Against the Sweet Meteor of Death
As I pointed out recently, we have just lived through the best decade ever. So why don’t we believe it?
First, for those who don’t believe it, let me briefly recap the evidence. Matt Ridley recently proclaimed the 2010s to be the “best decade in human history.”
We are living through the greatest improvement in human living standards in history. Extreme poverty has fallen below 10 percent of the world’s population for the first time. It was 60 percent when I was born. Global inequality has been plunging as Africa and Asia experience faster economic growth than Europe and North America; child mortality has fallen to record low levels; famine virtually went extinct; malaria, polio and heart disease are all in decline.
The evidence is overwhelming. Start with the United Nations Development Report. Framed as a warning about inequality, it plays down the good news: “The gap in basic living standards is narrowing, with an unprecedented number of people in the world escaping poverty, hunger, and disease.”
The World Bank reports that the world-wide rate of extreme poverty fell more than half, from 18.2% to 8.6%, between 2008 and 2018. Last year the World Data Lab calculated that for the first time, more than half the world’s population can be considered “middle class.” . . .
Global life expectancy increased by more than three years in the past 10 years, mostly thanks to prevention of childhood deaths. According to the U.N., the global mortality rate for children under 5 declined from 5.6% in 2008 to 3.9% in 2018. A longer perspective shows how far we’ve come. Since 1950, Chad has reduced the child mortality rate by 56%, and it’s the worst-performing country in the world. South Korea reduced it by 98%.
Those figures are for the world, but the United States itself is wealthier, healthier, less violent, and more technologically advanced than it used to be. On the whole, we’ve gone from being rich and safe to being richer and safer.
If you’re still grumbling, “but what about . . .” Ridley has a good answer for you: “Bad things happen while the world still gets better.” There will always be people and places that backslide and you can always find tragedy and suffering. But if you look at the data, you will find that those stories are slowly becoming less representative of the big picture.
If you’re still not convinced, spend some time surfing around at HumanProgress.org, which compiles endless amounts of data on the improving state of humanity. Keep reading until it sinks in.
So why do most people act as if none of this is happening? Listening to our political debate, you would think we are constantly on the verge of disaster. The environmentalists tell us we are only a few years away from making the earth uninhabitable; nativists tell us immigrants are destroying the country; impeachment has both sides yelling that we’re on the verge of either dictatorship or a coup; and both sides warn that the American middle class—which has never been larger—is being “hollowed out.”
Why do we insist on catastrophizing about our First World problems?
I recently came across a study in the field of psychology that suggests an answer.
Researchers showed people a series of colored dots in shades ranging from blue to purple and asked them to sort them. When they showed people the same frequency of blue dots at the beginning and the end of the trial, they would identify them at a consistent rate. But when they decreased the number of blue dots, people began to interpret purple dots as blue. They expanded their idea of what “blue” is in order to keep seeing blue dots.
You can probably guess where this is going.
To be sure, perceptual interpretations of color have a tendency to be vague, subjective, and easily influenced by expectations. So the researchers tried the same test with increasingly more abstract topics, asking people to sort images of aggressive versus non-threatening faces, and then asking them to sort ethical versus unethical research proposals. They got the same results.
Here’s the summary:
In a series of experiments, we show that people often respond to decreases in the prevalence of a stimulus by expanding their concept of it. When blue dots became rare, participants began to see purple dots as blue; when threatening faces became rare, participants began to see neutral faces as threatening; and when unethical requests became rare, participants began to see innocuous requests as unethical. This “prevalence-induced concept change” occurred even when participants were forewarned about it and even when they were instructed and paid to resist it.
The researchers draw out some of the implications.
Many organizations and institutions are dedicated to identifying and reducing the prevalence of social problems, from unethical research to unwarranted aggressions. But our studies suggest that even well-meaning agents may sometimes fail to recognize the success of their own efforts, simply because they view each new instance in the decreasingly problematic context that they themselves have brought about. Although modern societies have made extraordinary progress in solving a wide range of social problems, from poverty and illiteracy to violence and infant mortality, the majority of people believe that the world is getting worse. The fact that concepts grow larger when their instances grow smaller may be one source of that pessimism.
This is an excellent framework for understanding the world around us.
There’s less racism today than, say, during Jim Crow—so explicit instances of racism stand out more and we have broadened our interpretation of what racism is to include even vague instances of “implicit bias.” There’s less extreme poverty today, so we get outraged about “relative poverty.” There’s less violence and war today, but we retweet and magnify the instances that remain.
We’ve all heard the old saying that “if it bleeds, it leads,” and in the age of the Internet, a whole new media machinery has built up to feed this impulse. I suggest you read a blogger’s account of his time working for an outrage clickbait farm. In his case, the site was for “progressives” and sought to bait the clicks by mining their rage at their “marginalization.” But it was based on a model built by the right to mine their rage at the “elites” and the “mainstream media.”
This is the flip side of the “hedonic treadmill“: you get something new that makes you happy, then after a while you begin to take it for granted, so you need something else new that will make you happy. Psychologists have observed that people actually tend to relapse to a set, static level of happiness, which is influenced only temporarily by external experiences.
It seems there is also an outrage treadmill, and people will seek a steady supply of new things to get angry about in order to maintain a pre-set level of disgust with the world.
Never quite being satisfied can have its benefits. One of the reasons humans have made so much progress is that we don’t stop trying. Having solved big problems, we direct our ingenuity to smaller problems. Having created a certain standard of wealth or technology, we try to establish an even higher standard. That’s great, so long as we know that this what we’re doing.
But if we really believe the purple dots are blue, if we really think a world that is steadily improving is going to the dogs, then we’re likely to do things that will make it worse.
We’re likely to believe angry politicians when they tell us everything’s a disaster and they’re the only ones who can save us. We’re likely to dismantle the ideas and institutions that produced progress and flee backward into some form of illiberalism, either from the left or the right, in an attempt to feed our need for a sense of permanent outrage.
The human brain likes to maintain a steady state. It does not always adapt well to change, and it will tend to change the facts to fit its preconceptions rather than the other way around.
That’s the most sobering part of the study with the blue dots. Note the final line of the summary: “This ‘prevalence-induced concept change’ occurred even when participants were forewarned about it and even when they were instructed and paid to resist it.”
The bias towards maintaining a steady state of negativity is so strong that people are literally unable to resist it even when they try.
And yet, all of the progress humans have made was only possible because we can adapt to new facts. We were able to change attitudes and customs and learn a better way of doing things.
The best way to avoid the apocalypse is to stop thinking that we’re heading toward the apocalypse.
We need to retrain our brains to stop obsessing over the blue dots of outrage and instead try to figure out what went right and how to keep doing it.