Adam Mastroianni
Big Brains podcst

Are we worse people than we used to be? with Adam Mastroianni (Ep. 123)

Psychologist examines whether we’re less kind—and if our moral decline may be an illusion

Adam Mastroianni
Big Brains podcst

Show Notes

How many times have you heard this phrase: “Back in the day, people were nicer” or “People aren’t as kind as they used to be?” Most of us have experienced the feeling that people are becoming meaner over time, year after year. But is it true? Are people really less kind than they used to be?

That’s the question that has bothered psychologist Adam Mastroianni most of his life. He set out to find an answer—a search that recently culminated in a paper published in the journal Nature titled, “The Illusion of Moral Decline.” While the title may be a giveaway for his findings, he asks: If people are becoming less moral, why do we all feel the same way—and what can we do to shake this “illusion?”

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(Episode published November 2, 2023)

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Paul Rand: Big Brains is supported by UChicago’s online Master of Liberal Arts program, which empowers working professionals to think deeply, communicate clearly, and act purposely to advance their careers, choose from optional concentrations in ethics and leadership, literary studies and tech and society. More at You don’t come across many folks whose idea of research is born out of a lifelong pet peeve.

Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. They say all research is me search, and they’re right. Everybody studies the thing that makes them mad. For me, the thing that made me mad was people making claims about how today is different from yesterday that seem totally unsupported by the data, or even worse, there is no data. Right? They’re making claims that are impossible to verify.

Paul Rand: That is Adam Mastroianni.

Adam Mastroianni: One of these claims that I’ve heard my whole life is you used to be able to leave your door unlocked at night, but now the streets are crawling with criminals. You used to be able to trust someone’s word, but now you can’t. People used to treat one another with respect and now they don’t.

Paul Rand: He’s a psychologist and recent postdoctoral research scholar at Columbia Business School as well as the author of The Substack, Experimental History.

Adam Mastroianni: When I became a psychologist, I realized that’s actually a really interesting hypothesis, that if that’s true, if people really are worse to one another than they were even 10, 20 years ago, that’s the biggest story of the century. Right? That is the thing that every social scientist should be seeking to understand and undo.

Paul Rand: If you keep up with the news these days, it’s easy to feel like we’re living in an age of moral decline.

Speaker 3: You got politicians who, instead of wanting to bring people together, do their best to stir up division.

Paul Rand: That people are meaner, less trustworthy, less kind.

Speaker 4: It’s the disappearance of phrases like, “Thank you,” and “You are welcome.”

Paul Rand: That people used to be nicer and that we need to reverse this decline.

Adam Mastroianni: And in fact, Americans agree. So if you ask them, “Should reversing the moral breakdown of the country be one of the government’s priorities?” An overwhelming majority, about 75% of people will say, “Yes. It should be one of the government’s priorities right up there with stopping climate change, preventing terrorist attacks.” We should also be trying to make people treat each other better.

Paul Rand: But what if this view of moral decline is really just an illusion? In a recent study published in the Journal Nature, Mastroianni finally got to put his biggest pet peeve to the test.

Adam Mastroianni: There are two questions, really three that we’re trying to ask here. The first is, do people believe that morality has declined? The second is, are they right that morality has declined? Because spoiler alert, they do believe that it has declined, and the third part is why might they believe that if it hasn’t actually happened?

Paul Rand: This fascinating paper begins with a quote from a historian that sums up the point, “We’re coming finally to the dark dawning of our modern day in which we can neither bear or immoralities nor face the remedies needed to cure them.”

Adam Mastroianni: Turns out, this is actually said 2,000 years ago, and the reason I think that quote is powerful and quotes like that are powerful is that’s the closest that we get to data from the ancient past. We don’t have national representative surveys, but we do have plenty of people saying, “People are bad to each other today, and they used to not be so bad to one another.” And this isn’t conclusive evidence, but this certainly does hint at the idea that people have felt this way for a very long time, and I think that’s a clue that this has to do with people’s psychology rather than history.

