on: Adam Mastroianni & Daniel Gilbert. The Illusion of moral declne. Nature. 7 June 2023