Author:Bailey, Ronald

MOST OF YOU think that the world, in general, is getting worse. You are wrong. Citing uncontroversial data on major global trends, I will prove to you that this dark view of humanity's prospects is, in large part, badly mistaken.

First, though: How do I know most of you believe that things are bad and getting worse? Because that's what you tell pollsters. A 2016 survey by the public opinion firm YouGov asked folks in 17 countries, "All things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse, or neither getting better or worse?" Fifty-eight percent answered worse, and 30 percent chose neither. Only 11 percent thought things are getting better. In the United States, 65 percent thought that the world is getting worse and 23 percent said neither. Only 6 percent responded that the world is getting better.

A 2015 study in the journal Futures polled residents of the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Australia; it reported that a majority (54 percent) rated the risk of our way of life ending within the next 100 years at 50 percent or greater, and a quarter (24 percent) rated the risk of humans being wiped out in the next 100 years at 50 percent or greater. Younger respondents were more pessimistic than their elders.

So why are so many smart people like you wrong about the improving state of the world? For starters, almost all of us have a couple of psychological glitches that cause us to focus relentlessly on negative news.

Way back in 1965, Johan Galtung and Mari Holmboe Ruge of the Peace Research Institute Oslo observed "a basic asymmetry in life between the positive, which is difficult and takes time, and the negative, which is much easier and takes less time." They illustrated this by comparing "the amount of time needed to bring up and socialize an adult person and the amount of time needed to kill him in an accident; the amount of time needed to build a house and to destroy it in a fire, to make an airplane and to crash it, and so on." News is bad news; steady, sustained progress is not news.

Smart people seek to be well-informed and so tend to be more voracious consumers of news. Since journalism focuses on dramatic events that go wrong, the nature of news thus tends to mislead readers and viewers into thinking that the world is in worse shape than it really is. This mental shortcut is called the availability bias, a name bestowed on it in 1973 by the behavioral scientists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. "People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory--and this is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media," explains Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Another reason for the ubiquity of mistaken gloom derives from evolutionary psychology. A Stone Age person hears a rustle in the grass. Is it the wind or a lion? If he assumes it's the wind and the rustling turns out to be a lion, then that person does not live to become one of our ancestors. We are the descendants of the worried folks who tended to assume that all rustles in the grass were dangerous predators. Due to this instinctive negativity bias, most of us attend far more to bad rather than to good news.

Of course, not everything is perfect. Big problems remain to be addressed and solved. As the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker says, "it's essential to realize that progress does not mean that everything gets better for everyone, everywhere, all the time. That would be a miracle, that wouldn't be progress."

For example, man-made climate change arising largely from increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide released from the burning of fossil fuels could become a significant problem for humanity during this century. The spread of plastic marine debris is a big and growing concern. Many wild-life populations are declining, and tropical forest area continues to shrink. And far too many people are still malnourished and dying in conflicts around the globe.

But many of those problems are already in the process of being ameliorated. For example, the falling prices of renewable energy sources...

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