Why We're So Pessimistic: Read An Excerpt from Upside

Americans aren't just down about our nation as a whole; we're concerned with just about every aspect of it. A 1996 survey asked respondents if they thought the United States was declining or improving in each of fourteen different areas spanning public life, including moral standards, the criminal justice system, public safety, family life, national leaders, Americans' honesty, Americans' work ethic, the health care system, education, our standard of living, the economy, and racial issues. With each one of these issues, about one-quarter to one-half of Americans thought the nation was "holding steady." Among the respondents who perceived any type of change, however, it was overwhelmingly negative. For every respondent who thought that moral and ethical standards were improving, almost twelve thought they were in decline. For every respondent who thought that the criminal justice system was improving, eight thought it was in decline. The ratio was 1:4 for standard of living and 1:3 for racial tensions.

Even when things are objectively getting better, we still think they are getting worse. A 2003 study by the children's advocacy group Child Trends illustrates our propensity for unwarranted pessimism. Child Trends wanted to gauge the accuracy of Americans' perceptions of children's well-being. They found that Americans think young people are far worse off than they really are. For example, three-quarters of the Americans surveyed thought the number of children on welfare had increased or remained steady in the previous decade, but in reality it had declined. Ninety percent thought that crime rates among teens had gone up or stayed the same, but those too had decreased. In fact, at the time of the survey, they were at a twenty-five-year low! Likewise, Americans are overly pessimistic about young people's poverty, lack of health insurance, and teenage birth rate. The authors concluded, "Most Americans think that things are getting worse for children and youth, even when notable improvements have occurred." Of course the United States has children living in difficult circumstances, but it isn't as prevalent as we seem to think.

While the United States is the best in the world at some things (e.g., basketball, putting people in prison, and In-N-Out hamburgers), pessimism isn't one of them. In 2010, the Pew Global Attitudes Project surveyed respondents in twenty-two different countries, asking them, "Overall, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in our country today?" As plotted in Figure 1.2, the United States is just middle-of-the-pack. In all but one of the nations queried, about half or more of citizens are dissatisfied with the way things are going in their countries, and in most countries two-thirds or more of citizens are dissatisfied. The most dissatisfied country was Lebanon. (National motto: "We don't want to be here either.") The most satisfied, far and away, was China. (National motto: "All 1.3 billion of us are doing quite well. Thank you for asking.") Only 9% of the Chinese were dissatisfied with their country's direction.

The Optimism Gap

At this point, you might be thinking that most humans (except the Chinese) are just pessimistic by nature, but this is not the case. We're actually quite optimistic about our own lives. This personal optimism sets up a paradox in that we think our own lives are going well, but we're convinced that almost everyone else is doing poorly. Basically, we are exceptions to the rule when it comes to life getting worse. Writer David Whitman labels this phenomenon the "optimism gap," and with it we tend to think that the grass is browner, not greener, in other people's yards. Psychologist Fathali Moghaddam characterizes this optimism gap as our thinking that the sky is falling, just not on us.

This optimism gap is demonstrated in a variety of studies. Survey researchers sometimes collect data using what they call the "ladder of life." This type of question asks respondents to rate some aspect of life on a 0-to-10 scale, with 0 representing the worst possible and 10 the best possible. Starting in 1959, the Gallup poll, and later the Pew Foundation, has used this tool to have Americans rate their own life situations as well as the United States as a whole. If the optimism gap did not exist, we would expect these two questions to yield similar results, but that is not the case. As shown in Figure 1.3, in 1959, Americans rated both their personal lives and the nation's condition at the same, relatively high level (6.6 and 6.7 out of 10, respectively). From then on, however, the scores started to diverge, and over the past forty-five years, Americans have consistently rated their own lives better than the nation as a whole. This difference exists both when times are bad, as with the low rating in the early 1970s, and when times are good, as in the mid-1990s. Most recently, in 2008, the average rating for one's own life was 6.8 while for the country it was 5.8. I suppose that I manifest this optimism gap myself. If I had to rate my own life, I would give it an 8, but I'd only give the nation as a whole a 7.

8/1/2011 4:00:00 AM
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