We’re Still Not Going to Hell in a Handcart

We’re Still Not Going to Hell in a Handcart April 19, 2021

I wrote about this years back when Steven Pinker produced his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, in which he set out that things, despite what we are constantly told, are not getting worse. In fact, they are getting better across pretty much every metric (overpopulation and environment aside).

Pinker’s new book Enlightenment Nowdeals with the same subject matter in an early chapter:

Yes, it’s not just those who intellectualize for a living who think the world is going to hell in a handcart. It’s ordinary people when they switch into intellectualizing mode. Psychologists have long known that people tend to see their own lives through rose-colored glasses: they think they’re less likely than the average person to become the victim of a divorce, layoff, accident, illness, or crime. But change the question from the people’s lives to their society, and they transform from Pollyanna to Eeyore.

Public opinion researchers call it the Optimism Gap.3 For more than two decades, through good times and bad, when Europeans were asked by pollsters whether their own economic situation would get better or worse in the coming year, more of them said it would get better, but when they were asked about their country’s economic situation, more of them said it would get worse.4 A large majority of Britons think that immigration, teen pregnancy, litter, unemployment, crime, vandalism, and drugs are a problem in the United Kingdom as a whole, while few think they are problems in their area.5 Environmental quality, too, is judged in most nations to be worse in the nation than in the community, and worse in the world than in the nation.6 In almost every year from 1992 through 2015, an era in which the rate of violent crime plummeted, a majority of Americans told pollsters that crime was rising.7 In late 2015, large majorities in eleven developed countries said that “the world is getting worse,” and in most of the last forty years a solid majority of Americans have said that the country is “heading in the wrong direction.”8

Are they right? Is pessimism correct? Could the state of the world, like the stripes on a barbershop pole, keep sinking lower and lower? It’s easy to see why people feel that way: every day the news is filled with stories about war, terrorism, crime, pollution, inequality, drug abuse, and oppression. And it’s not just the headlines we’re talking about; it’s the op-eds and long-form stories as well. Magazine covers warn us of coming anarchies, plagues, epidemics, collapses, and so many “crises” (farm, health, retirement, welfare, energy, deficit) that copywriters have had to escalate to the redundant “serious crisis.”

One of the drivers of this (but by no means the only one, as he goes on to discuss) is the news media. People who read sensationalist media in general, and particularly right-wing media, will have their worldviews and opinions completely skewed by what is invariably a media of fear. The right-wing perpetuates a narrative of fear of immigrants, others, crime, loonie lefties, BLM, the big government and its scary over-reach, the youth, and so on. Fear, fear, fear; hate, hate, hate. Fear and hate sell newspapers, and attract viewers, whether it be FOX News or the Daily Mail and Daily Express. My own family members have spewed objectionable bile straight from those sources, and even tried to fob me off with actual paper copies as if I would be genuinely interested in reading about how horrible a human being Meghan Markle supposedly is.

Personal issues aside, the media have so much to answer for, but never answer the data as set out above. If things are as terrible as they claim (as they tell us repeatedly), how come…they aren’t? How come our views (for example, in the British Crime Survey data) so erroneous when compared to actual data?

Whether or not the world really is getting worse, the nature of news will interact with the nature of cognition to make us think that it is. News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying to the camera, “I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out”—or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. As long as bad things have not vanished from the face of the earth, there will always be enough incidents to fill the news, especially when billions of smartphones turn most of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents.

