Authors: Hans Rosling
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.
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.”
In Western Europe and North America, only the very oldest, who lived through the Second World War or the Great Depression, have any personal recollection of the severe deprivation and hunger of just a few decades ago. Yet even in China and India, where extreme poverty was the reality for the vast majority just a couple of generations ago, it is now mostly forgotten by people who live in decent houses, have clean clothes, and ride mopeds.
The Swedish author and journalist Lasse Berg wrote an excellent report from rural India in the 1970s. When he returned 25 years later, he could see clearly how living conditions had improved. Pictures from his visit in the 1970s showed earthen floors, clay walls, half-naked children, and the eyes of villagers with low self-esteem and little knowledge of the outside world. They were a stark contrast to the concrete houses of the late 1990s, where well-dressed children played and self-confident and curious villagers watched TV. When Lasse showed the villagers the 1970s pictures they couldn’t believe the photos were taken in their neighborhood. “No,” they said. “This can’t be here. You must be mistaken. We have never been that poor.” Like most people, they were living in the moment, busy with new problems, like the children watching immoral soap operas or not having enough money to buy a motorbike.
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.
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 United States, 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 ten 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.
There’s something else going on as well. What are people really thinking when they say the world is getting worse? My guess is they are
thinking. They are feeling. If you still
uncomfortable agreeing that the world is getting better, even after I have shown you all this beautiful data, my guess is that it’s because you know that huge problems still remain. My guess is you
that me saying that the world is getting better is like me telling you that everything is fine, or that you should look away from these problems and pretend they don’t exist: and that feels ridiculous, and stressful.
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 deniers, male chauvinists, crazy dictators, toxic waste, journalists in prison, and girls not getting an education because of their gender, as long as any such terrible things exist, we cannot relax.
But it is just as ridiculous, and just as stressful, to look away from the progress that has been made. People often call me an optimist, because I show them the enormous progress they didn’t know about. That makes me angry. I’m not an optimist. That makes me sound naïve. I’m a very serious “possibilist.” That’s something I made up. It means someone who neither hopes without reason, nor fears without reason, someone who constantly resists the overdramatic worldview. As a possibilist, I see all this progress, and it fills me with conviction and hope that further progress is possible. This is not optimistic. It is having a clear and reasonable idea about how things are. It is having a worldview that is constructive and useful.
When people wrongly believe that nothing is improving, they may conclude that nothing we have tried so far is working and lose confidence in measures that actually work. I meet many such people, who tell me they have lost all hope for humanity. Or, they may become radicals, supporting drastic measures that are counter-productive when, in fact, the methods we are already using to improve our world are working just fine.
Take, for example, girls’ education. Educating girls has proven to be one of the world’s best-ever ideas. When women are educated, all kinds of wonderful things happen in societies. The workforce becomes diversified and able to make better decisions and solve more problems. Educated mothers decide to have fewer children and more children survive. More energy and time is invested in each child’s education. It’s a virtuous cycle of change.
Poor parents who can’t afford to send all their children to school have often prioritized the boys. But since 1970 there has been fantastic progress. Across religions, cultures, and continents, almost all parents can now afford to send all their children to school, and are sending their daughters as well as their sons. Now the girls have almost caught up: 90 percent of girls of primary school age attend school. For boys, the figure is 92 percent. There’s almost no difference.
There are still gender differences when it comes to education on Level 1, especially when it comes to secondary and higher education, but that’s no reason to deny the progress that has been made. I see no conflict between celebrating this progress and continuing to fight for more. I am a possibilist. And the progress we have made tells me it’s possible to get all girls in school, and all boys too, and that we should work hard to make it happen. It won’t happen by itself, and if we lose hope because of stupid misconceptions, it might not happen at all. The loss of hope is probably the most devastating consequence of the negativity instinct and the ignorance it causes.
How can we help our brains to realize that things are getting better when everything is screaming at us that things are getting worse?
The solution is not to balance out all the negative news with more positive news. That would just risk creating a self-deceiving, comforting, misleading bias in the other direction. It would be as helpful as balancing too much sugar with too much salt. It would make things more exciting, but maybe even less healthy.
A solution that works for me is to persuade myself to keep two thoughts in my head at the same time.
It seems that when we hear someone say things are getting better, we think they are also saying “don’t worry, relax” or even “look away.” But when I say things are getting better, I am not saying those things at all. I am certainly not advocating looking away from the terrible problems in the world. I am saying that things can be both bad and better.
Think of the world as a premature baby in an incubator. The baby’s health status is extremely bad and her breathing, heart rate, and other important signs are tracked constantly so that changes for better or worse can quickly be seen. After a week, she is getting a lot better. On all the main measures, she is improving, but she still 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. Absolutely. 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 relax and not worry? No, not at all. Is it helpful to have to choose between bad and improving? Definitely not. It’s both. It’s both bad and better. Better, and bad, at the same time.
That is how we must think about the current state of the world.
Something else that helps to control the negativity instinct is to constantly expect bad news.
Remember that the media and activists rely on drama to grab your attention. Remember that negative stories are more dramatic than neutral or positive ones. Remember how simple it is to construct a story of crisis from a temporary dip pulled out of its context of a long-term improvement. Remember that we live in a connected and transparent world where reporting about suffering is better than it has ever been before.
When you hear about something terrible, calm yourself by asking, If there had been an equally large positive improvement, would I have heard about that? Even if there had been hundreds of larger improvements, would I have heard? Would I ever hear about children who don’t drown? Can I see a decrease in child drownings, or in deaths from tuberculosis, out my window, or on the news, or in a charity’s publicity material? Keep in mind that the positive changes may be more common, but they don’t find you. You need to find them. (And if you look in the statistics, they are everywhere.)
This reminder will give you the basic protection to allow you, and your children, to keep watching the news without being carried away into dystopia on a daily basis.
When we hang on to a rose-tinted version of history we deprive ourselves and our children of the truth. The evidence about the terrible past is scary, but it is a great resource. It can help us to appreciate what we have today and provide us with hope that future generations will, as previous generations did, get over the dips and continue the long-term trends toward peace, prosperity, and solutions to our global problems.
Struggling for breath in that ditch full of pee 65 years ago in a working-class suburb in Sweden, little did I know that I would be the first in my family to go to university. Little did I know that I would become a global health professor and travel to Davos and tell the world’s experts that they knew less about basic global trends than chimpanzees.
I didn’t know any basic global trends myself back then, of course. I had to learn them. The only way anyone can know about different causes of death and how they are changing, for example, is to keep track of every death and its cause, write them down, and then add them up. That’s extremely time-consuming. There’s only one such data set in the whole world. It’s named the Global Burden of Disease, and when I consulted it many years later it showed me that my near-death experience was not so special. It was a common type of accident for a child under five living on Level 3.
All I knew was that I was stuck. My grandmother came to the rescue and lifted me up. And then Swedish society lifted me further.