Home Theories Declinism


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What is Declinism?

Declinism is the predisposition to perceive the past in an exaggeratedly favorable light and the present or future in an exaggeratedly negative light, leading us to assume that things are worse than previously. Declinism is a negative attitude about a country's, society's, or institution's general status, believing that it is deteriorating or growing worse.

Table of contents:
  1. Where does this bias occur?
    1. Individual effects
    2. Systemic effects
  2. Why it happens
  3. Why it is important
  4. How to avoid it
  5. How it all started
  6. Example
    1. Political strategy
    2. Environmental activism

Where does this bias occur?

Consider the last time you watched television. Whether it's about racism, COVID-19, or the climate issue, you've probably been exposed to bad and violent news. What are the chances that such news reports will make us feel? Like civilization is on the verge of collapse. When these are the images shown, it's tough not to believe that things are always getting worse. When these types of news articles are mixed with anecdotes from our parents or grandparents about "the good old days," we tend to exaggerate how terrific the past was and underestimate how bad the current is. This results in declinism, a pessimistic bias that drives us to feel the worst is yet to come.

Individual effects

Our broad attitudes and beliefs have a significant impact on even the tiniest judgments we make. Declinism veils our perception of the present as bad, but we reminisce with rosy nostalgia, also known as romanticism or nostalgia--the propensity to see the past in a more pleasant light than rosy retrospection.

Declinism may make us feel very bad about the status of the world because of another cognitive bias, the confirmation bias. We actively seek out information that confirms our present ideas and ideologies. When we start with a negative viewpoint, we instinctively look for facts and evidence to support it, such as focusing on unfavorable news headlines.

Declinism can cause individuals to become too gloomy, preventing them from making sensible decisions that will help them prepare for the future. Declinism has a detrimental influence on emotional well-being, health, and decision-making.

Systemic effects

Part of the reason for declinism is a survival drive. We must live to pass on our genes, which has resulted in an evolutionary drive to continuously be on the alert for risks and hazards, never becoming complacent.

Even though we have progressed from our more primitive days in today's society, declinism can make us feel that our present socioeconomic status is in jeopardy, leading to unfavorable views toward others.

According to research, people will support populism if they believe the political establishment has failed them by not looking out for their best interests.

We frequently blame the political class for the deterioration of our society and refuse to trust them. While some skepticism of the political establishment is healthy, declinism may leave us feeling as if there is no hope and no future. Furthermore, declinism has the potential to harm our mental health. Depression rates are rising in the United States, although this may be attributable to declinism rather than a reflection of the world is worse than it used to be.

Why it happens

As previously said, the 24-hour news cycle, which bombards us with unpleasant and violent pictures, contributes to declinism by confirming our already held opinions that the world is deteriorating. News channels exploit confirmation bias to compete with one another. They understand that if they keep presenting viewers with frightening and distressing stories, they will return for more.

But where do our too negative perspectives on the present come from? Unfortunately, people place a higher value on the unpleasant events that occur in our lives today than on the positive events. Because this cognitive bias helped us survive in the past, anything terrible is more likely to have a short-term influence on us than something pleasurable. This is known as the negative bias. However, when we look back at our memories, the reverse is true: we are more inclined to remember the positive aspects, known as the positivity effect.

Even though we assume we are making judgments based on objective considerations of the past, present, and future, our brains think subjectively. Influenced by a negativity bias, our current emotions have far more weight in decision-making than our previous emotions. They induce us to assume that things are worse today than previously and that the downward trend will continue.

Why it is important

If everyone in our society feels that things are growing worse, it might become a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which our expectations push us to act in ways that reinforce those expectations. Declinism encompasses a wide variety of behaviors, from giving up because things are so awful, badly hurting our personal lives and the economy, to wishing things were different in the past, despite evidence showing there is less violence, warfare, and cruelty today than ever before. We have more rights, better health, and more income, yet society continues to deteriorate. We lose sight of how far we've come by romanticizing the past. Jessica Mann, a full-time mother and housewife in the 1960s, discusses a prevalent misconception in which women believe it was easier to be a stay-at-home mother in the past. They may experience public condemnation for the same action now, and they may be taught to feel that simpler times were better. Viewing the past via this romantic lens might make us feel bad about ourselves and fail to realize women's privileged position today. They may choose to work or be a stay-at-home mother when it is economically practical, but Jessica's decision was not available.

How to avoid it

Being mindful of declinism might help us realize that we romanticize our recollections when we reflect fondly on the past. Because emotions have such a big influence on our cognitive processes, merely being aware of the bias may not be enough to counteract declinism's detrimental effects on our mood and well-being. If we have a gloomy perspective of the present and future, it may not be easy to employ reasonable thinking while making judgments. As a result, combating the negative viewpoint could be a good place to start. This may involve depending on observable numbers like life expectancy, poverty levels, and reported happiness to determine our society's true climate.

How it all started

Here The Decline of the West, German historian Oswald Spengler invented the word "declinism." It was published after World War I and suggested that all civilizations are doomed to perish as part of a cycle. Given the dismal climate that followed WW1, a forecast of impending disaster may be justified. Despite this, we nevertheless tend to believe in declinism. According to a YouGov poll done in 2015, 71% of participants felt the world was becoming worse, while only 5% thought it was getting better.

However, research performed by Angelina Sutin, a psychology scientist, showed that "compared to their beginning positions, all of the cohorts rose rather than declined in well-being with age," as her team looked at self-reported levels of happiness of different age cohorts. We continue to believe that things are getting worse, even when they aren't.


Political strategy

Politicians have taken advantage of declinism in the past and will continue to do so in the future. Professor of sociology Mark Elchardus investigated speeches by political leaders such as Barack Obama and Donald Trump and discovered that they focused on the unfavorable situation of contemporary circumstances, establishing themselves as the leaders who would alter it. Promises to "restore" the way things were made, appealing to voters' favorable perceptions of the past and negative perceptions of the present.

Environmental activism

If everyone feels the world is growing worse, declinism will motivate people to improve things. However, the reverse may be true. Astrida Neimanis, a posthuman feminist, investigated four current issues in the environmental humanities with the help of other scholars. As a result of the public's suspicion of authorities and elites, tensions arise between the general public and those attempting to communicate the social concerns that we must all address. This causes a sense of isolation, which is likely to exacerbate the negative bias of declinism.

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