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Why It Feels Like the End of the World, Even When It's Not

Why do we keep viewing the world more negatively than it is?

Key points

  • Every generation seems to fear that the end of the world is upon them.
  • While 2020 was a really rough year, and we do have significant problems to address, the world is not as bad as most of us think.
  • By most metrics, such as life expectancy and homicide rates, the world is a much better place than it used to be.
  • We have a negativity bias that causes us to focus on negatives over positives, and this evolutionary tendency contributes to our pessimism.

Note: This is the third blog in my series about truth and reality as they relate to problems we are experiencing as a society.

"It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine." —R.E.M., in the song of the same name.

To say that 2020 has been a difficult year would be an understatement. We are in a global pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, have a financial crisis and high unemployment levels, toxic tribalism, a monumental upcoming presidential election, Russian election interference, the killing of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, wokism and the "cancel culture," social unrest, an upcoming chaotic school year, global climate change, forest fires in Siberia, hurricanes, rising levels of depression, anxiety, and suicide, and... murder hornets. There is no denying that society is facing some serious problems, As we doom scroll through our news feeds, it might feel as if it is the end of the world as we know it. Are we still feeling fine?

Is the World Really Getting Worse?

"Nothing is more responsible for the Good Old Days than a bad memory." —Franklin P. Jones

If we step back a bit, though, and view the world from a longer time frame, we would see that, by most metrics, the world is doing much better than in previous generations (the present pandemic notwithstanding). This might seem surprising, but we live much longer, healthier, and happier lives than at any point in human history. Infant and child mortality rates have gone way down, longevity and literacy rates are way up, and far fewer people die from pandemics, genocide, war, and homicide than in our history.

As one example, in 1820, about 90 percent of the people in the world lived in extreme poverty, and this has fallen quite dramatically to only about 9 percent today. As another example of world progress, racism and sexism still exist in society, of course, but they used to be much worse (e.g., there was institutionalized slavery, women and African-Americans couldn't vote in the U.S., Jim Crow laws). Yay for enlightened reasoning, science, and human progress!

Even our current pandemic pales in comparison to the great plagues of history. For example, the Black Death killed half of Europe in the 14th century, and the Spanish Flu of 1918 killed 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 Americans. Smallpox killed a whopping 500 million people during the last hundred years of its existence (the WHO declared it eradicated in 1980). We should thank our lucky stars that, even during our COVID-19 pandemic, so many of us can work from home, our kids have online school options, we can get food and household items delivered, and we should have a vaccine in record time.

While there is, without a doubt, a lot wrong with this world, there is a lot that is right with it too. Put another way, there is at least less wrong than there used to be. With a clear understanding of societal progress, it seems to many that no one in the right mind would want to live in Medieval Europe or the American Old West. Who wants to live in a world without indoor plumbing, access to clean water, modern medicine, refrigeration, heating and air-conditioning, and Netflix? No thank you!

Social Pessimism and Individual Optimism

Even with seeing such progress in the world, it sure feels like things are spiraling downward. Our incessant stream of doom and gloom headlines makes it seem like the Apocalypse is upon us. What's the truth here?

Well, there are two truths that coexist. Despite our gut reaction that it has to be one or the other, these truths are not mutually exclusive. The world, in general, is far better than it used to be by most major metrics. Yet, we have some real societal problems (e.g., this pandemic, global climate change, the threat of large-scale military conflicts and nuclear war, homelessness) that we need to address.

Despite all the progress that humans have made in so many areas, most people, especially in Western countries, do feel like the world is getting worse. For example, according to a 2015 survey, only 6 percent of Americans 4 percent of Germans, and 3 percent of Australians think the world is getting better. What a gloomy outlook! One can only imagine that these numbers look even worse since then.

Curiously, we tend to be socially pessimistic about the current and future states of our world, but optimistic when it comes to our own futures. While we believe that it's the end of the world as we know it, most of us feel fine. R.E.M. actually nailed it with their song. However, with rising rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide, especially among young people, over the past decade, we are feeling less fine than we used to feel. This pandemic is making this downward trend even worse.

Our Negativity Bias

Why are we so pessimistic about the world despite all of the progress that we've made? As discussed previously, we want to understand our world, to see the truth more accurately so that we can make more skillful decisions as we navigate our way along this journey of life.

Yet truth is elusive. We don't see the world as it truly is. "Truth" serves the master of "survival." This is rooted in our evolutionary heritage. Our ancestors needed to be more alert to the negatives of their world than the positives or else they might suffer fatal consequences. For instance, if our ancestors weren't fearful that a pride of lions occasionally visited a water hole, they could end up as their dinner. But if those same ancestors missed out on a tree bearing fruit nearby, they would likely still live to see another day.

The legacy of our ancestral negativity bias still lives on within us today. Across just about every domain of human experience, the power of bad outweighs the power of good. For instance, an insult will likely sting and be remembered much more than a similar level of praise. We will likely feel much worse about a bungled company presentation that we give than we will feel good about an excellent one. Just writing that sentence evoked some painful memories for me just now!

Our negativity bias also explains why we are drawn to negative over positive news. The difference is that our access to this negative news, with the rise of cable TV and the 24-hour news cycle, the internet, and social media, has increased exponentially in recent decades. We can't totally blame the media for exposing us to a constant stream of negative news—we have an appetite for it!

Due to what's known as the availability bias (or availability heuristic), if we can readily think of examples of events (e.g., abductions, shootings, police brutality), we think they are more commonplace. The proliferation of negative news makes it all too easy for us to recall instances of rape, murder, social injustice, human trafficking, racism, and so on. In turn, this causes us to be pessimistic about the state of the world and our future.

The Takeaway?

Strangely enough, because of our negativity and similar biases, every generation tends to feel as if it is the end of the world. This is why R.E.M.'s song is just as relevant today as when it was released in 1987. We might be thinking, "No, this time it really is worse than ever!" Perhaps we'd be falling prey to the negativity bias by thinking it is. But there are legitimate reasons to be concerned... and hopeful at the same time. Please follow me as I explore these topics in this blog series!

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