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?