Paul Rand: Using survey data over the past 70 years and from more than 60 countries, Mastroianni shows why this idea of moral decline may be an illusion and why the illusion may be actively making the world worse and how we could snap out of it.

Adam Mastroianni: This is an opportunity for giving up some of this unearned conviction that it’s really difficult to know how the present is different from the past. It took us years just to put together this dataset, to answer this very specific question. And so the fact that it’s very easy to feel like you know how the present is different from the past doesn’t mean it is actually easy to know. And so I think you should question that immediate conviction that you get when these images come to mind about how things have changed over time and they’re not like they used to be, that there’s a good chance that you are wrong about those things.

Paul Rand: Welcome to Big Brains where we translate the biggest ideas and complex discoveries into digestible brain food. Big Brains, little bites from the University of Chicago Podcast Network. I’m your host, Paul Rand. On today’s episode, the Illusion of Moral Decline. If you want to study our perception of moral decline, there’s only one really difficult question you have to answer first, what do we mean by morality?

Adam Mastroianni: Yeah, yeah. And we use that word because we didn’t have enough characters to call this paper The Illusion of Decline in Interpersonal Prosociality. Things like friendliness, kindness, honesty, niceness, ethicality, things like that that you would totally understand if we could show you all the several hundred items that are in the appendix. Instead, we lumped that all into a thing that we’re calling morality. Now, a lot of people use that word to mean a lot of different things, and what we use it to mean is the way people treat one another in their everyday lives.

So even though there are a bunch of different definitions out there, what we’re trying to do is say at the center of this Venn diagram of everyone’s different definition, we think there’s some overlap and we’re just going to focus on that overlap. The things that pretty much no reasonable person would disagree are good versus bad. That’s why we call it morality.

Paul Rand: And why don’t you give me a basic idea then if you can, of how in the world do you go about measuring something like this?

Adam Mastroianni: There were two main ways that we tried to measure this. One is by putting together all of the hundreds of thousands of observations from survey companies that have been collected for decades where they ask people things like, “Do you think that morality has declined? Do you think people treat each other with less honesty and kindness today than they used to? Do you think that people are more likely to commit crimes today?” And on and on for hundreds of different surveys.

And then the second way that we tried to measure this and answer that question is running our own surveys. So we got a nationally representative sample of folks online and asked them to rate how kind, honest, nice, and good people are or were in various years. So how about today? How about 10 years ago? 20 years ago? And what both of those streams of research told us is that people do indeed believe that people are less kind, honest, nice, good, whatever adjective you want to sub in.

They believe that people are less that way today than they used to be. For instance, if you ask people, “Do you think morality is declining in the United States?” About 75% of people say yes to that. When we ask people to rate how kind, honest, nice and good people are, they give significantly lower ratings for people today than people 10 years ago, 20 years ago, the year in which they turned 20, the year in which they were born and so on. So pretty much however you ask the question, people will tell you some version of people are less fundamentally good than they used to be.

Paul Rand: Okay. Now this is not just a US phenomena, is it?

Adam Mastroianni: No, it isn’t. So in every country where people have been asked this question, a majority of people say, “Yes, morality is declining.” We have less data, but we do have data from almost 60 countries where people are asked, “Is moral decline a problem in your country?” And the majority of people in all of those countries say it’s at least a moderately large problem, if not a very large problem.

So you might’ve reasonably thought that this is just a problem in the US or it’s just a problem in the west or western educated, industrialized, rich and democratic countries. No, we find this everywhere that’s ever been asked. So it seems to be a pretty worldwide phenomenon.

Paul Rand: What do we know about the people that have been surveyed? Are they older? Are they younger? Are they from different backgrounds? What is causing any type of discrepancy here?

Adam Mastroianni: It’s a great question. So you might imagine that this perception of moral decline is driven maybe entirely by a certain kind of person. So maybe you would imagine that this is an older person saying this. This is people shaking their fist at the teen on their lawn and saying, “Kids these days aren’t the way they used to be.” What’s fascinating is in our data, we really don’t see age differences.

