The world appears to be in a rough place right now. If you turn on the TV or open up your web browser, you're almost guaranteed to be bombarded by bad news. But is the world really doomed? Or is your animal brain playing tricks on you? Chin up — things aren't always as bad as they seem.
Photo by Horia Varlan.
"Declinism" Is on the Rise
This type of thinking is likely due to "declinism", which is the bias-caused belief that a society or institution is always getting worse and worse over time — no matter what the facts say. Basically, any time you think "things will never be as good as they used to", that's declinism. I feel like I'm constantly hearing things like "Wasn't 2017 awful?" or "Things couldn't be any worse..."
Wrong! Things could definitely be worse, and they were. The further you go back in time, the worse things get.
There are plenty of issues that need to be addressed, sure, but things are actually gradually getting better. If you look at the facts, the general wellbeing of the population is better than it has ever been. You need not look any further than the work of cognitive psychologist (and terminal optimist) Steven Pinker.
His works, like The Better Angels of our Nature and his forthcoming book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, show how a lot of the "bad stuff" has actually been in gradual decline since, well, the dawn of history. So then why does everything seem so crummy right now?
We Look Back With Rose-Coloured Glasses
There are two main contributing factors to our declinism attitudes: the biases known as the "reminiscence bump" and the "positivity effect." The first, as clinical psychiatrist Dale Archer explains, is the tendency for adults to have more vivid, pleasant memories and feelings of nostalgia for events that occurred during adolescence and adulthood.
Basically, the world tends to seem like a brighter, better place when we look back at the good ol' days of our youth, but the reality is that we were just less stressed about work, probably didn't have to worry about money, and didn't pay much attention to the news.
The positivity effect, on the other hand, is the idea that as we get older we tend to remember more positive things than negative. In one 2005 study, researchers found evidence of this brain trick in play, suggesting that older adults have a greater focus on emotion regulation by means of naturally retaining a higher percentage of positive memories.
The older we get, the more we want to only think about the good stuff from the past, and even when we try to look back with a critical eye that changes how we see the world at those particular points in time. The positivity effect goes together perfectly with the reminiscence bump, says Archer:
As we age, the brain has a preference not only for remembering positive over negative stimuli, but also for accentuating positive, and minimising negative memories. Therefore, if we are wired to reminisce about the past and accentuate the positive from those memories is it any wonder that today seems so much worse than yesterday?
We can't help but think about the past, present, and future subjectively. But this isn't a flaw of our character, Archer notes, it's just how our brains work. You're not going to be able to stop yourself from experiencing these biases, but knowing about them can help you try to remain objective.
We're Drawn to the Negative In the Present
We forget sometimes that we mighty humans, conquerors of the planet, are just stupid animals concerned with our own survival. This evolutionary drive to live led our brains to always be on the lookout for threats, overestimate dangers, and not dwell on positive things for too long to avoid becoming complacent (which at one time would mean starving or becoming something else's lunch).
That instinct is what we now call the "negativity bias," which basically means that we put a lot more focus on the bad things than we do good things.
Said bias might be all well and good for our basic survival needs, but it gives us a pretty pessimistic view on the modern world right out of the womb. Not only are we wired to look back with positive feelings, we're destined to see almost everything in the present with negative feelings. Thanks a lot, brain. What's worse is people know about our predisposition to negativity, so marketers, politicians, and the media use it to their advantage.
Ever wonder why the news is always horrible thing after horrible thing? It's because they need ratings and we love to gawk at the atrocities of the world whether we want to admit or not. And if you suffer from depression, studies like this one from 2011 suggest that negativity bias can have an even stronger effect on you. It's all a vicious cycle of negativity that continues to feed into itself, but it's the way we're programmed.
We're Set In Our Beliefs, and That's a Problem
We all believe we have the right perspective on our country, on the world, and on life itself. That's fine, it's only natural to stick to your guns. But when you throw something like "confirmation bias" into the mix, we often get so engrained in our beliefs we miss out on chances to break the endless chain of negativity.
If you're unfamiliar, confirmation bias is our tendency to seek out facts that only support our personal world view, and reject the facts that challenge it. In essence, confirmation bias is selective fact retention, or a type of "wishful thinking." We all do it, and that's why it's important to be aware of it.
Confirmation bias can be dangerous if left unchecked, but it's also the reason why it's so hard for us to shake off our preset cynical outlooks on the world. We think things are terrible in the present because of negativity bias, we think things used to be better in the past because of the reminiscence bump and the positivity effect and we think things will get worse in the future because of declinism.
Confirmation bias is the cherry on top of our bummer brain sundae. Shoot, I bet right now you're thinking, "No, things are terrible. Let me go find some facts to show you." But that's the problem! We need to stop looking for the bad and try looking for the good. There's more of it out there than you think.
None of this is to say there aren't problems in the world, but knowing about these cognitive biases might help you see the world in a different light — or at least understand why you think things look so horrible. Never lose sight of the issues that need to be addressed, but don't let your brain's grim view of the world freeze you in despair either.