The World is More Prosperous Than Ever
So why are we so glum?
Read the headlines plastered across your chosen news app and count how many stories are positive relative to those that are negative. You’ll find the news media is overwhelmingly negative. Indeed, negativity bias and its cousin, risk aversion, are deeply ingrained in human psychology and now permeate our social institutions and discourse. If left unchecked, our persistent pessimism about the future may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Duality of Sudden vs Gradual
What determines what is newsworthy? Generally, it seems, that which comes suddenly is more likely to grab headlines than that which arises gradually. Someone winning the lottery, for instance, is more newsworthy than that same person earning the same dollar figure over 30 years.
But aside from the lottery, almost by definition, good news comes gradually, while bad news comes suddenly, creating a negativity bias in the media. Think about it, if an African country suddenly descends into civil unrest, tragedy and destruction make the news. But the moment peace is restored and the gradual process of rebuilding ensues, that same country drops out of the news and off the headlines.
The media’s bias toward negativity distorts our worldview. In 2016, when Dutch researchers asked 26,492 participants how global poverty had changed in the prior 20 years, only 1 percent of respondents correctly answered that poverty had plunged by some 50 percent. These results are profound as the answers were multiple choice; respondents had a 20 percent chance of randomly choosing the correct answer. Most could not imagine that the world had actually gotten better for so many people when the headlines appear to claim otherwise.
As I discussed here, we live in unquestionably the most prosperous time in human history. In 1820 only 12 percent of the global population was literate. Today this is flipped, with less than 16 percent illiterate. In 1950, global life expectancy was 46 years of age, today it is 73. Global GDP is 10 times greater than it was in 1950 and in that time the proportion of people living in extreme poverty fell over 70 percent. Since 1990 alone, more than 1.2 billion people have been lifted out of poverty.
And while it may be hard to believe, the world is getting more peaceful. Since World War 2, fewer people are dying in warfare with each passing decade. When controlling for population growth, that trend is even more profound. Stability and prosperity are increasingly the norm, not the exception.
With so much progress, it’s difficult to understand why people today have become so glum…until we look at the media and our own psychology.
A Cognitive Bias
Another reason that the media feeds us an endless stream of negativity is that, to some extent, we seek it out. In an experiment done in Canada, participants were told to read a newspaper article while they “waited for the experiment to begin.” Researchers watched which articles the unknowing test subject chose to read. Consistently, they sought out negative stories, rather than positive or neutral stories.
This cognitive bias toward negativity is likely rooted in our natural tendency toward loss aversion. Our brains have evolved to react more strongly to negative vs positive stimuli. Studies have consistently shown that winning $10, for example, produces far less emotion than losing $10. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, a psychology and neuroscience professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill explained, “Negativity bias evolved because it helped our human ancestors avoid threats to life, limb, and social reputation.”
In sum, a negativity bias, a bias against risk/loss, is hardwired into our biology and then reflected in our media. While risk aversion may have benefitted our ancestors, in modern complex societies our cognitive biases can be easily exploited, paralyzing our social institutions and inhibiting human progress.
The Precautionary Principle
The precautions we take against risk and negative stimuli can be deadly in themselves, curtailing important innovations before they can fully diffuse into society. Nuclear power is the poster child of the precautionary principle. Once promised to make energy cheap are largely pollution-free, events like the Three Mile Island disaster in the US (where no one died) led to risk-averse institutions regulating the industry to an early death.
This is not the downplay the risk inherent in nuclear energy, but sometimes the cure can be worse than the disease. In the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, for instance, the Japanese government rapidly curtailed the country’s use of nuclear power. Researchers found that the government’s (over)reaction to the disaster led to an estimated 1,280 unnecessary deaths attributable to higher energy costs in the cold weather that followed.
They summarized, “This suggests that ceasing nuclear energy production has contributed to more deaths than the accident itself.” This analysis also does not include the negative impact of switching from nuclear power back to climate-harming fossil fuels like coal, and the fact that coal plants can produce more radioactive waste than their nuclear counterparts. Once such regulations are in force, they become almost impossible to remove, and serve only to stifle innovation to the detriment of human progress.
As I mentioned here, the modern automobile was invented in Britain. But soon after this new machine’s emergence, England’s Parliament passed the Red Flag Act. The Act required a crew of three to operate all autos. One person to do refueling, one to drive, and one to stand out front waving a red flag warning of the vehicle as it plodded along at 2 mph. In the same of “safety,” Britain stifled an entire industry before it got off the ground.
While some regulations are certainly necessary to mitigate risk and improve safety, when we begin regulating fortune-telling and hair-braiding, we ought to question whether we have gone too far.
The negativity bias and risk aversion inherent to our psychology are bleeding into the media and social institutions. But as the name of this newsletter suggests, Risk and Progress must come together. Without some level of risk, there can be no progress. So our negativity could become self-fulfilling. We need not be so glum, instead, we should celebrate just how far we have come.