And among the things that do happen, the positive and negative ones unfold on different time lines. The news, far from being a “first draft of history,” is closer to play-by-play sports commentary. It focuses on discrete events, generally those that took place since the last edition (in earlier times, the day before; now, seconds before).9 Bad things can happen quickly, but good things aren’t built in a day, and as they unfold, they will be out of sync with the news cycle. The peace researcher John Galtung pointed out that if a newspaper came out once every fifty years, it would not report half a century of celebrity gossip and political scandals. It would report momentous global changes such as the increase in life expectancy.10

The nature of news is likely to distort people’s view of the world because of a mental bug that the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman called the Availability heuristic: people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind.11 In many walks of life this is a serviceable rule of thumb. Frequent events leave stronger memory traces, so stronger memories generally indicate more-frequent events: you really are on solid ground in guessing that pigeons are more common in cities than orioles, even though you’re drawing on your memory of encountering them rather than on a bird census. But whenever a memory turns up high in the result list of the mind’s search engine for reasons other than frequency—because it is recent, vivid, gory, distinctive, or upsetting—people will overestimate how likely it is in the world. Which are more numerous in the English language, words that begin with k or words with k in the third position? Most people say the former. In fact, there are three times as many words with k in the third position (ankle, ask, awkward, bake, cake, make, take . . .), but we retrieve words by their initial sounds, so keep, kind, kill, kid, and king are likelier to pop into mind on demand.

This is actually something that really annoys me. I obviously hold the freedom of press and the freedom of speech in high regard, as you can see by my comments policy here. However, I also have a massive problem with lying to the general public and doing it for political gain at the expense, quite often, of safety to the general public. Organisations like FOX News are dangerous, and something needs to be done about their flagrant convocation and spreading of disinformation and misinformation. I really think that something should be done about this.

Availability errors are a common source of folly in human reasoning. First-year medical students interpret every rash as a symptom of an exotic disease, and vacationers stay out of the water after they have read about a shark attack or if they have just seen Jaws.12 Plane crashes always make the news, but car crashes, which kill far more people, almost never do. Not surprisingly, many people have a fear of flying, but almost no one has a fear of driving. People rank tornadoes (which kill about fifty Americans a year) as a more common cause of death than asthma (which kills more than four thousand Americans a year), presumably because tornadoes make for better television.

It’s easy to see how the Availability heuristic, stoked by the news policy “If it bleeds, it leads,” could induce a sense of gloom about the state of the world. Media scholars who tally news stories of different kinds, or present editors with a menu of possible stories and see which they pick and how they display them, have confirmed that the gatekeepers prefer negative to positive coverage, holding the events constant.13 That in turn provides an easy formula for pessimists on the editorial page: make a list of all the worst things that are happening anywhere on the planet that week, and you have an impressivesounding case that civilization has never faced greater peril.

The consequences of negative news are themselves negative. Far from being better informed, heavy newswatchers can become miscalibrated. They worry more about crime, even when rates are falling, and sometimes they part company with reality altogether: a 2016 poll found that a large majority of Americans follow news about ISIS closely, and 77 percent agreed that “Islamic militants operating in Syria and Iraq pose a serious threat to the existence or survival of the United States,” a belief that is nothing short of delusional.14 Consumers of negative news, not surprisingly, become glum: a recent literature review cited “misperception of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others, desensitization, and in some cases, . . . complete avoidance of the news.”15 And they become fatalistic, saying things like “Why should I vote? It’s not gonna help,” or “I could donate money, but there’s just gonna be another kid who’s starving next week.”16

Our brains are very easily tricked. Or our supposedly rational and conscious appraisals of phenomena are bamboozled by bias and irrationality. So, what do we do about it?

Seeing how journalistic habits and cognitive biases bring out the worst in each other, how can we soundly appraise the state of the world? The answer is to count. How many people are victims of violence as a proportion of the number of people alive? How many are sick, how many starving, how many poor, how many oppressed, how many illiterate, how many unhappy? And are those numbers going up or down? A quantitative mindset, despite its nerdy aura, is in fact the morally enlightened one, because it treats every human life as having equal value rather than privileging the people who are closest to us or most photogenic. And it holds out the hope that we might identify the causes of suffering and thereby know which measures are most likely to reduce it.

