“In my time you could trust people.”
“The world has become more dishonest.”
“Collective morale is in decline.”
Phrases like this reflect a common feeling that important social values have been corrupted over time.
However, two American researchers think that this perception appears to be, in fact, a collective illusion, which ends up having harmful effects on society and even politics.
“All my life, I’ve heard people talking about the decline of human kindness,” says American experimental psychologist Adam Mastroianni, explaining why he decided to put this to the test in scientific research for his postdoctoral studies at Columbia University (USA). ).
The results, collected by Mastroianni together with psychologist Daniel Gilbert, from Harvard University, were published in June in the journal Nature.
The pair of researchers began by analyzing 177 opinion polls carried out between 1949 and 2019, in the United States, with a sample of 220 thousand respondents.
In the vast majority of these surveys, Americans responded that moral values were being lost.
Then, the researchers decided to observe whether the same behavior was repeated around the world. They analyzed 58 surveys with 354 thousand participants in 59 countries, including two in Brazil, carried out in 2002 and 2006.
In one, conducted by the Pew institute, 94% of Brazilian participants stated that moral decline was a big or very big problem, a rate above the general average (around 80%) for the other countries surveyed.
Mastroianni highlights that the perception that social values are eroded compared to the past is felt both among young and old, and among people aligned with different political spectrums.
In the USA, for example, research shows that both conservatives and progressives agreed, albeit to different degrees, that society was worse than it was before. In other words, this perception is independent of the subjective concept that each individual has about their own morality and which social values they attach importance to.
Now, here’s the interesting point: the second stage of Mastroianni and Gilbert’s research calls into question this worsening perception.
At this stage, the two psychologists focused on the results of more than a hundred global surveys, conducted between 1965 and 2020, in which participants answered questions such as: “how do you evaluate the state of morality in your country?”.
Most responded that they thought the situation was bad. But this index remained stable — without significant signs of worsening — even over the years.
The same happened when people answered whether they had been treated with respect the day before, or whether they thought people were helpful: nothing indicated that there had been any worsening over the years.
Something that does not, therefore, match the perception of decline in moral values.
“If, as the participants in step 1 claimed, morality has been in decline for decades, it would be easy to identify changes in people’s answers to these questions [da etapa 2]. [Mas] It was quite difficult to find any change in people’s responses,” says Mastroianni on his blog.
“We ran statistical tests to identify whether there were significant changes in people’s responses over time. We found none. Sometimes these moral indicators went up a little, but on average they didn’t move.”
In other words, for decades many people have thought that society is worse than it was before, but Mastroianni argues that this feeling is not corroborated by the people interviewed themselves.
“You would imagine that, in places that were less unstable and are now more stable, fewer people would say that there is a moral decline happening, and vice versa,” Mastroianni tells BBC News Brasil.
“But we don’t see this in the research, which suggests that people’s feelings don’t necessarily match their recent experience, even though they think it does. This suggests it’s something psychological, not reality,” he adds.
‘How can you think things haven’t gotten worse?’
Mastroianni emphasizes that this does not mean that the current state of the world is good. But comparison with the past is not productive.
“It’s very common for me to hear from people: ‘How can you think things aren’t worse? Look at how many bad things are happening in the world’. But (…) what we’re investigating is: how do people treat each other? In this, we have good indications that things have not gotten worse”, argues the researcher.
But then why is this feeling that people are worse off so persistent?
In the article in Nature, the researchers highlight two points:
“First, numerous studies have indicated that human beings tend to seek out and retain negative information about other people, and mass media caters to this tendency with a disproportionate focus on [notícias sobre] people behaving badly,” they write.
“As such, people may end up encountering more negative information than positive information about general morality, and this ‘biased exposure effect’ may explain why people believe current morality is relatively low.”
Second, they say that “numerous studies have shown that when people recall positive and negative events from the past, the negative events are more likely to be forgotten, remembered differently, or have lost their emotional impact.”
The researchers also conducted experiments of their own, directly asking a sample of participants: ‘how kind/good are people today?’, compared to different times in the past. And, interestingly, participants identified moral decline only within the span of their own lives, not before they were born.
“It’s like, ‘It was only when I arrived on Earth that [a moralidade] it started to get worse,'” says Mastroianni.
Political and social impacts
But why does it matter whether moral decline is illusory or not?
Mastroianni believes that this sensation can have dangerous consequences, including in politics.
In the scientific article, he and Gilbert cite an opinion poll carried out in 2015 in the USA, a year before the presidential election, in which 76% of those interviewed stated that “dealing with the country’s moral bankruptcy” should be one of the biggest priorities of the future government.
“The U.S. faces many well-documented problems, from climate change and terrorism to racial injustice and economic inequality — and yet most Americans believe the government should devote its scarce resources to reversing an imaginary trend,” the researchers argue.
In other words, if moral bankruptcy is more psychological than fact-based, how can we combat it with public policy?
“This idea that people used to be better with each other — and aren’t anymore — causes a very bad feeling, which people keep trying to undo”, explains Mastroianni to BBC News Brasil.
“And that’s part of the danger: you can’t undo it, because the trend doesn’t actually exist. (…) What there is is evidence that people act in the same way as the previous generation. So when we believe we’re going to change society and bring back the past, or the time when people respected each other, the truth is that we won’t make it. It’s like turning on the fire extinguisher in a building that isn’t on fire: you’ll just leave everyone wet. “
It is a context that, in Mastroianni’s view, favors authoritarian politicians, who gain appeal by trying to rescue a glorious past that may not be feasible.
“This is exactly what aspiring despots do: they boast that there is a catastrophe as a way of justifying their extreme measures,” says the researcher on his blog.
Finally, he thinks that this perception also leads to the isolation of people or groups, given the greater resistance to interacting with others – those who embody this supposed moral decadence.
‘I always suspected that’ x ‘I have proof’
Since the article was published in Nature, Mastroianni says he has received mixed reactions from readers.
“There are people who write to me saying, ‘I’ve always suspected this (that moral decline is an illusion), thanks for putting it into data form. I’ll show it to my brother-in-law and show him how wrong he was.’ But there are also people who tells me: ‘I have proof that morality is declining, I see a lot more fences and walls in my neighborhood, something that wouldn’t happen if people were being nice to each other'”, he says.
“I also observed this in the data I collected myself. (…) People who thought society had gotten worse told me: ‘Ah, now there are social networks, it’s so much easier to be mean to someone who isn’t in front of you. ‘. And the few people who thought that society had improved said: ‘ah, now there are social networks, it’s easier to see that human beings are not that different from each other’. And both things are true. (.. .) I think both reactions reflect that people have their own theories about the world and they just fit the evidence into those theories.”
The text was originally published here.