Our last post, titled How Are Things Going In Your World, was inspired by the book, Factfulness, by Hans Rosling. If you haven’t yet read that post, you might want to before reading this one.
Were you drawn in by the description of a poverty stricken, scary, and declining world? If so, you are in good company. Our dismal description of the state of the world reflected the views of a large majority of the nearly 12,000 participants in Rosling’s studies.
Rosling says that the most common statement he has heard is that the world is getting worse. His studies show that a majority of people in the world believe this. He asked people in 30 countries and territories, “Overall, do you think the world is getting better, staying the same, or getting worse?” (Rosling, Hans. Factfulness, p. 49. Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.) The majority in every country believed the world was getting worse. The percentage approached 90 percent of people in some countries.
Among many facts that show things are getting better, Rosling points out that the average life expectancy in the world in 1800 was 30. Today it is 72.
In this post, we will discuss one of the reasons that Rosling gives for the common belief that the world is in such sorry shape and getting worse.
Why Do a Majority of Us Believe the World is Getting Worse?
Rosling believes most people have a negativity instinct, which means we tend to notice and remember bad things more than good things. He believes at least three things contribute to this:
- We selectively remember the past.
- The news media and activists selectively report events.
- It would be “heartless” to say (or think) that things are getting better when there are still a lot of bad things going on in the world.
We Selectively Remember The Past
Studies have shown that we tend to remember emotionally laden events more than neutral ones. For a few moments, search your memories of your past month, year, decade, and longer. What are your earliest memories in your life? Did you mostly remember the emotional highlights and lowlights?
Studies also show that we remember negative events more accurately than positive events. It makes evolutionary sense that our personal survival depends on both noticing and accurately remembering things and events that might threaten us. Although this may have been more important to our ancestors’ survival thousands of years ago, the more primitive parts of our brain have likely not changed much during the past ten to twenty thousand years (or more).
For instance, the members of foraging societies keenly noticed and remembered the details of dangerous snakes and poisonous plants, while gathering food. Today, most of go us to the grocery store and buy whatever we want, with little concern that our purchases are going to kill us. However, when we do encounter a dangerous or hurtful experience, we sharply remember the details. These memories direct our future behavior, thoughts, and feelings. Most kids will touch a stove’s glowing heating element only once.
The News Media Selectively Report Events
We all know that in order to sell, the news must be sensational. And sensationally bad sells better than sensationally good.
Although we don’t agree that the majority mainstream news outlets should be charged with spreading fake news, we do think that almost all news poorly represents the real world. Although there are many factors at work here, the strongest factor is that the news outlets give us want we want, what we will consume, and what we will buy. And we want the sensational—often the sensationally bad.
As we have been learning about internet publishing, we have been occasionally advised to write what we are passionate about. But mostly we were told write for the market—to find out what people want to read and then write about that.
The immediacy, pervasiveness, and vividness of news in the information age also gives us an exaggerated feeling of the world’s catastrophes and violence. As the first televised war, the coverage of the Vietnam War brought the horror of war into living rooms everywhere. Although opinions concerning US news’ Vietnam coverage vary, there is little doubt that television greatly influenced the US involvement and eventual withdrawal.
But as they say, you haven’t seen nothin yet. Soon we will be able to strap on our virtual reality units to see, hear, and feel the most terrifying moments of human experience. This experience will likely be combined with a game where we can eventually save the world with our heroic efforts, after dying a few thousand times.
Putting One and Two Together
Let us combine the above two factors, our selective noticing and remembering and the news media’s selective reporting of events. How do these two factors work together to give most of us a feeling that the world is getting worse? First, a sample of factual news:
- April 30, 2019: Two people fatally shot in a classroom at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.
- April 21, 2019: Easter Sunday: Over 290 killed in Sri Lanka by explosions at hotels, churches, and a housing complex. Another bomb planted at an airport did not explode.
- March-April 2019: At least 62 deaths during two weeks of flooding in Iran.
- March 15, 2019: Fifty shot to death at two New Zealand mosques.
- March 10, 2019: Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302 crashes, killing all 157 aboard.
- February 5, 2019: Argument over dog leads to fatal shooting in parking lot.
- September 20, 2018: Three workplace shootings in three different states during the past 24 hours.
- February 14, 2018: At least 17 killed in Florida high school shooting.
- October 1, 2017: 58 killed and 422 injured by gunfire at an outdoor Las Vegas music festival.
If you pay much attention to the news, you will learn you can die almost anywhere, at any time, and by countless means. You are not 100 percent safe anywhere. The combination of our own selective attention and the bombardment of violence and death from the news media has seeped into our ongoing thoughts, feelings, and sense of well-being (or not-so-well-being). Increasingly individuals are making and broadcasting videos, many of which contain violence or catastrophes. The March 15, 2019, shootings in New Zealand were recorded from the gunman’s helmet-mounted camera and broadcast on the internet via Facebook.
Is it Heartless and Unproductive to Spread the Good News When Many People Still Needlessly Die and There is Much Corruption in the World?
Even after reading that the world is factually getting better in many aspects, you may feel still uncomfortable or outright deny this view. In explaining this fairly common experience, we will briefly quote Rosling, since he says it well.
If you still feel uncomfortable agreeing that the world is getting better, even after I have shown you all this beautiful data, my guess is that it’s because you know that huge problems still remain. My guess is you feel that me saying that the world is getting better is like me telling you that everything is fine, or that you should look away from these problems and pretend they don’t exist: and that feels ridiculous, and stressful. (Rosling, Hans. Factfulness. p. 68. Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.)
Saying something has improved doesn’t necessarily mean it is now great. If a patient improves with a specific treatment but is still not completely cured, we don’t say that he is worse off than before. And to say that he is doing better than before doesn’t imply he is completely fine now and we can now dismiss him. He may still need a lot of help.
The same can be said for the state of the world. To realize and say that the world is improving in many ways isn’t to ignore its current problems.
Remember the saying, “He who doesn’t remember history is doomed to repeat it”? Acknowledging how the world is getting better and the factors that have led to this improvement is a first step in its continued advancement.
Accepting on both an intellectual and feeling level that the world is getting better can also create a spirit of hopefulness and that our efforts are not futile.
Activists often selectively present the most dismal view related to their cause. They likely believe that you have to get people really mad or fearful before they will act. However, in the long run, their selective and exaggerated reporting can leave them and their causes less credible in the eyes of others.
Rosling tells us the story that he was asked by Al Gore to help him graphically show the worst-case scenario of the results of increased CO2 emissions. Reportedly Mr. Gore justified this request by saying that they needed to create fear. Rosling told Gore that he would not do this without also showing the best-case and most probable scenarios. The two could not agree and Rosling eventually refused Gore’s request.
We should add that later in the book Rosling lists climate change as one of the five world problems that he is most concerned about. Although we could not find that he said this directly, we think Rosling would agree that our most important concerns have the highest need of being presented in balanced and factual ways.
Where Do We Go From Here?
You might rationally accept that, by many measures, the world is getting better for most people. However, it still might not feel that way to you. For instance, you can be told and intellectually accept that you have 1/15 the chance of dying a violent death than your ancestors did five or six centuries ago. However, this may not change your feeling that the world is getting more dangerous
In our next post, we will explore this issue further and suggest some steps you can take to get your feeling and rational selves more cooperative and aligned with each other.
We also invite you to read Hans Rosling’s book Factufulness or check out his work on the internet. We recommend a TED Talk by Hans and his son you can find by clicking here.