[global, change, psychology, pessimism, optimism, attitude]
by Stan Hirst
I spent an hour or two idling along the Ambleside sea-wall this past week. Ships at anchor in a placed bay, azure blue sky overhead with the proverbial scudding white clouds, a pair of bald eagles fishing just off-shore (one fish from 30 dives, and I thought I was a lousy angler). It was the sort of scene that people would pay money to come to. Come to think of it, they do.
So why, I pondered, did I keep obsessing about negative things? Like the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Upper Levels just a few hundred meters from where I sat. Like the burgeoning numbers of people on the once idyllic seawall, detracting from my perception of communal quality with their milling and thronging, pushing and shoving, babbling in incomprehensible languages.
It’s a matter of simple psychology I have recently learned from the Great Fount of Wisdom (sometimes known as the internet). Apparently we humans are mentally and neurologically structured to be a gloomy lot.
Consider this – a British newspaper recently surveyed the U.K. population and found that 70% of Britons think the world is getting worse. Only 5% think it is improving. Now compare this view with Bill Gates’ 2017 report to the World Economic Forum:
- poliomyelitis has almost been eradicated as a scourge of children across the globe (because of the incredible efficacy of the polio vaccine and the concerted efforts of national governments to get people inoculated;
- some 122 million children’s lives have been saved over the last 20 years. Since 1990 the number of children dying before their 5th birthday has been cut from 12 million down to less than 6 million by investments in community health in developing countries;
- some 300 million women in the world’s 69 poorest countries used birth control in 2016 — a jump of 30 million from 2012. Contraceptive use, one of the most effective methods for breaking the poverty cycle and ensuring economic and social empowerment of women, is higher than it’s ever been.
I see two lessons from this. One is that a viewpoint depends very much on where you’re sitting. My carping about BMW’s on the Upper Levels is a world away from a Bangladeshi family’s satisfaction in not seeing their children afflicted by some awful poverty-induced condition. Second is the now –established truth that people are predisposed to think that things are worse than they actually are, and to overestimate the likelihood of calamity.
Why do we do this? One reason is that positive gains are typically measured by data, which most people abhor, despite their pathological attachment to smartphones and other digital devices. People typically rely on the recollection of examples to assess whether something is better or worse than before. On top of that, we are hard-wired in our befuddled brains to remember the bad things rather than the good ones. Ask an Albertan farmer whether wheat prices are more likely to increase or decrease next year. Chances are very high he will say “decrease” because he is apprehensive about that. The true answer is that there is almost an equal chance of an increase or a decrease (check Stats Canada).
Our modern media emphasize the negatives because they garner more attention and therefore sell better. When is the last time you read a news headline proclaiming that “609,000 aircraft land successfully in Canada“? That’s a true statement (again, check Stats Canada). Compare that to the 2013 Vancouver headline “Fatal B.C. Plane Crash Blamed on Pilot’s Loss of Control” which, I would hazard a guess, thousands of Vancouverites would easily recall.
Pessimism has unfortunate political consequences. Voters who think things were better in the past are more likely to demand that governments turn back the clock. The best example is in the U.S. where polling statistics revealed that a whopping 80% of Donald Trump’s supporters thought life has grown worse in the past 50 years. We are all now living with the regrettable political outfall from that sentiment. Amongst Britons who voted to leave the European Union, 60% believed that most children were destined to be worse off than their parents. Those who voted against Brexit tended to believe the exact opposite.
Although its sometimes difficult to countenance from public behaviour, it seems that people are growing smarter. In the early ’90s James R. Flynn examined IQ test scores for different populations over the preceding 60 years and discovered that they increased from one generation to the next for all of the countries for which data existed. This “Flynn Effect” is attributed to better nutrition over the years, to the spread of education, and possibly to improvements in environmental quality, e.g. the removal of lead from gasoline. BUT, a closer look at Flynn’s findings show that IQ scores increased only for the problem-solving portion of the intelligence tests. They remained pretty much constant for verbal intelligence.
Steven Pinker, the Canadian-born Harvard professor of psychology, holds that humankind is now experiencing a “moral Flynn Effect”. As people grow more adept at abstract thought they find it easier to imagine themselves in other people’s shoes. He believes this is one reason why society has grown more tolerant. It may seem counterintuitive to state this, considering the daily TV offerings of racial and religious violence in the U.S. and Europe, but the world is actually safer than it used to be. Globally, wars are smaller and less frequent than they were a generation ago. Statistics show that we all overestimate how much terrorism there actually is. The average European is ten times more likely to die by falling down the stairs than to be killed by a terrorist. Analysts with nothing better to do tell us that children’s nursery rhymes are 11 times more violent than television programmes aired in prime time.
As a crusty old Elder maybe I should just belt up and put up. Of course things change continually. Careers die, so do loved ones and relationships. Children show up and grow up. Positive changes need adaptation just as much as negative ones.
We don’t seem to notice or pay much attention to small or expected changes; it’s when we are caught off-guard that we react negatively. The best response might be to firmly convince ourselves that millions of changes are going to happen in life – some good, some not so good, so we should just roll with it. Even Einstein said it – “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change”.
Elders know that life can be difficult to navigate in our ever faster-moving society. The only real survival tool we may have is to learn at our own pace and to deal with the changes going on around us. I hear the younger generation counselling me to chill out and go with the flow. That’s probably the most comfortable way to deal with the future, so I’ll do it.