Crime, morals, and the case against common sense


We Americans are practical. We cast a suspicious eye on theories. We rely on common sense — self-evident ideas that nearly everyone shares.

But common sense used to tell us that the earth stands still and the sun revolves around it. Deep in our primitive cores, we all still believe it, no matter what science tells us. Our brains are, thanks to the whims of evolution, vulnerable to this common-sense illusion, and to many others.

One of them is the belief that people are less moral than they used to be. Researchers Adam Mastrolanni and Daniel T. Gilbert, in an article at Columbia University’s Nature website, reviewed studies, covering over 12 million people in 60 nations over a period of 70 years, regarding this idea. Well over 80 percent of the participants, in America as well as in the other countries, reported, year after year, that moral standards were deteriorating.

But the authors provided evidence to the contrary from their own research, based on how participants felt about people in their personal worlds, as opposed to society in the abstract. And they cited studies showing a significant decrease in “extremely immoral behavior” over the years.

These findings are consistent with a review that I conducted and reported on in 2009 while I was a school psychologist, as well as an article I wrote for this column in 2016. Each revealed improved moral behavior in children and in society in general, including sharp declines in teenage crime, sexual activity, and consumption of alcohol and other drugs. They’re also compatible with the wealth of data cited in Steven Pinker’s book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” It reveals humankind’s brutal past, and its evolution through the ages toward a kinder and less violent society, a story of moral progress that continues today.

The belief in rising crime is another example of the way common sense can deceive us. John Gramlich, at the Pew Research Center, reported on April 4 that “In 23 of 27 Gallup surveys conducted since 1993, at least 60 percent of U.S. adults have said there is more crime nationally than there was the year before…” But he also revealed that violent crime reported to the police fell by 49 percent in those years, according to the FBI. Annual surveys by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, asking people if they had been a victim of a crime during the previous six months, dropped even more sharply, falling by 71 percent.

There was an uptick during the pandemic, but the data available so far suggest that crime resumed its downward trend last year. Life in most places in modern America is, contrary to the widely held impression, probably safer than ever.

Common-sense illusions like declining morals and rising crime arise from mental limitations that we all share, regardless of social class, education, or political ideology. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman conducted extensive research on this topic. His book, “Thinking Fast and Slow,” revealed that our brains rely heavily on the information that’s the most readily available and that has the greatest emotional impact. They preserve precious energy by avoiding whenever possible the hard work of logically analyzing all the facts. The media play a critical role by emphasizing simple stories and sensational events.

Mr. Mastrolanni and Mr. Gilbert cite research regarding two additional mental glitches that can result in unrealistic images of past and present morality and crime rates. One is the normal tendency to remember or imagine the good things from the past, and to forget or discount the bad. The other is our instinctive focus, encouraged by the media, on bad news about the present.

It would be arrogant and foolish for any of us to claim to be free of these mental errors. It should be no surprise that common sense, handicapped as it is by our all-too-human brains, can present a distorted view of morality, crime, and other important issues. There is a remedy for this predicament, although it’s out of favor among many in this age of populism, and its distrust of experts and expertise.

It’s science and its methods of discovery and proof. Common sense has a role to play when the consequences for error are small, or when we don’t have time to investigate things thoroughly. For the rest, we need science and the fact-centered, logical, self-doubting state of mind that it represents.

Lowell Harp is a retired school psychologist who served school districts in Ogle County. His column runs monthly in The Ogle County Life. For previous articles, you can follow him on Facebook at