The Negativity Instinct
In large part, it is because of our negativity instinct: our instinct to notice the bad more
than the good. There are three things going on here: 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.
Warning: Objects in Your Memories Were Worse Than They Appear
For centuries, older people have romanticized their youths and insisted that things ain’t what they used to be. Well, that’s true, but not in the way they mean it. Most things used to be worse, not better. But it is extremely easy for humans to forget how things really did “used to be.”
Beyond living memory, for some reason we avoid reminding ourselves and our children
about the miseries and brutalities of the past. The truth is to be found in ancient graveyards and burial sites, where archeologists have to get used to discovering that a large proportion of all the remains they dig up are those of children. Most will have been killed by starvation or disgusting diseases, but many child skeletons bear the marks of physical violence. Hunter-gatherer societies often had murder rates above 10 percent, and children were not spared. In today’s graveyards, child graves are rare.
8 Good Things Increasing
We are subjected to never-ending cascades of negative news from across the world:
wars, famines, natural disasters, political mistakes, corruption, budget cuts, diseases, mass layoffs, acts of terror. Journalists who reported flights that didn’t crash or crops that didn’t fail would quickly lose their jobs. Stories about gradual improvements rarely make the front page, even when they occur on a dramatic scale and impact millions of people.
And thanks to increasing press freedom and improving technology, we hear more about more disasters than ever before. When Europeans slaughtered indigenous peoples across America a few centuries ago, it didn’t make the news back in the Old World. When central planning resulted in mass famine in rural China, millions starved to death while the youngsters in Europe waving communist red flags knew nothing about it. When in the past whole species or ecosystems were destroyed, no one realized or even cared. Alongside all
the other improvements, our surveillance of suffering has improved tremendously. 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 skillfully manage to make every dip in a trend appear to be the end of the world, even if the general trend is clearly improving, scaring us with alarmist exaggerations and prophecies. For example, in the U.S., the violent-crime rate has been on a downward trend since 1990. Just under 14.5 million crimes were reported in 1990. By 2016 that figure was well under 9.5 million. Each time something horrific or shocking happened, which was pretty much every year, a crisis was reported.
The majority of people, the vast majority of the time, believe that violent crime is getting worse.
No wonder we get an illusion of constant deterioration. The news constantly alerts us to bad events in the present. The doom-laden feeling that this creates in us is then intensified
by our inability to remember the past; our historical knowledge is rosy and pink and we fail to remember that, one year ago, or 10 years ago, or 50 years ago, there was the same number of terrible events, probably more. This illusion of deterioration creates great stress for some people and makes other people lose hope. For no good reason.