In the news today, as every day, you’ll find lying politicians, racist attacks, rapes, murders, environmental ruin, wars and nuclear bombs. But that’s the news; perhaps journalists are an unusually morbid lot. What is it like in the real world: are our everyday lives equally dominated by the bad?
To find out, one group of researchers convinced over a thousand North Americans to download their app. Five times a day, the experimenters pinged participants’ phones and asked them questions. Had they committed, witnessed or been the targets of any moral or immoral acts in the last hour? What were they? How do you feel?
It won’t shock you that the recipients of moral acts were happier than the recipients of immoral acts. You might guess that being virtuous generally made people happier, and that they claimed, at least, that sin didn’t. Those who worry that the world is going to hell in a handcart will be pleased to know people did more good than bad, saw more good than bad, and were the target of more kindly acts than ill.
So far, so good. But also so boring: all this do-gooding puts me to sleep. It might be more common, it might make us feel better, but nice is demonstrably dull.
When the app buzzed, it also asked whether the volunteer had learned about any moral or immoral deeds in the last hour. How did they hear of it; how did they feel? Remember that the volunteers saw, performed and received more moral acts than immoral. If we were as likely to talk about the good as the bad, we’d expect that to be reflected in what we heard: we’d learn about twice as many good deeds as bad ones.
That’s not what happens. Whether they’d been watching the telly, listening to the radio, reading the paper or having a natter with friends, the app-carriers were twice as likely to have learned about vice as virtue.
On our lunch break, we don’t share tales of our boss’s kindness to her secretary; we gossip about her affairs and her screaming fit at a subordinate. We don’t buy newspapers that tell us the world’s going swimmingly.
It’s the same in the stories we read and the shows we watch. As I write this, seven of the ten top-selling novels on Amazon are thrillers of some kind. Babies’ bodies are dug up, children are kidnapped, creeps hide in closets, husbands are killed. An eighth is a heart-warming tale set in Auschwitz.
But the internet is the first-choice media of evil. Its inventor deserves a medal from the devil. Not only did respondents learn about more demonic doings through the web than through any other channel, it also delivered the poison in its neatest form. The delicious feeling of outrage, the anger and disgust it fomented, was highest.
Given all the self-promotion on Facebook, the internet could be a tedious place: a Garden of Eden without the serpent. We give a thumbs up to the chap who does a 50km run for Cancer Research or the friend who tells us their hubby’s whisked them away for a weekend in Paris. But that’s not what we search out. TV presenters have to be careful to seem neutral, gossips don’t want to overstep the mark, but on the web the public gets what it wants.
Evil is the most fascinating thing in the world. We know it, as do news editors, book publishers, filmmakers, program commissioners and our colleagues.
So perhaps the most surprising result of the study was the first: we do more good than bad and feel better about it. Sin is seductive and the devil has all the best tunes, but when we cut a corner or snap at a friend we feel miserable. We do our good turn each day – give our seat to the elderly, help our kids with their homework, send flowers on Mother’s Day – and feel pleased with ourselves. Boring though it is, we’re nice people.
Chris Paley holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge, and is the author of Unthink, which has been published in six languages.