1: Yesterday, we looked at the incredulous reaction to Steven Pinker‘s The Better Angels of our Nature, his book that documented with data the dramatic decline in violence over time.

The experience left Steven grasping to understand the psychological roots of “progressophobia,” he writes in Enlightenment Now.  

A major cause? The 24-hour news cycle. Journalists believe their job is to accentuate the negative to discharge “their duty as watchdogs, muckrakers, whistleblowers, and afflicters of the comfortable,” Steven observes.  

Serious news is defined as what’s gone wrong today. Meanwhile, positive and negative events unfold on different timelines. “If you ignore all the years in which an indicator of some problem declines, and report every uptick (since, after all, it’s “news”), readers will come away with the impression that life is getting worse and worse even as it gets better and better,” notes Steven. 

Being surrounded by “bad news” distorts how we understand the world, something Nobel Prize-winning psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman call the “Availability heuristic.” We estimate the probability of an event by the ease with which instances come to mind.  

The data scientist Kalev Leetaru did a sentiment analysis of every article published in the New York Times between 1945 and 2005, assessing the emotional tone by tallying the number of words with positive and negative connotations, like good, nice, terrible, and horrific. 

The result? The news has become more negative. The New York Times got steadily more morose from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, lightened up a bit (but just a bit) in the 1980s and 1990s, and then sank into a progressively worse mood in the first decade of the new century. 

2: It’s not just the 24-hour news cycle, however, that leaves us unwilling to comprehend the incredible amount of human progress.  There is also a deeper truth.  Bad is stronger than good: the human psyche is wired to “dread losses more than they look forward to gains,” Steven notes.  We “dwell on setbacks more than [we] savor good fortune, and [we] are more stung by criticism than heartened by praise.” 

When we consider how many good things might happen today, “we can all come up with the odd windfall or stroke of good luck,” Steven writes. But when we consider how many bad things could happen, the answer is quite endless.

Indeed, our alertness to bad news has created a market for “professional curmudgeons who call our attention to bad things we may have missed,” Steven writes. “Intellectuals know they can attain instant gravitas by pointing to an unsolved problem and theorizing that it is a symptom of a sick society. . . Experiments have shown that a critic who pans a book is perceived as more competent than a critic who praises it. As the musical humorist Tom Lehrer once advised, “Always predict the worst, and you’ll be hailed as a prophet.”

Contrast this feeling with our typical response to positive information: “Whenever someone offers a solution to a problem, critics will be quick to point out that it is not a panacea, a silver bullet, a magic bullet, or a one-size-fits-all solution; it’s just a Band-Aid or a quick technological fix that fails to get at the root causes and will blowback with side effects and unintended consequences,” Steven writes.

3: There are some benefits to pessimism. “The expanding circle of sympathy makes us concerned about harms that would have passed unnoticed in more callous times. Today we recognize the Syrian civil war as a humanitarian tragedy. The wars of earlier decades, such as the Chinese Civil War, the partition of India, and the Korean War, are seldom remembered that way, though they killed and displaced more people.”

Steven notes: “When I grew up, bullying was considered a natural part of boyhood. It would have strained belief to think that someday the president of the United States would deliver a speech about its evils, as Barack Obama did in 2011.”

Yet, in our broadening of concern for humanity, we are wise to discern how high standards have risen rather than mistaking the harms around us as signs of a decline. We also are smart to look at proportionality. Yes, “wars take place today and wars took place in the past,” notes Steven. This does not, however, mean nothing has changed. There is a drastic difference “between an era with a handful of wars that collectively kill in the thousands and an era with dozens of wars that collectively killed in the millions.”

Doing so leaves us “unappreciative of systemic processes that eke out incremental improvements over the long term,” Steven writes.

As the columnist Franklin Pierce Adams points out, “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.”

More tomorrow.


Reflection: What surprises me about the data shared above?

Action: Share this information with a friend or colleague who is convinced we live in the “worst of times.”

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