So this doesn’t seem to be driven by spending a long time on earth. Another thing that you think might drive it is being conservative. So the other kind of person you might imagine thinking this is on the conservative side of the political spectrum. We do see that conservatives in our studies are more likely to say that morality is declined and they perceive it more. However, even if you look at as far left on the political spectrum as it goes, even those folks say that people are less good to one another today than they used to be.

So conservatism turns this up, but it doesn’t turn it on or off. And in fact, there seems to be no demographic variable that we measured that turns this on or off. There isn’t a certain kind of person who says this and a certain kind of person who doesn’t say it. Some people say it a little bit more, but every kind of person we’ve ever surveyed, people in their group believe that morality has declined.

Paul Rand:

And does it matter by the timeframe? In the last year, in the last five years, in the last decade?

Adam Mastroianni: We do see that the further back you go, the more people say the morality has declined. When you ask people, “Okay, what about today? What about two, four, six, eight, 10 years ago?” They say, “It’s just a steady decline year after year.” In a later study, we ask people to rate people today, rate them in the year in which you were 20, which is different for each person. Then how about the year in which you were born? And then how about 20 years before that? And 40 years before that?

What we found there is that people don’t think the decline happened before they arrived on earth. So there’s no difference between people 40 years before I was born and 20 years before I was born and the year that I was born, things only start getting worse when I get here. So the first significant difference is between the year that I’m born and the year that I turn 20, which I think is a hint as to what might be going on here because obviously the big difference between when you’re not alive and when you’re alive is that you’re having firsthand experiences, and we think that’s a key ingredient in creating this illusion.

Paul Rand: All right. I’m going to hold off on asking you to give your interpretation of what this is from. I’d like to start with understanding what do your participants think this is coming from?

Adam Mastroianni: Oh, yeah. So we asked some open-ended questions at the end of every study saying, “You said morality is declining. What do you mean by that? What do you think is driving that?” The overwhelming thing you find from doing this is people don’t really have a good answer for you. Often they just restate the thesis, they go, “Well, morality is declined. People are less good to one another.” The people who do give a reason, some of the top reasons they cite are social media. So people were nice to one another when they interacted face to face.

Now it’s so easy to call someone a name when you’re just an avatar, and they are too. That’s why people aren’t as good to one another anymore. People also blame the complexity and difficulty of life, that it’s easy to be nice when life is simple as it was 50 years ago. Now it’s not and so it’s just hard. People don’t have the bandwidth to be good to one another.

People also talk about changes in politics that the most prominent members of our society are mean to one another, and that causes us to be as well. The funny thing is most of these reasons are also cited by the minority of people who say the morality is improving. So the few folks who do say that morality or the people are getting better, nicer to one another, they say things like, “Well, social media has actually brought us together. It used to be that I didn’t know what people were like on the other side of the world or on the other side of the political spectrum. Now I can see them and they’re not so bad. And so actually this effect is positive.”

Which I think goes to show that people have these theories already in their heads and they’re looking for evidence out in the world, and whatever evidence you see can be spun to support whatever theory you already had. So if you think that people are getting worse, you can create a story about how social media is driving that. If you think that people are getting better, which a few people do, you can also spin a story about how social media is driving that. So it’s not really that people see these things and then come up with a theory. I think it goes the other direction.

Paul Rand: So all of this raises an obvious question, are we actually declining morally or not?

Adam Mastroianni: So if people believe this, if morality is really declined, if people are more likely to be mean to one another, well we should be able to find some evidence of it somewhere. It should be easy to find in archival data. And so we have studies going back about 50 years where people are asked questions like, “Were you treated with respect all day yesterday? Have you volunteered your time for a charitable organization or given money to a charitable organization? Have you done various nice things for people like giving them your seat on the bus or your place in line, or looked after their pets while they were away? How often do you encounter incivility at work.”

On questions like these, if the thesis of moral decline is true, it should be pretty obvious. We should see all of these things go down. More people saying, “I was treated with disrespect yesterday.” More people saying, “I haven’t done these nice things.” Instead, what we see over and over again are flat lines, people giving the same answers today that they gave 50 years ago all the way up to 10, five years ago, over and over again.

