The illusion of moral decline
And other illusions that come from trusting our intuition
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There seems to be a natural human tendency to believe that people today are worse than people of previous generations. That people used to be polite and considerate and generous, but now they’re mean and cruel.
Just look at all the crime, people say. And the kids! They don’t respect anyone or anything the way we did when we were kids. Etc., etc., etc. In other words, the sky is falling. Civilization is about to collapse.
Spend enough time on social media and reading the news and you’ll conclude we’re all doomed.
Could social scientists have a different way of looking at what we see around us? I listened to an economist and a psychologist talking about this on the Steven D. Levitt podcast “People I (mostly) admire”. Levitt, the economist, was interviewing Dan Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, author of the bestseller Stumbling on Happiness and host of the P.B.S. television series This Emotional Life.
Gilbert is doing research at the moment on what he calls “the illusion of moral decline.” He sums it up this way:
“When survey researchers ask people, ‘Has morality declined in the last X years?’ They say, ‘Oh, boy, yes, it has.’ ” But people give the same answer in 2022 that they gave in 1980 or 1950 or 1937, Gilbert said. In other words, people always think other people are getting worse.
‘Millennials are worse than baby boomers’
Levitt chimed in with his own research, which showed that crime rates had fallen significantly during the 1990s but that opinion polls showed people thought crime was getting worse. Levitt did rigorous research that showed the Roe v. Wade decision had contributed to a big reduction in crime over 20 years. The conclusion: unwanted children are the most likely to grow up to be violent criminals.
Levitt then mentioned the book of a colleague, Steven Pinker, whose own research has buttressed Levitt’s conclusions: The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes.
Gilbert added that people “think part of the decline of morality is that all of us are just getting worse as we age, but they also think millennials are worse than [baby] boomers, and boomers are worse than the silent generation, et cetera.”
‘These kids today’
All of which brings me to consider the frequent complaints I hear from university professors about their students. The argument goes like this: “Kids today aren’t as serious and dedicated to learning as we were a generation ago.”
But wait. Who is making this statement? Probably a person with a Ph.D. or other advanced degree. That means when they were students, they were among the tiny percentage who were totally excited about the influence of Holinshed’s Chronicles on Shakespeare’s history plays. (Guilty. No Ph.D. here, but I found Holinshed fascinating.)
It is true that teachers at all levels are facing new challenges in the classroom because of technology — smartphones and the distraction industry that is social media can make it easier for students to pay no attention to what the teacher is saying. But really, when did most students pay 100% attention to any lecture? (See my Professors of the Book; students of the smartphone).
The Greek philosopher Plato railed against the (relatively) new technology of writing in his Phaedrus 2,400 years ago. He thought that writing and reading were making his students lazy and stupid. Sound familiar? He sounded a lot like professors railing against Google search or Wikipedia:
If men learn this (writing), it will implant forgetfulness in their souls. They will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.
What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only the semblance of wisdom, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much while for the most part they know nothing.
When did they learn something
As someone who has spent about 10 years in the business of teaching university students, I wonder a lot about how we know when we’re being effective. When, as teachers, do we know that the students have learned what we are trying to teach. And how do we measure it — with a multiple-choice exam? That is a pathetic tool.
Getting back to Dan Gilbert, the psychologist — he would say that people are learning when they are totally engaged in something. When their activity most resembles a child at play, totally focused on what they are doing. And that 100% focus is associated with joy, happiness.
This matches my own experience with students and learning. For the last three years of my life as a grandparent, I have been absolutely stunned at the way very small children learn. So one of my goals as a teacher is to create activities in which students can have that eye-opening experience of wonder that children have when they discover something new.
Chemistry and discovery
This doesn’t mean that the teacher has to be a an entertainer. It means their methods are engaging. During the covid lockdown, I attended several Zoom sessions led by the best professors of chemistry and biology at the University of Navarra — “best” in both student satisfaction ratings and student performance on national exams.
These top profs design activities so students could experience firsthand that eye-opening thrill of discovery. These experiences made the theories behind the science unforgettable.
And what was clear to me was how much thought and effort went into the design of each class session. It took far more creativity and followup by the science professors than simply preparing some slides and giving a lecture.
Teaching and learning can be hard work. But that work is fun for us when we’re focused. Musicians and athletes and other performers often spend hours doing routine, tedious exercises. They do it for the reward of being totally in the moment when they are on stage or in a competition.
People are not rational. We’re bad at math and statistics and judging risk. Our instincts often mislead us (I found Daniel Kahneman eloquent on this subject: What we should tell entrepreneurs about risk).
We, the teachers and older generation, often overestimate our own knowledge about the world. We also underestimate the value that younger generations bring when they point out the errors and hypocrisies of our generation. We sometimes call this “disrespect”.
We also overestimate the younger generation’s knowledge of newer technologies. They’re better at buying tickets online, but they can’t see the ways they’re being manipulated by the systems they’re using. They can’t see how they are giving away the privacy they treasure for the convenience of a smooth interface.
These kids today — they’re not worse. They’re just the way we were at that age. They are blissful in their ignorance, skeptical of authority, foolishly risk-taking, brilliantly creative, delightfully optimistic, and grateful for guidance when they get themselves in trouble.
We need to be their best guides, helping them find their own way and their own solutions. Our ways won’t work for them.
This edition of the newsletter is based on an article on my website, Entrepreneurial Journalism.