As Pinker goes on to explain, however, even if you do present data and grass and arguments to successfully show this all happening, as he did in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, people still deal with these evaluations in broken and biased ways. It seems that if a human wants to believe something, despite what evidence to the contrary there might be out there, they can believe it. After all, there are still a not insignificant number of young-earth creationists out there with their heads up their in the sand. Pinker was met with all sorts of pushback and arguments against the very clear data and conclusions from his earlier book, which he deals with before saying:

I have run through these objections to prepare the way for my presentation of other measures of human progress. The incredulous reaction to Better Angels convinced me that it isn’t just the Availability heuristic that makes people fatalistic about progress. Nor can the media’s fondness for bad news be blamed entirely on a cynical chase for eyeballs and clicks. No, the psychological roots of progressophobia run deeper.

The deepest is a bias that has been summarized in the slogan “Bad is stronger than good.”21 The idea can be captured in a set of thought experiments suggested by Tversky.22 How much better can you imagine yourself feeling than you are feeling right now? How much worse can you imagine yourself feeling? In answering the first hypothetical, most of us can imagine a bit more of a spring in our step or a twinkle in our eye, but the answer to the second one is: it’s bottomless. This asymmetry in mood can be explained by an asymmetry in life (a corollary of the Law of Entropy). How many things could happen to you today that would leave you much better off? How many things could happen that would leave you much worse off? Once again, to answer the first question, we can all come up with the odd windfall or stroke of good luck, but the answer to the second one is: it’s endless. But we needn’t rely on our imaginations. The psychological literature confirms that people dread losses more than they look forward to gains, that they dwell on setbacks more than they savor good fortune, and that they are more stung by criticism than they are heartened by praise. (As a psycholinguist I am compelled to add that the English language has far more words for negative emotions than for positive ones.)23

I will leave it there for now as he goes on to analyse further biases and issues in great detail. I really enjoyed this chapter in the Enlightenment Now book. Let me leave you with where the narrative is going. Human beings often have biases and cognitive heuristics that lead us up the garden path. The media play on these to further their own ideological or commercial agendas. In creating these narratives, the media help to perpetuate the cycle that damages our understanding of how the world really is. Of course, is not only the media, but the media does play a very decisive part.

But relentless negativity can itself have unintended consequences, and recently a few journalists have begun to point them out. In the wake of the 2016 American election, the New York Times writers David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg reflected on the media’s role in its shocking outcome:

Trump was the beneficiary of a belief—near universal in American journalism—that “serious news” can essentially be defined as “what’s going wrong.” . . . For decades, journalism’s steady focus on problems and seemingly incurable pathologies was preparing the soil that allowed Trump’s seeds of discontent and despair to take root. . . . One consequence is that many Americans today have difficulty imagining, valuing or even believing in the promise of incremental system change, which leads to a greater appetite for revolutionary, smash-the-machine change.30

Bornstein and Rosenberg don’t blame the usual culprits (cable TV, social media, late-night comedians) but instead trace it to the shift during the Vietnam and Watergate eras from glorifying leaders to checking their power —with an overshoot toward indiscriminate cynicism, in which everything about America’s civic actors invites an aggressive takedown.

If the roots of progressophobia lie in human nature, is my suggestion that it is on the rise itself an illusion of the Availability bias? Anticipating the methods I will use in the rest of the book, let’s look at an objective measure. The data scientist Kalev Leetaru applied a technique called sentiment mining to every article published in the New York Times between 1945 and 2005, and to an archive of translated articles and broadcasts from 130 countries between 1979 and 2010. Sentiment mining assesses the emotional tone of a text by tallying the number and contexts of words with positive and negative connotations, like good, nice, terrible, and horrific. Figure 4-1 shows the results. Putting aside the wiggles and waves that reflect the crises of the day, we see that the impression that the news has become more negative over time is real. 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. News outlets in the rest of the world, too, became gloomier and gloomier from the late 1970s to the present day.

So has the world really gone steadily downhill during these decades?

And the simple answer is that, no, the world has not gone downhill. Yes, there are problems with issues pertaining to population growth and wealth generation that has provoked a massive spike in consumption (arguably a sign that the world has successfully got better), but those things aside, the world is moving in the right direction, albeit with the occasional spike (Trump) in the wrong direction.

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