That’s one way of answering the question. There’s an additional study that we didn’t have space for in the main text, but that also drives this point home. For decades, social scientists have been bringing people into the lab and putting them in what they call economic games, which games is a strong word for this, but basically this is a situation where you can choose to be generous or choose to be greedy, and there’s another person there who’s going to get more or less money depending on the choices that you make.

So if you’re familiar with the prison’s dilemma or public goods games, versions, things like that, we’ve been running these, not we personally, but we as scientists have been running these all the way back to the fifties. And fortunately for us, some other researchers put together every study they could find where you could see the cooperation rates from 1956 to 2017. What they wanted to know was are people more likely to cooperate or they more likely to choose the greedy option?

What they thought they were going to find is more greediness year after year. In fact, they found more cooperation, more generosity year after year. So all we did was take that data and ask people to predict it. So we got participants online and we said, “Hey, here’s this study. Here’s what these situations are like. You can be greedy, you can be generous. Can you estimate for us how those cooperation rates have changed over time? And by the way, we’ll pay you extra money if you get this right. Don’t just tell us what you think we want to hear. Tell us what you think will get you money.”

And we still found that people thought cooperation rates had decreased by 10 percentage points when in fact they had increased by 10 percentage points. So even when you make the question very specific, even when you can compare people’s answers to reality, even when you pay them to get the question right, people still think there’s been this decline in pro-social behavior even when the opposite has happened.

Paul Rand: But there is evidence in Mastroianni’s own data that reveals this view of moral decline must be an illusion. Although people say everyone is worse than they used to be. People say their friends and family are the same or even better. And if you think about it, both views cannot possibly be held at the same time.

Adam Mastroianni: Yes, if you restrict contemporaries to people that you know personally. So in one study we asked people, “Okay, tell us about people in general.” And we get the same results that we always do. “People in general are worse than they used to be.” “But now tell us about people that personally and that you’ve known for the past 15 years. What are they like today and what were they like 15 years ago?”

There, for the first time in any of our original studies, people told us, “People are better today than they were in the past. The people that I have known are nicer today than they were 15 years ago.” So we have everybody standing on their own island saying, “My island is great and getting better. It’s every other island that’s getting worse.” But if you visit those islands, you’ll also find those people saying, “My island is great. It’s all the other islands,” so somebody’s got to be wrong about this.

Paul Rand: I guess the question then, of course it’s like, well, what is going on? And if indeed the reality of this is that we’re not treating each other worse and it’s born out in a number of different ways, why do we all feel like people are treating each other worse?

Adam Mastroianni: Yeah, we think there are probably many reasons why, but there are two in particular that can fit with some of the more surprising data that we found and predict some that we didn’t find. And the explanation is two parts. First, people predominantly encounter and pay attention to negative information about people that they don’t know. This is a negativity bias and attention. In the media they call this, if it bleeds, it leads.

If you open the newspaper, turn on the TV or listen to gossip, the main thing you’re going to hear about is people doing bad things to one another. They’re lying, they’re cheating, they’re stealing, they’re killing. What that produces is this perception that you look out in the world and it’s bad, but that alone isn’t enough to produce an illusion that this has changed over time. For that, you need a second part, which is a phenomenon that we know about from memory research called a fading affect bias.

And all this says is that the badness of bad memories tends to fade faster than the goodness of good memories on average. So for instance, if you get turned down for your high school prom, that’s a bad experience at the time, but 20 years later, you look back and maybe you laugh. It certainly doesn’t feel as bad, and maybe it’s even a positive memory because later on you met your soulmate and how lucky you were to not end up with this person who would’ve been way worse for you.

But the opposite isn’t as true. If you have a great high school prom, 20 years later, it actually still feels good to remember. Not as good as it felt to experience it. And this is what happens on average to memories. The bad ones tend to fade faster to neutral or even become positive more so than the good ones lose their goodness.

