Our instinct to notice the bad more than the good is related to three things: the misremembering of the past; selective reporting by journalists and activists; and the feeling that as long as things are bad, it’s heartless to say they are getting better. For centuries, older people have romanticised their youths and insisted that things ain’t what they used to be. Well, that’s true. Most things used to be worse. This tendency to misremember is compounded by the never-ending negative news from across the world.
Stories about gradual improvements rarely make the front page even when they occur on a dramatic scale and affect millions of people. And thanks to increasing press freedom and improving technology, we hear about more disasters than ever before. This improved reporting is itself a sign of human progress, but it creates the impression of the exact opposite. At the same time, activists and lobbyists manage to make every dip in an improving trend appear to be the end of the world, scaring us with alarmist exaggerations and prophecies. In the United States, the violent crime rate has been falling since 1990. But each time something horrific or shocking happened – pretty much every year – a crisis was reported. The majority of people believe that violent crime is getting worse.
My guess is you feel that me saying that the world is getting better is like me telling you that everything is fine, and that feels ridiculous. I agree. Everything is not fine. We should still be very concerned. As long as there are plane crashes, preventable child deaths, endangered species, climate change skeptics, male chauvinists, crazy dictators, toxic waste, journalists in prison, and girls not getting an education, we cannot relax. But it is just as ridiculous to look away from the progress that has been made. The consequent loss of hope can be devastating. When people wrongly believe that nothing is improving, they may lose confidence in measures that actually work.
How can we help our brains to realize that things are getting better? Think of the world as a very sick premature baby in an incubator. After a week, she is improving, but she has to stay in the incubator because her health is still critical. Does it make sense to say that the infant’s situation is improving? Yes. Does it make sense to say it is bad? Yes, absolutely. Does saying “things are improving” imply that everything is fine, and we should all not worry? Not at all: it’s both bad and better. That is how we must think about the current state of the world...
Remember that the media and activists rely on drama to grab your attention; that negative stories are more dramatic than positive ones; and how simple it is to construct a story of crisis from a temporary dip pulled out of its context of a long-term improvement. When you hear about something terrible, calm yourself by asking: if there had been a positive improvement, would I have heard about that? Even if there had been hundreds of larger improvements, would I have heard?
This is “factfulness”: understanding as a source of mental peace. Like a healthy diet and regular exercise, it can and should become part of people’s daily lives. Start to practice it, and you will make better decisions, stay alert to real dangers and possibilities, and avoid being constantly stressed about the wrong things.
Rosling, H., Rosling, O., & Rönnlund, A. R. (2018). Factfulness: Ten reasons we're wrong about the world--and why things are better than you think. United States: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. (Goodreads, library)