It surprises me that most of us usually think things are worse than they are in the big picture, because we’re awfully good at selective amnesia when it comes to our own lives. Homes in NYC that were demolished by Hurricane Sandy are mostly valued more highly now than right before that disaster, even though they’re located in the exact some lots near the ever-rising sea levels, in the belly of the beast. The buyers are no different than the rest of us who conveniently forget about investment bubbles that went bust and life choices that laid us low. When it comes to our own plans, we can wave away history as a fluke that wouldn’t dare interfere.
When we consider the direction of our nation, however, we often believe hell awaits our handbasket. Why? Maybe because down deep we’re suspicious about the collective, that anything so unwieldy can ever end up well, so we surrender to both recency and confirmations biases, which skew the way we view today and tomorrow.
While I don’t believe the endless flow of information has made us more informed, it is true that by many measures we’re in better shape now than humans ever have been. On that topic, the Economist reviews Johan Norberg’s glass-half-full title, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future. The opening:
HUMANS are a gloomy species. Some 71% of Britons think the world is getting worse; only 5% think it is improving. Asked whether global poverty had fallen by half, doubled or remained the same in the past 20 years, only 5% of Americans answered correctly that it had fallen by half. This is not simple ignorance, observes Johan Norberg, a Swedish economic historian and the author of a new book called “Progress”. By guessing randomly, a chimpanzee would pick the right answer (out of three choices) far more often.
People are predisposed to think that things are worse than they are, and they overestimate the likelihood of calamity. This is because they rely not on data, but on how easy it is to recall an example. And bad things are more memorable. The media amplify this distortion. Famines, earthquakes and beheadings all make gripping headlines; “40m Planes Landed Safely Last Year” does not.
Pessimism has political consequences. Voters who think things were better in the past are more likely to demand that governments turn back the clock. A whopping 81% of Donald Trump’s supporters think life has grown worse in the past 50 years. Among Britons who voted to leave the European Union, 61% believe that most children will be worse off than their parents. Those who voted against Brexit tend to believe the opposite.
Mr Norberg unleashes a tornado of evidence that life is, in fact, getting better.•