If you find yourself at a cocktail party searching for a conversation starter, I’d recommend working in the opening line of a recent Bill and Melinda Gates Annual Letter: “By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been.” Although people will react with incredulity at the very possibility that things could be getting better, they’ll welcome the opportunity to straighten you out. Just be prepared for the inevitable recitation of the daily headlines—bad news piled on top of even worse news—that will inevitably follow. Virtually everyone I’ve mentioned this quote to is sure it’s wrong.
That’s been my experience as well. And in all fairness, until a few years ago I would have been one of those people–confident that things are getting worse all the time.
Yesterday I posted a long list of ways the world has improved and is continuing to improve. I began by claiming, “humanity’s amazing progress, which has accelerated in recent decades, may well be the most significant and least-appreciated story in human history.”
So if that’s true, then why isn’t humanity’s progress more well known? Why aren’t we not only seemingly ungrateful for it, but generally oblivious to it?
Here’s some further food for thought, which I also find fascinating. Keep in mind all of the facts I posted yesterday as you read this.
According to a recent survey, only 5% of people believe the world is getting better. 71% say it is getting worse.
According to Pew’s research, every year since the early 2000’s a majority of Americans surveyed have felt that crime has increased since the year previous. The most recent Gallup poll found a full 70% of Americans think the crime rate is currently increasing. This despite the fact that crime rates continue to fall precipitously, and are now about half what they were just 25 years ago.
56% of Americans believe gun deaths have increased over the last 20 years. In fact, gun deaths (that is, deaths caused by gunshots) have fallen by nearly a third during that period.
Two-thirds of Americans believe that extreme poverty has doubled over the past 20 years. Only 5% of those polled responded that extreme poverty has decreased during that time. In fact, 95% of Americans are greatly mistaken–extreme poverty has been cut nearly in half over the last 20 years and may soon be eliminated entirely.
In poll after poll (and presumably at all the cocktail parties attended by Steven Quartz), respondents answer that the state of the world is worsening, even when objective data shows the contrary. Why?
Some attribute this to the media, and its emphasis on bad news. But in fact the human bias toward pessimism and the belief that humanity is becoming worse over time, long predates mass media. It is found in the two thousand year old poetry of the Roman poet Horace, and four centuries before Horace in Plato, and four centuries before Plato in the writings of Hesiod, and before Hesiod 6,000 years ago in Egypt. It seems that humans have always preferred the “good old days.” I suspect the supposed deteriorating state of the world has been the subject of campfire discussions since the dawn of time.
When I became aware of this phenomenon a few years ago I found it intriguing and fascinating, in part because of the fact that the actual state of affairs (that the world is not declining but instead is progressing rapidly) is so counter-intuitive, especially to my old-fashioned mind. But being aware of our natural bias has helped me resist pessimism and negativity. It’s helped me to keep the daily barrage of bad news in perspective. It’s helped me to better appreciate human nature and human potential. It’s given me good reason to look forward to the future, rather than dread it. It’s helped me resist despair and selfishness.
I find it much easier to be an optimist now that I’m confident that it’s not just wishful thinking. And that feels good to me.