‘You can go back very far in history and find leaders or aspiring leaders making this claim that things used to be good, now they’re bad’

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Right, a black-and-white headshot of Adam Mastroianni ’14; left, text reading: PAWCAST: Adam Mastroianni ’14 on the Illusion of Moral Decline.

You’ve heard politicians say it, and neighbors, and probably friends: People are just a lot less kind, honest, and respectful than they used to be. But is it true? Experimental psychologist Adam Mastroianni ’14 decided to find out, and on the PAWcast, he explained the answer goes beyond a simple “no.” Our brains are wired to remember a rosy past while coping with a difficult present, and the result is a kind of universal phenomenon — one we should all approach with caution.


I’m Liz Daugherty, and this is the Princeton Alumni Weekly’s PAWcast.

Today I am very pleased to tell you: I have good news. Morality is not actually declining in our country or anywhere else. The widespread belief that morality is declining is an illusion. That’s the conclusion Adam Mastroianni (Princeton Class of 2014) reached in a study recently published in the journal Nature. With Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert (who earned his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1985), Mastroianni found it just isn’t true that people overall are less kind, honest, and respectful than they used to be. So why do we believe it? On the PAWcast, Mastroianni explained the psychological effects behind this phenomenon, and the danger we flirt with when we allow this belief to take hold.

Adam, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

AM: Of course. Thanks for having me.

LD: So let’s start with you. Tell me if I’m right that you received your Ph.D. in psychology at Harvard in 2021, and this was part of your dissertation?

AM: Yes, that’s right. 

LD: OK. And you describe yourself as an experimental psychologist. What does that mean?

AM: It means I bother people. The experimental just means that I’m not a clinical psychologist, so I don’t treat people who have mental disorders — it’s illegal for me to do so. But what I do is put people in situations or ask them questions and try to figure out how their mind works, and how people work, from doing that.

LD: And where did you get the idea for this study?

AM: I got it from being very frustrated for a very long time. So my whole life, I’ve heard people claim things like, you know, you used to be able to leave your door unlocked at night, and now you can’t. You used to be able to trust someone’s word and now you can’t. People used to respect one another and now they don’t. And when I was a kid growing up, this always bothered me because, you know, I was a kid and, and whatever adults were saying, it seemed like the opposite was probably true. 

But when, when I became a psychologist, I started to realize that this is actually a really interesting hypothesis. In fact, it’s not just interesting. If people are right about this, this is the most important thing that has happened in the past generation, in our modern world, right? If people are less kind, less good to one another, if they’re less likely to behave in prosocial ways, that’s a huge disaster. And that is the thing that every social scientist should be trying to understand and reverse. If people are wrong about that, and even at the outset I had an inkling that they were wrong about that, well, then when we have a really interesting psychological question on our hands, which is: Why do people seem to believe this even if it’s not true? So that’s where the study came from.

LD: So walk me through some of the methodology that you used here. I thought it was really interesting that this question has actually been asked kind of a lot. Am I right? By past researchers and over time. So I think when you started looking at it, it seemed like there was a lot to dig into.

AM: Yes. Yeah, so we had a huge head start, Dan and I, in doing the study in that tons of people had asked questions like, do you think the human race is getting better from the standpoint of moral conduct? Do you think people used to treat each other with more respect and courtesy in the past? Do you think people lead less ethical lives than they used to? But no one had ever taken that data and put it all in one place, all these hundreds of questions. So that’s the first thing that that we did. And this is all geared toward answering the question, do people believe that people are less interpersonally good than they used to be? We use the word morality to — as an umbrella term for things like kindness, niceness, honesty, goodness, respect, ethicality. Obviously people mean different things by morality, but that’s what we mean by it.

This, the center consensual part that even when everyone has different definitions of what they mean, there’s some overlapping bit. That’s what we’re looking for. So we took any question that we thought got at people’s perceptions of whether that’s changed over time and then just put ’em together. And we saw over and over again in this archival research, in our own original research that we did to complement this, that people really do believe that people are less likely to treat each other in pro-social ways than they were in the past — 10 years ago, 20 years ago, a generation ago.

