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Why every generation thinks people were nicer in the past

Reports that we’re becoming crappier humans over time are greatly exaggerated.

Five children in a line with their arms over each others’ shoulders.
The kids are all right.
Getty Images/Tetra images RF
Sigal Samuel is a senior reporter for Vox’s Future Perfect and co-host of the Future Perfect podcast. She writes primarily about the future of consciousness, tracking advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience and their staggering ethical implications. Before joining Vox, Sigal was the religion editor at the Atlantic.

Pretty much every generation seems to believe that morality is declining. In ancient Judaism, the rabbis had a saying: “The earlier generations are to the current generation as men are to donkeys.” The Victorians imagined that people living before the Industrial Revolution were more respectful, civil, and honest. After World War I, Europeans looked back to the Victorians as paragons of moral superiority.

And in this century, surveys have shown that people in at least 60 countries around the globe believe that morality is declining.

But that idea is just an illusion, according to a new paper published in Nature.

Its lead author, the psychologist Adam Mastroianni, says the paper was born out of his own emotional reaction to constantly hearing people grumble about how humanity is going downhill — “Back in the day, you could leave your door unlocked at night,” “Used to be you could trust someone’s word,” “Kids these days!” — without any real evidence for thinking that.

“I had a lifetime of spite build-up!” he told me, laughing. But, more seriously, he added, “If people are less kind than they used to be, that’s a disaster. Interpersonal morality is the glue that holds our society together; lose that glue and it all falls apart. If that’s really going on, then that’s the story of the century and social scientists should be trying to get to the bottom of it.”

So together with Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, Mastroianni decided to find out: Has morality actually declined? And if it hasn’t, why do people think it has?

Nope, morality hasn’t declined

For starters, we should clarify that “morality” means different things to different people.

Mastroianni and Gilbert are not using it to refer to sweeping changes, like the abolition of slavery or the granting of rights to women and LGBTQ people. (By that standard, there’s no doubt most societies, including the US, have improved morally.) They’re using the word to mean something like everyday kindness, honesty, and basic human decency.

That tracks with the definition used in the many, many surveys covering this topic since 1949. In US surveys alone, Mastroianni and Gilbert found 177 questions asking a total of 220,772 Americans things like: “Do you think that over the last few decades our society has become less honest and ethical in its behavior, more honest and ethical, or has there been no change?” On 84 percent of the questions, a majority of participants said morality had declined.

This isn’t an American exception. In dozens of other nations, surveys have found similar results. So, people all over the world believe that humanity is becoming less kind and ethical over time. And as Mastroianni and Gilbert discovered by running their own surveys, it’s not just old people or conservatives who believe this. Liberals believe it, as do young people, who don’t even have first-hand memories of how people used to be.

When Mastroianni and Gilbert asked respondents what was causing the supposed moral decline, they didn’t attribute it all to “kids these days!” It’s not just that old nice people are dying and being replaced by young selfish people — it’s also that humans in general are becoming less nice in everyday interactions, they said.

But is that true?

The answer, as best we can tell, is no.

There’s no measuring device, like a thermometer for morality, that we can use to objectively determine shifting levels of morality over the centuries. So Mastroianni and Gilbert pored over the next best thing: decades’ worth of surveys. If morality had been declining for years, as respondents in every generation claim, then meaningful changes over time should be visible in people’s answers to questions like, “Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?” and, “Are people generally helpful, or are they looking out for themselves?”

But the researchers found no significant changes. Not in the US surveys, and not in the surveys of other countries, either.

Chart of moral satisfaction over time Courtesy Adam Mastroianni
Chart of moral satisfaction over time Courtesy of Adam Mastroianni

We also have a lot of data from economists, who for decades have been bringing people into the lab to participate in the Prisoner’s Dilemma or the Public Goods Game, where you can make a generous choice or a greedy choice, like giving some money away or keeping it for yourself.

In 2022, a separate research team published a meta-analysis of over 500 of these social dilemmas, going back to 1956. They suspected they’d find that cooperation rates had declined, with people becoming greedier over time. Instead, they found that cooperation rates have increased by about 10 percentage points over the past six decades.

Mastroianni acknowledges that these lab games take place in an artificial environment and they may not perfectly reflect how people act in the real world. Still, he told me, “It’s certainly at odds with the idea that people are fundamentally less prosocial today than they were a generation ago.”

Why people wrongly believe that humanity is becoming less moral

Okay, so everyday morality isn’t really declining. Then why do people believe it is?

​Mastroianni and Gilbert hypothesize that two well-known psychological phenomena are working together to produce the illusion.

First is the biased exposure effect. We know from previous studies that humans pay more attention to negative information than to positive information, and the media reinforces that tendency by focusing on bad news. (As the newsroom expression goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.”) Because we’re mostly exposed to negative data about society, we get the impression that moral behavior is at a low.

Second, we’ve got the biased memory effect. When people think of positive and negative events from the past, they’re more likely to forget the negative ones or misremember them in a positive light. The negative events are also more likely to lose their emotional potency over time. This could be partly why we have such a rosy view of morality in the past — we’ve quite literally forgotten the bad times.

Put these two biases together, and you can see how we might end up with the illusion of moral decline. The hypothesis also accurately predicts that both old and young people will perceive moral decline and that people will perceive more decline over longer spans of time.

So next time someone starts bemoaning “kids these days” — or, more importantly, next time you hear a politician claim, “Our country is garbage right now, but elect me and I’ll make our country great again!” — remember this. You’ll be ready with your comeback, and you’ll have the evidence to back it up.

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