Moral Crisis: Is it mostly a matter of perception?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Moral Crisis
Want a free, colorful, printable chart of the 10 core values that my research has identified? Click on this image.

Want a free, colorful, printable chart of the 10 core values that my research has identified? Click on this image.

If we share core values, why does the nation seem so divided? Why do most Americans feel that the state of morals is deplorable? I get questions like these every time I give a talk about my book United America and tell people about our 10 core values. These important questions are so persistent that I devote this week to the five reasons why we perceive a moral crisis.

Reason #1 is basic human psychology.

We are hardwired to give much more weight, importance, and attention to negative things than positive ones. Here’s an example I experience at the end of every teaching semester when I get anonymous feedback from my students. The course may have been quite successful, with 49 of 50 students giving me positive feedback. But what do I remember? What keeps me up at night is the one student who hated the course and told me so in no uncertain terms.

I’ve learned that it’s not just me. It’s all of us.

Psychologists Roy Baumeister and colleagues, writing in the Review of General Psychology, put it this way: “The greater power of bad events over good ones is found in everyday events, major life events (e.g., trauma), close relationship outcomes, social network patterns, interpersonal interactions, and learning processes. Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good.”

Blame evolution. Paying more attention to the negative than the positive has survival value. Early humans who stopped to smell the roses didn’t live long enough to procreate and pass on their genes. Our ancestors were the negative ones. Over time, we evolved as a species with a potent negativity bias.

All of which means that we are much more likely to perceive a moral crisis, perhaps even a moral panic—even when the facts don’t warrant it. Now, don’t get me wrong. There are real problems and real issues out there. But our negativity bias makes it seem far worse than it really is.

And, the reverse is true. Our negativity bias means that we give too little weight and credence to the good and the positive.

So that’s one of five reasons why we perceive the state of our nation to be far worse than it really is.

Is our moral crisis “real”?

How much perception versus reality?

Is our bias toward negativity to blame?

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  1. Duncan Newcomer says

    This is a very important insight from psychology,and as a therapist for years I find it is very true.
    We also seem to have some deep affinity for “Punch and Judy” shows.
    I have tuned out of the main stream media for years now. I tuned in an old favorite, Chris Matthews on MSNBC radio the other day and found it almost repulsive in its combatant picture of every thing. And he is someone I tend to agree with. “Bang! Bang! You’re dead!” was a childhood game,no?

  2. Dave Thompson says

    I don’t think we are any better or worse then in the past! What is different is the endless media frenzy to keep us stirred up and believing that things are so bad. The media is always parading out some “Anniversary” to sell media time & papers. In the past many worse tragic events were allowed to disappear into history rather then our being deluged daily & hourly with endless replays of “9/11” or “Sandy Hook.” These are admittedly sad events but what about the Wall Street bombings of 1920 or the dynamiting of the Bath School here in Michigan that killed 38 elementary school children and 6 adults plus injuring 58 others in 1927, of the Halifax explosion or the dock explosions in New York in 1919 and many more world wide? Not a word today. The Romans and Greeks seemed to kill their rulers with almost regular frequency and we haven’t had an assassination in awhile. Leaders are surprisingly safe in todays world compared with the past. Nowadays rude behavior ends up on YouTube! In actuality I don’t think our world is any riskier despite the Apocalyptic rant going on.