And it makes total sense why this would happen. We rationalize the bad things, we distance ourselves from them, we reframe those things. We don’t do that as much with the good experiences that we have. That’s why they retain more of their goodness. But if you put this together with a negative bias toward paying attention to negative things, you can produce this illusion where every day the world looks bad and every day it seems like it was worse than it was the day before. But if we had asked you the day before, you would’ve told us the exact same thing.

Paul Rand: Even if we’re living in this illusion of moral decline all around us, so what? Why exactly is this a problem and how can we solve it? That’s after the break.

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You mentioned this at the beginning of our discussion, that 76% of Americans agreed that addressing the moral breakdown of the country should be a high priority for the government. If this breakdown is actually an illusion or a delusion, then why even care about it?

Adam Mastroianni: Yeah, well, I guess the point is a lot of people do and they shouldn’t. So there are all kinds of things that you might do to reverse this trend that you think exists, that maybe you think the problem is now there’s sex on TV or there’s bad books that our children are reading, they’re learning about people who are trans. We got to stop all these things because it’s making people worse.

The thing is, there’s no evidence that people are becoming worse. So whatever switch that you want to flip to change that trend isn’t going to work because that trend doesn’t exist. You should not care about the decline in human morality because it has not occurred. There are many other problems that we should focus on first.

Paul Rand: Okay, so what if you are a politician and you know this is a high priority for the majority of your citizens? Do you say anything about it or you just let them know that you’re going to fix something that they think is important?

Adam Mastroianni: I mean, if I’m a politician, I would also know there are many other priorities that people have and speak to those. So people care about having economic opportunities for them and their children. They care about the safety and security of their country. They care about averting disasters. They care about climate change.

I would speak to those things and if my opponent on the debate stage says, “We live in a war society now, people don’t treat each other as well as they used to.” I would say, “Actually, there’s a very interesting paper that you should read that shows that that’s all an illusion. And in fact, it is a very ancient one. So I’m afraid you’re going to have to get another refrain to get votes because this one won’t work anymore, I hope.”

Paul Rand: There’s also the perception that we are more politically polarized as a country than we ever have been. How does that, if at all, tie into this type of research?

Adam Mastroianni: I think a lot of the evidence for political polarization has been over interpreted. It’s not that it’s not happening, it’s not that people actually secretly like one another, but what people think is going to happen is that there’s going to be violence in the streets because people say, “I really don’t like the people on the other side of the aisle.” And I think actually what is miraculous and underused is the rarity with which that happens. Because if this data that we collected about political polarization, if you showed it to someone and said, “This is about some country on the other side of the world, I’m not going to tell you which one. Look at all the things that people say. They say, “I think we should put the other side in jail. I think they’re not trustworthy. I think they’re monsters. I think they’re evil.” Could you please predict for me the level of political violence in that country?”

I think people would say, “It’s pretty high. I bet there are assassinations and beatings, and I bet people are fighting all the time about this.” But if you pulled back the curtain and said, “Actually, this is about the United States of America, where occasionally, yes, there are outbreaks of political violence, but mainly this plays out around the Thanksgiving table.” You might go, “Oh, well, that data doesn’t mean, I guess what I thought that it meant.” It’s still important. It still matters. I think it mainly matters for what gets done in Congress. I think it matters less for the ways in which people treat one another in their everyday lives.

Paul Rand: This ties into another problem. This illusion of moral decline may be exacerbating the so-called loneliness epidemic.

Adam Mastroianni: I think it’s certainly not a stretch to think that you’re not as interested in meeting new people. If you’re anything you’re interested in meeting people from the past when they were nice, but not anymore. And that’s bad if it means that people now don’t leave their houses, they’re less optimistic about meeting romantic partners and spending their lives with them.

I have a little bit of data that could speak to this from an interesting source. So I taught negotiation at Columbia Business School for a couple of years, and one of the exercises that we would do was about lying and trust. And so we do this exercise where you can at the same time choose to either lie or to tell the truth to your partner, and you have to guess whether they are telling the truth and lying to you. Before we run the simulation, we ask people, “How often do you intend to lie and how often do you think you’re going to be lied to?” And people think that they’re going to lie a majority of the time, and they’re going to be lied to a majority of the time.