LD: So I do believe that people believe this because just like you, I’ve heard it so much. So before we launch into the brain science here, tell me, just reassure me that it is not actually happening. Because I can hear, I can hear them thinking it now: What about President Trump? And he has been so different on the civility front than past social norms. And there are things like that, that people will say, well, wait a minute. There is evidence that the world has changed. What did you find? Tell me it’s not happening. 

AM: To the best evidence that we have, it’s not happening. It’s actually that, that’s a great example that you have. This is what a lot of people think of. And when I give talks about this, I, open with Trump’s inaugural speech and how it evokes this sense of “again.” We’ll make America great again, we’ll make America safe again. This idea that things didn’t use to be this way. But invoking Trump is also really interesting because there wasn’t any past data point in your question. The implication is we have Trump now, but we didn’t use to have anything like that. And obviously that is true in some sense, but what was the past really like? It’s actually a very difficult question to answer. And the fact that an answer comes easily to mind is not evidence that we know this very well.

So, to try to answer this question as systematically as possible, you know, there’s no objective measure of how well people treat one another in their everyday lives, right? We can’t go drilling in the Arctic for ice cores and look at historical levels of people’s niceness. What we can do is look at the historical record of what people have said about their worlds, for decades. So, questions like, were you treated with respect all day yesterday? Have you looked after someone’s plants, mail, or pets while they were away? Have you given up your seat on a bus to someone? Have you volunteered your time for charity? Do you think people in general can be trusted or can you not be too careful in trusting people? These questions over and over and over again. How often do you encounter incivility at work? And what we want to know is, do these lines go down over time, or do they go in the worse direction over time, or are they flat or do they go up? And the answer is they don’t really go much of anywhere over and over again. What we saw were flat lines. People give the same answers today as they did when these companies started collecting this data. 

Add to that, there’s work obviously by the psychologist Steven Pinker on these big “M” moral trends. You know, there’s less war, child abuse, terrorism, all these things. That too is evidence against this idea that people are less fundamentally good than they used to be. But to be fair to our participants, that wasn’t mainly what they meant when they made these claims. Usually they’re claiming things like, you know, you just can’t, people aren’t just nice to one another anymore. Not necessarily they, they kill each other more, although they do say that as well, and they’re wrong about that.

So we just have, for a generation, brought people into the lab and had them play what they call economic games, which is a strong word for a game. But basically they put people in situations where they can choose to be greedy with another person in the lab or they can choose to be generous. And it’s pretty obvious to them, which of these choices are greedy and generous. The greedy choice gets you more money and them less money. The generous choice gives them more money and you less money. They’ve run this in many different ways, obviously, over the years. 

Another team of researchers put together a meta-analysis where they looked at cooperation rates in economic games from 1956 to 2017. What they thought they would find is more people choosing the greedy option over time, choosing to screw over that stranger in the laboratory. In fact, what they found was a 10 percentage point increase in people being generous over time. So all we did was take all that data and get a new set of participants and say, “Hey, we have this study and we want you to predict, we want you to estimate how it went. Here’s what these situations are like. People can choose to be greedy or generous. We have data going back this far. How do you think these rates have changed over time? And by the way, we’ll pay you extra money if you get the answer right.” And in that study, people thought that cooperation rates had decreased by about 10 percentage points when the opposite was roughly true. So even when you make the question really specific, even when you can compare people’s answers to our closest approximation of truth, and even when you pay people to get the right answer, we still find that people think that people are less pro-social than they used to be, and they’re wrong about that.

LD: So what is happening in our brains to make us believe this?

AM: We think there could be a lot of reasons. Any psychological phenomena that’s interesting enough to study is almost certainly multiply determined. But we think there are two reasons that seem to be particularly important. One is that there’s a negativity bias in attention. And this has been known for a long time from other research in the media. They call this, if it bleeds, it leads: We primarily pay attention to and are served negative information about people that we don’t know. So if you open the newspaper, if you turn on the news, if you start gossiping with someone else, what you are mostly going to hear about is the bad behavior of people that you are not directly connected to. So all around the world it looks like the world outside of our little corner of it is pretty bad, but that alone isn’t enough to create this illusion of change over time.

