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Monday, February 13, 2023

Belief in Persistent Moral Decline

West, B., & Pizarro, D. A. (2022, June 27).


Across four studies (3 experimental, total n = 199; 1 archival, n = 186,000) we provide evidence that people hold the belief that the world is growing morally worse, and that this belief is consistent across generational, political, and religious lines. When asked directly about which aspects of society are getting better and which are getting worse, people are more likely to list the moral (compared to non-moral) aspects as getting worse (Studies 1-2). When provided with a list of items that are either moral or non-moral, people are more likely to report that moral (compared to non-moral) items are worsening (Study 3). Finally, when asked the question “What is the most important problem facing America today?” participants in a nationally representative survey (Heffington et al., 2019), disproportionately listed problems that fall within the moral domain (Study 4).

General Discussion

We found consistent and strong evidence that people think of social decline in more moral terms than they do social improvement (see Figure1). Participants in our studies consistently listed more morally relevant items (Studies 1-2) when asked what they thought has gotten worse in society compared to what has gotten better.Participants also categorized items pre-coded for moral relevance as declining more frequently than improving (Study 3). Study 4 provided further evidence for our hypothesis that those things people think are problems in society tend to be morally relevant. The majority of the “most important problem[s]” facing America from1939-2015 were issues relevant to moral values.

These findings provide evidence that in general, people tend to believe that our moral values are getting worse over time. We propose that this moral pessimism may serve a functional purpose. Moral values help bind us together and facilitate social cohesion (Graham et al.,2009), cooperation, and the strengthening of ingroup bonds(Curry,2016; Curry et al.,2019). Concern about declining morality (believing that morally relevant things have gotten worse in society over time) could be viewed as concern for maintaining those values that help keep society intact and functioning healthily. To “rest on our laurels” when it comes to being vigilant for moral decline may be unappealing, and people who try to claim that we are doing great, morally speaking, may be viewed as suspect, or not caring as much about our moral values.