Objective data show the world is in the best state in human history, yet people freak out and prophesize doom. Let’s see why.
The blame typically falls on journalists, who are said to disproportionately report the bad stuff – that’s true, but it doesn’t go to the root cause.
Journalists are simply reacting to an existing, well-known and probably hard-wired feature of human psychology – a general tendency to disproportionately pay attention to bad things.
Although they have a social responsibility to not deliberately fan the flames further – as tabloid media do – blaming the journalists for doing what works is kind of shooting the messenger.
The sequence goes like this:
- Humans pay preferential attention to negative news – a historical artifact, given that watching out for sabertooth tigers was more important than noticing blueberries.
- Media in the attention economy focus on negative news to get clicks and views. We all say we would like to see more good news, but it’s not what we click and read – i.e. it’s not what we vote for with actions.
- Extravagantly inaccurate notions of the state of the world dominate.
- People react to these (hallucinatory) images of apocalyptic gloom with political choices and economic behavior that actually cause real gloom.
The negativity bias is so profoundly effective, journalists are compelled (I doubt many particularly enjoy it) to frame even good news negatively:
“Clean new source of energy – but are there hidden risks?”
“Rally in the markets – but how long can it last?”
“Cure for cancer – but will there be side effects 20 years later?”
The negativity bias inherent in human psychology compels news providers to present even good news as bad, or at least sow a seed of doubt to attract attention. The resulting impression is “Everything is bad, and even the good is bad anyway.”
People automatically interpret even fundamentally good things as bad even without the media: “More divorces! Is this the end of family?” = people are no longer staying in unhappy marriages because of social pressure or economic necessity, and are following their hearts into maybe actually more fulfilling relationships. Thus, increased divorce rates may look sad, but they’re really an effect of profoundly positive developments.
By any objective measure, the world is getting ridiculously better all the fucking time. Not only do people underappreciate this, they’re actively wrong about the way things are going:
In a recent survey, only 5% of Americans correctly said that extreme poverty in the world had fallen in half over the last 20 years. A whooping 66% thought it doubled.
That’s a shocking misperception of the world right there, and the reason behind pretty much all of our present turbulence and discontent, because let’s be honest, there are not that many objective reasons left to be unhappy in any developed country.
There’s a big discussion in the west whether these people should even be allowed to vote, which to me is scarier than popular pessimism.
What can we do? Let me demonstrate to you how much better the world is than it ever was, and probably than you thought it is. Let’s look at some graphs!
Ok, fewer dead babies. Definitely a good thing.
But how do they fare? Surely this has led to overpopulation and…
Nope. The number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen dramatically in the last three decades (I assure you the overlap with my own birth and life is only by chance). This is the greatest economic miracle in the history of mankind. We should all be dancing in the streets.
“But there’s inequality!”. Ok, maybe there could be a bit more fairness in who gets how much – executive pay in particular is an antrocity (I say this as a capitalist). Marissa Mayer getting hundreds of millions of dollars for destroying Yahoo, for a recent example, is literally criminal. Let’s not even start on the banks.
But lifting a billion people out of poverty is infinitely more important than Warren Buffet having more money than me.
True, incomes have stagnated and in some cases even slightly declined – but again that’s an illusion, a good thing that looks bad when taken out of context.
Since the present nature of economic growth is deflationary – which is really a nasty word for stuff getting cheaper or indeed free thanks to efficiency gains – looking at wages is super misleading. Look instead at what the “stagnating” incomes can buy, and overall quality of life.
Just think of how much is free today that was either expensive or nonexistent ten, much less twenty years ago (wikipedia, google maps, youtube…). We are working with obsolete 1930s economic models that simply fail to capture the changed nature of economic growth.
The reason “millenials” feel poorer than their parents is because they’ve (we’ve) grown used to a level of frivolity our parents (much less the post-war generation) couldn’t have dreamt of.
Much of the cash-strapped victim caste of generational injustice I know eat out virtually every day, spend one to three weeknights in clubs drinking violently overpriced sugar water, wouldn’t dream of non-brand name clothes, change smartphones once every two years at the latest, vacation on tropical atolls for three weeks twice a year, and consider this completely normal and not worth mentioning when we talk about economics and personal finance.
“Bali this week, maybe Philippines after? Lol #globalgypsy #yolo #imavictim #downwithcapitalism “.
Please show me one previous generation in history for which it was normal to have visited three continents before age 20.
Millenials are correctly concerned about injustice, inequality and privilege, but fail to realize they’re on the other end of all these things than they imagine.
Ok, we’re all healthier and richer, but what about safety?
Fine, we’ve pretty much stopped killing each other, but there’s a rape epidemic…
Or is there. The illusion of a “rape epidemic” is the result of a combination of vastly improved reporting of the vanishingly few remaining real cases, and fashionable hallucination about a “rape culture” (consisting apparently largely of college girls changing their minds two months after engaging in consensual sex, and/or wanting to hurt their exes, and third-wave pseudo-feminists defining rape as having to share a solar system with men – all the while exculpating and allying against western civilization and modernity with a real rape culture).
Ok, we’ve all pretty much stopped hurting each other, but surely this recent wave of terror attacks…
…is in line with what was normal in the 70s and 80s, and less than half the worst years.
But what about those horrible chemicals and Monsantos and GMOs in our food and the un-naturalness of modern life making everybody sicker…
Obviously a huge part of the life expectancy gains is due to the reduced infant mortality we started with. Yet even accounting for that, the improvements are on the order of decades, and growing.
It’s almost physically painful to be objective – and therefore optimistic – about the world. It feels like we’re turning our faces away from sabertooth tigers. Not worrying makes people anxious.
But we need to overcome that.
Because catastrophizing now creates more sabertooth tigers than it legitimately warns against.
A prime example is the attack on democracy both from pseudointellectual wannabe-elitists offended that the peasants dare question them, and populist strongmen – both mutually reinforcing overreactions to virtually nonexistent original problems.
There are real enough problems in the world, but they have to be seen in proper perspective.
In the last century, humanity has collectively moved from a raft to the Starship Enterprise, and we take everything for granted fifteen seconds later and manage to bitch about the paint peeling a bit on the left warp nacelle.
We’re all lucky bastards living at the best time in human history, and if it doesn’t always feel that way, the problem is with perception, not the reality.
As a great thinker put it, “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy”:
Make the world a better place yet – buy me a bunch of beers.