For that, you need a second phenomenon, which comes from memory research, which is called the fading affect bias. And this is the phenomenon by which the goodness of good memories fades less, fades slower than the badness of bad memory. So the badness fades faster. So for instance, if you got turned down for your high school prom, it’s probably a pretty bad experience at the time, but 20 years later doesn’t feel so bad and maybe even feels funny. But if you had a great high school prom at the time feels pretty good 20 years later, it’s probably still a pretty nice memory. And this is what happens to memories on average, not every single memory, but on average the bad ones lose their badness or even flip and become good memories. The good ones lose some of their goodness, but not as much, and they’re much less likely to become a bad memory. And if you put those two phenomena together, this negativity bias and this memory bias, you can produce this illusion by which every day the world out there looks bad, but every day you remember yesterday being better. But if we had asked you yesterday, you would’ve given the same rating for today and you would’ve said no. Actually, yesterday was the day when things were better and so on. Back to the, the beginning of humanity.

LD: Now, this is where I start to get a little bit disturbed because I like to think that my perceptions of the world are based on my concrete experience of it. And this makes me think that maybe not so much. So how much can I trust my own brain?

AM: I think you really can trust it. I don’t want to want to oversell these results that, you know, everything, every intuition that you have about the world is wrong. I wish I could claim that; it would sell a lot of books, but it wouldn’t be true. I think that in general, we have a pretty good sense of our worlds. But what’s really difficult is to know how they’ve changed over time. Because all we have is this little sliver of experience, and there’s no signal in the mind that tells you, “Hey, you have a little sliver of experience. It’s a non-representative experience. You can’t estimate crime rates by looking out your window. You can’t know what the past was like by watching Mad Men.” But there’s no error signal in the mind that tells you, Hey, just so you know, your impression of the 1950s is driven mainly by the fact that you have watched a fictional drama on Netflix.

It just kind of feels like, “Nah, I know what the ’50s was like. You know, people wore suits and there was Leave It to Beaver and, you know, white picket fences.” And it turns out that the past is, was, really complicated, very different. It was as rich for those experiencing it as our present is for us. And so to know the differences between the past and the present is a really difficult undertaking. I mean, even to get a halfway decent answer to this question took us five years of collecting this data, thinking about it a lot. So the fact that it feels like you know, is not necessarily an indication that you do know. 

And I think this is especially true when we’re thinking about the present versus the past. But if you look outside and it’s a sunny day, it is a sunny day. I promise, it’s not a cognitive bias. It is more when we are trying to guess things that are actually really difficult to know, that our lack of information can turn into a bias.

LD: Something else that struck me about this was how much it seems to cross lines. It doesn’t seem to matter — am I right? — where you are, how old you are, which political party you belong to. I’d sort of guess that how you feel about the world would be tied to whether your political party is in power, whether the Supreme Court is siding with you, and instead it’s this universal experience of being human. Am I right? 

AM: Yeah. So we, we found that most people feel this way, and it doesn’t seem to make a big difference what kind of person you are. So obviously one big difference between people is they live in different countries and they have different cultures. And so you might think that what really drives this is whether you’re living in a country that’s undergoing a period of crisis, or you’re living in a country that’s undergoing a period of calm, or any other difference that could be cross-country or cross-cultural. And we don’t have great data for this, but to the extent that we do have data, in every single country, and there’s been nearly 60 of them where people have been asked some question like, “Do you think morality is declining in your country?” a majority of people in every single one of those countries says yes.

So this doesn’t seem to be just a phenomenon of the U.S. or just western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic countries, as psychologists like to talk about them. This seems to be pretty much anywhere you ask the question — in fact, anywhere we’ve asked the question so far — people say this is going on. So that’s one difference that doesn’t seem to matter. 

Another is, age and politics we thought would make a difference, right? You, if you imagine the kind of person saying, “Oh, people these days,” you probably imagine someone who’s older and maybe you imagine someone who’s conservative. A little hard to picture, but maybe they’re wearing a MAGA hat, right? What we found was that age didn’t matter that much. In some studies, we find a little bit of an age effect, but by and large it’s not there. So when you ask old and young people to rate people today, what about 10 years ago, 20 years ago, you don’t really find age effects there. They give the same answers. When you ask, OK, rate people today. Now what about the year in which you were 20 and the year in which you were born? Older people do say there’s been more decline over my lifetime, but obviously that lifetime has been longer. So if you divide that by their age and get like a decline per year score, the old people and the young people get the same, give you the same rate so that the younger people are on track to look like the older people when they’re older. 