In fact, it’s way less than that. It’s really hard to look someone in the eye and lie to them. And so people are way less lied to, and they lie way less often than they anticipate that they will. But we make them do the simulation. In real life, there is a decision between the part where you think people are going to lie to you and the part where you go out and expose yourself to the possibility of being lied to.

So if you think that the world is full of villains, it didn’t use to be full of villains, it’s only now full of villains, something terrible has happened. People are going to lie to you. You can’t trust them anymore. That probably makes you much less willing to meet new people, to talk to them, to trust them, to form lifelong relationships with them.

And by the way, the other stream of research that I do is on conversations. Part of that is on the illusions and biases that arise when people talk to strangers and the hesitance that they have to do it. It turns out that people really think that the conversation with strangers are not going to go well. But a ton of research that some of my colleagues have done over the past couple of years that show that these biases are way overblown. People assume the worst, and then they have a really nice time. And I’m not claiming that all this is driven by the illusion of moral decline, but it certainly doesn’t help. This certainly doesn’t encourage people to go out and have what turns out to be a surprisingly nice time.

Paul Rand: So what can we do about all this? One suggestion that Mastroianni gives is quite radical, but one he’s put into practice at his own life. Stop reading the news.

Adam Mastroianni: Yeah, so much of life is driven by spite, but sometimes we can make good decisions out of spite. So a couple of years ago, I was feeling very spiteful all the time about all the things that I read about in the news, and it felt like I was always on the front lines of a war. And then I realized, what am I actually doing about any of this other than feeling bad, which is not a contribution, and it’s certainly a dead weight loss in my life. So what if instead, I focused on the things that I can actually do to make things better and really go deep on those.

Not be pulled around by my nostrils to every new issue that becomes popular every week, to work long-term on the things that I think are important. And what if I had stopped just reading this as if I’m the guy who’s driving slowly by a car wreck who’s looking very closely at it, but that doesn’t unwreck the car. It doesn’t call 911. It doesn’t apply pressure to someone’s gushing wound.

And so I stopped reading the news and I started feeling much better. And so I did all of this before I had developed this theory in this paper about how bias exposure can lead us to believe in the illusion of moral decline. But obviously the two are of a piece because I think part of what maintains and deepens the sense that people aren’t as good as they used to be is if you read all the time about all the bad things that people do, that’s going to be the effect.

And so I feel that much less because-

Paul Rand: Interesting.

Adam Mastroianni: I don’t encounter headlines every day about the bad things that people are doing. It’s not that I think that we shouldn’t have the news that it is important to know about the bad things that our leaders are doing, but I think it is so easy to overdose. You only need a little bit, I think to really understand what’s happening and the rest is overkill.

Paul Rand: This isn’t the only paper Mastroianni has published that reveals how our biases and overconfidence may be leading us astray. He has also published research in the proceedings of the National Academy of Science that shows we’ve padded accurately ... That shows we’re bad at accurately describing all sorts of changes in our society.

Adam Mastroianni: We took over 50 public opinion items like, do you believe that humans are causing climate change? Would you vote for a Black person for president if your party nominated them and they were qualified for the job? Do you think we should ban the sale of assault weapons? Pretty much every controversial issue in American politics that we could find polling data on, we got as far back as we could go, and we just ask people to estimate What did people say to this question when they first started asking it which might be 20, 30, 40 years ago?

And how do you think people answered it when they asked it in the most recent period of time, which is often just a few years ago. People are really bad at this, which is not surprising. It’s a difficult task, but they’re also really biased. So it’s not just that people are inaccurate, it’s not just that their darts go everywhere around the bullseye, but if you take the average of the darts, you hit the bullseye.

No, if you take the average of the darts, you’re still off. And that’s important because usually we find in psychology that when a question is difficult, when you take the average of people’s answers, there’s a wisdom of the crowd effect, and they get the answer right. If they don’t get the answer right, on average, there’s some kind of bias by definition, pushing their perceptions away from reality.

