4.9 Article

The illusion of moral decline

Journal

NATURE
Volume 618, Issue 7966, Pages 782-+

Publisher

NATURE PORTFOLIO
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-06137-x

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Based on a series of studies, the authors found that people in at least 60 nations believe that morality is declining, which they attribute to the decreasing morality of individuals as they age and successive generations. However, people's reports of the morality of their contemporaries haven't declined over time, suggesting that the perception of moral decline is an illusion. The authors also propose a mechanism based on biased exposure to information and biased memory for information to explain the illusion of moral decline.
Anecdotal evidence indicates that people believe that morality is declining(1,2). In a series of studies using both archival and original data (n = 12,492,983), we show that people in at least 60 nations around the world believe that morality is declining, that they have believed this for at least 70 years and that they attribute this decline both to the decreasing morality of individuals as they age and to the decreasing morality of successive generations. Next, we show that people's reports of the morality of their contemporaries have not declined over time, suggesting that the perception of moral decline is an illusion. Finally, we show how a simple mechanism based on two well-established psychological phenomena (biased exposure to information and biased memory for information) can produce an illusion of moral decline, and we report studies that confirm two of its predictions about the circumstances under which the perception of moral decline is attenuated, eliminated or reversed (that is, when respondents are asked about the morality of people they know well or people who lived before the respondent was born). Together, our studies show that the perception of moral decline is pervasive, perdurable, unfounded and easily produced. This illusion has implications for research on the misallocation of scarce resources(3), the underuse of social support(4) and social influence(5).

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