For ideology, conservatives are more likely to say this. They say it louder, but even the people farthest left say it, too. So being conservative turns this effect up, but it doesn’t turn it on or off. So all these things we thought might make a big difference at best made a tiny difference and usually made no difference.

LD: What kind of reaction have you had to this? Have you had people going, “No, that can’t possibly be.” What have people been saying?

AM: There’s a lot of, “No, I know that people are worse, because … .” I literally had someone send me an email, that was like, I know that people are worse because my neighbor did this thing and isn’t that really bad? I’m like, yeah, it is bad. And it’s, it’s hard to thread the needle between “things are on average the same,” which people take to mean that I’m saying things are good now, or that there are no problems in the world, neither of which are true. Like, there’s plenty of bad things in the world and some things get worse and some things get better. On this question, there’s no evidence supporting what people claim, that things are so much worse now than there used to be. 

In part one of our study, people say like, “things are worse now even than they were four years ago. They’re worse since I was 20. They’re worse since I was born. These are big differences, you can tell the difference,” and there’s no evidence of something of that size happening. Some of these things go up a little bit, some of then go down a little bit. Mainly they go nowhere at all. So yeah, I think people really do feel personally attacked, when, what do you say, like, “There’s no evidence for this thing and in fact, the more you learn about the past, the more complicated it seems and the less it seems like things were so simple and [straightforward].”

There’s no point in history where you can find people saying, we live in such simple and straightforward times, we’re so happy to live right now.” Everyone’s got problems all the time, and I think we feel like our problems are unique and worse because they are, they’re still ongoing, right? That the problems of the past were at least solved enough that we are here to talk about them today. But the problems of today, they may be world-ending, and that makes them scary and that makes them feel like they are of a different category than problems in the past. 

And they definitionally are right. Like 150 years ago, we weren’t worried about climate change because it hadn’t really started happening yet. And that is different, but that doesn’t mean that 150 years ago people had no problems.

LD: Well, and that gets into something that was sort of a small piece in the journal article itself — but I know you’ve been talking about it in other interviews — which is, this matters in kind of a big way. Like, it doesn’t seem on its surface, like it would be such a massive puzzle piece. But when we persist in this belief that morality is declining and things are getting worse over time and everything’s kind of falling apart, it opens us up to some pretty intense problems. Do you want talk about that a little bit? Because you’ve had a lot of time to ruminate on this with your work.

AM: Yeah. So this wasn’t a big focus of the piece, but I wrote a New York Times op-ed about it. I also write a blog called “Experimental History” where I unpacked this a little bit. But this idea that things, whatever the thing is, are worse now than they used to be, is an old and powerful one. And you can go back very far in history and find leaders or aspiring leaders making this claim that things used to be good, now they’re bad, put me in charge, give me unlimited power, and I will bring back the good times. And it seems to be a potent claim, and I think there’s a lot packed into it, right? The idea that things used to be good suggests that it is possible for things to be good, right?

If anyone says things have always been bad, why would you put them in charge? This is someone who doesn’t think that things can improve. It also evokes a sense of loss, which could be motivating too, right? That we’ve lost the good parts and now we need to get them back, rather than, “Hey, there’s some good things and some bad things right now, what we would really like to do is increase the good things and decrease the bad things,” said no successful political candidate ever, even though that’s a person I’d like to vote for. 

So you can find this in ancient Rome. You can find this claim in Florence. You can find autocrats claiming this, like Hitler; obviously this sounds a lot like Make America Great Again. But even, you could find Biden claiming this, right? The “America’s back” part of his foreign policy is this idea that there was a bad time and now the good times are back. And that’s not to say that that’s always 100% wrong. Things can get better or worse over time. And sometimes we can recapture the things that made times good. What is very unlikely is that whatever time we’re thinking about in the past was simply better than now, and all we need to do is unflip the switches that got flipped in the meantime. 