And that’s what we find actually in most of these questions that people, and the bias that most people have is that there’s been more change than there really has been. And specifically that there’s been more change in the liberal direction than there really has been. So people dramatically underestimate how liberal attitudes were in the past. They only slightly underestimate how liberal attitudes are today, which leads them to overestimate how much those attitudes have changed over time.

And what’s interesting is even conservatives do this. So we all seem to have this story in our head that the past was really conservative, and it turns out that story isn’t completely untrue. Although on a sizable subset of questions, people actually do get the direction of change wrong, but it’s not as true as people think that it is. So this is another example in which people have these vivid images, these stories of how the past became the present that are totally wrong.

And I think that’s pretty damaging because if you don’t understand how cause and effect work in history, then you have no way of influencing the future. So an example of this being that if you think that the big barrier between us and a world that has no climate change is that just people don’t believe in it. They don’t think it’s actually happening. Well, actually, a majority of Americans have said that they believe that humans are causing climate change. And they’ve believed that since we started asking them and the number hasn’t increased that much or at all, at least on the question that we used.

And so everything that we’ve done to try to raise awareness has maybe been a waste of time. That wasn’t actually the barrier between our worlds, between the world that we’re in and the world that we want to be. What is that barrier? I think it’s a great question. It might be that people don’t take it seriously enough. Ir it’s not a top priority even if they believe that it’s happening. But this idea that, oh, people just don’t know, and what we need to do is educate them. I think that’s falsified by seeing that that is in fact what people think has happened. It is not actually what’s happened if you look at the data over time.

Paul Rand: Now, you didn’t ... A lot of this is the paper that showed up in Nature in the survey, but you did talk about this in your Substack, and you said one of the surprising parts of all this is not necessarily that what they said about morality increasing or decreasing, but they actually seem to have a really firm opinion instead of just saying, “Well, I don’t know.” And you were questioning why that is and what that tells us.

Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. As an example of this, there is one archival study we found where the question is, the government has documented a decrease in violent crime over the past 30 years. Do you think the government is right and violence has decreased, or do you think the government is wrong and it’s actually stayed the same or even increased?

And even when you give people the right answer, and I think make it pretty embarrassing to disagree, still a third of people will say, “No, the government’s wrong about this. Violent crime has actually increased.” And that just takes a lot of conviction to believe that people are really anchoring heavily on their intuitions and personal experiences. And I think that’s really interesting that this comes so easily to people, and it’s so easily believed. That when you ask people, “What did the world used to be like?” Their mind fills with images.

If you ask me, “What was it like to be a kid in the nineties?” I go, “Oh, well, people were wearing multicolored jackets and the Cosby Show was on TV and Bill Clinton was president, and it was pretty fun.” Obviously, that was what it was like to be me, and I shouldn’t have any conviction about my ability to describe what it was like to be a person in general at that time, even though it feels like I do, because there’s no signal that comes to mind that says, “Hey, actually you’re missing a lot here. You have this tiny corner piece of a puzzle and there’s a thousand other pieces that you don’t have.”

I kind of feel like, no, it’s a puzzle with one piece, and it’s the piece that I have. And I think a similar thing is going on here that people are very willing to answer these questions because they have very vivid representations that pop into their heads when you ask them. And there’s nothing that tells them that the vividness of these images is not evidence for their accuracy. And obviously, I don’t think this is the only case in which that’s true. I think this happens all the time. It’s very hard to get a signal that you don’t know what you don’t know.

Paul Rand: If there’s one thing to take away from all of Mastroianni’s work, it’s that we shouldn’t be so confident in our perceptions of others. I, for one, am certainly going to try to help break the solution by holding the door open, helping out a stranger, and treating everyone I see with respect.

Matthew Hodapp: Big Brains is a production of the University of Chicago Podcast Network. We’re sponsored by the Graham School. Are you a lifelong learner with an insatiable curiosity? Access more than 50 open enrollment courses every quarter. Learn more at If you like what you heard on our podcast, please leave us a rating and review.

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