And that’s obviously the danger, is that if you think that there’s been this downward trend, you think that some switch got flipped and you want to unflip it. You might think, “Oh, we gotta get rid of these books. We gotta get rid of this technology. We gotta change our culture back to the way it was.” If you hope that that is going make people say, be more likely to say, that they were respected yesterday or they encountered less civility, it’s not going happen because that change hasn’t happened. People say it just as much now as they used to.

LD: Now I kind of think it’s unlikely that we’re going to be able to rewire our brains so that the way that they work like this is going to change. But is this the kind of psychology where knowing that you’re inclined to think this way and being cognizant of it maybe could help you see it happening and think your way through it in a different way? Are you kind of hoping that by putting this out there?

AM: I hope so. I hope so. Yeah. I mean, I don’t think it makes the intuition go away, and I don’t think we should rewire our brains about this, because I think those two biases that I think might produce this are reasonable to have. Like, it is reasonable to pay attention to negative information because it could be about things that could harm you, right? I think that that attentional bias came out of a time when you were likely to be killed by things in your environment. And paying attention to them helps you avoid them. So it makes sense why we have this, this negative bias in attention. It also makes sense why this positivity bias really in memory because it makes things hurt less over time. We rationalize, we reframe, we distance ourselves. This all makes us, helps us live psychologically healthy lives. 

It does have this downside, this byproduct that it could lead us to believe that the world is getting worse even when it isn’t. And that is, I hope, what at least makes people pause if they know about this work. And think about how difficult it is to really know how the present differs from the past. If I can make people pause for an extra five seconds, or call into question a little bit this sense that it is so easy to know how things have changed over time, then that will be a success. But I think otherwise, I don’t think that this paper alone is enough to change people’s brains, unless you cram it into your skull.

LD: Well, you know, that gets through a lot of what my questions were, you know? Is there anything else you’d like to add or, or mention here?

AM: It’s funny writing papers for, scientific papers, because people I think assume that they’re not going be able to understand them. And so even though we made this paper open access so anyone can download it, I’ve had a lot of people who read the title of the abstract and then assume that what follows is not going to be understandable. And so that’s why I wrote this version for “Experimental History” in my blog that just takes out the meat of it. Like, here are the graphs, here’s the version that anyone could understand, even though it’s not even like, the paper I think is also pretty straightforward.

But the funny experience I’ve had with journalists writing to me about it, they’re like, can I ask you some questions about it? I’m like, sure. And by the way, here’s this blog post version. And they’re like, that actually answers all my questions. And so it makes me wonder, what’s the point of writing the paper in the first place? Like the paper is supposed to be the comprehensive answer to all the questions. Why do we write, why do we communicate science in this way where we bury the important information in a sea of unimportant information? 

And so that, that’s what I am doing more these days is trying to communicate science in regular words that people can understand and putting everything transparently on the internet, that if you want to know the verbatim questions that we ask, if you want to download the data, if you want to run the code, it’s all there for the 0.001% of people who want to do it. For everybody else, here’s what we did and here’s what we found in words that people can understand.

And I think that is the way that all science should work, and I think it’s wild that people disagree. I think some people think that it is noble that science is boring and inaccessible. And I think I would like to crush that idea under my boot. That is the thing I would add. 

You know we made this paper open access, but to do that it costs $12,000, which is wild. This is now going a maybe a little bit beyond the scope of the things we were going talk about, but everyone’s like, open access is great. I agree. In order to get it, you have to basically pay the journal to forego the profits that they thought they were going to get by selling access to the article. So the whole way that journals work, it makes no sense. I think they provide basically zero value. They do some copy editing, but Word can do that for you basically automatically. And so, like, why are we, Princeton alone I think spends millions of dollars every year to get access to these journals. I think it’s a travesty, and I think no one thinks this business model should work except for the people who cash the checks. I should step down from the soapbox, but I appreciate you letting me take a turn on it.

LD: It sounds like a follow-up podcast that we’ll have to do some time. More to dig into. All right, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. I really appreciate it.

AM: Of course. Thanks for having me. 

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