There are two biases that seem to be affecting all of us for the worse, that I would like to bring to your attention.
1. The Availability Bias1
We judge the likelihood of events and the state of affairs based on how easily we can recall the data.
Think about this question: Are there more words in the English language that start with ‘r’ or have ‘r’ as the third letter?2
Most people will answer that more words begin with ‘r’.
Why? Because it’s easier to bring them to mind. They roll off the tongue.
Rain, real and rum come to mind much quicker than bird, word or curd.
Our ability to recall data, does not necessarily portray how representative that data really is.
Now another question; are more people fearful of driving or flying?
This one isn’t a trick. Many of us find ourselves travelling on roads on a day to day basis. We have integrated driving into our lives and consider it routine. It’s well known that there is an increased fear of flying compared to driving – but is it justified?
When an incident happens on a plane – like a terrorist attack – it is broadcast on the news all over the world. When thousands die on roads every year, it simply becomes another statistic.
The fact of the matter is: you are around 800 times more likely to be killed in a car crash than in a terrorist attack3.
After 9/11, a widespread fear of flying developed causing a spike in the number of people opting to choose road travel over air. If statistics mean anything, we can say with high probability that this led to numerous deaths that would not have happened otherwise. People have mistaken the events that come to memory easily, for events that are actually more likely to actually happen – and they have suffered for it4. This is the Availability bias.
2. The Negativity Bias
If we are exposed to two equivalent pieces of data, one being negative and the other being positive. The negative one will have more impact and emotional salience on us.
If a dear loved one passes away, we can be in grief for years. There would be many that would say that such an event impacted them for the remainder of their lives, or even that they were never able to fully recover.
If a very close person has their life saved by averting danger or disease, we would definitely be inspired and exquisitely relieved for some time afterwards. However life must go on, and very few people will find themselves thanking their lucky stars for the rest of their biological lives. On the contrary it is far more likely they will resume complaints about the mundane – minor inconveniences in their day to day lives – rather than marvel at the wonder of even being alive.
Why is this the case? A life lost and a life saved should be the same net value: One life.
Yet what a psychological difference they make; one of them we would hold onto for the rest of our lives and the other we will happily allow to slide away into the abyss known as the forgotten past.
The negativity bias not only applies to impactful life altering events but also to the trivialities of day to day life, and even to the information we absorb from the media and our social circles. Many good things could happen to us in a single day and we’ll take them for granted, and yet a single unpleasant encounter and we’ll declare the day ruined. A person we encounter may have been nothing but kind to us and then after a single mistake or negative incident, our opinion of them is tarnished forever.
We eat well for months on end and then get upset simply because one meal isn’t perfectly to our liking. We enjoy months on end of health and then become disillusioned with a sore throat or a cough. We can have fast, stable internet for weeks on end and then allow a temporary slowdown to ruin our evening. The comedian Louis C.K5 once remarked on how perverse it was for a person to be agitated over their mobile internet being slow.
“It’s talking to space, can you like give it a second?6”
We ignore, forget, filter out and take for granted all the good we witness in the world and hold onto the bad. We often do this under the pretense of seeing the world as it really is, accepting the cold hard truths, being a realist.
I believe that this negativity bias may have arisen from another well documented psychological flaw in our mental make up – the confirmation bias7. The fact that we seek out and are more likely to remember information that supports our existing worldviews rather than information that would challenge it. We have an intuition that the world is a bad place to live or that people are inherently selfish and we try our best to justify these intuitions. We act motivated to harden ourselves out of a fear of being disappointed or disillusioned, rather than a simple, honest desire to see our state of affairs as it actually is.
I have explained to you these two biases because I believe they have dealt tangible harm to our collective psyche. They have poisoned both our minds and hearts. Our minds because they separate us from seeing reality as it actually is and our hearts because they sap away the positivity from our lives, causing us to mistake the cynical lens through which we view the world with the actual world itself.
These two biases work together and amplify each other’s effects on our thinking. This results in a vicious feedback loop that goes something like this:
- 1. The Negativity bias causes bad news to impact us more than good news
- 2. The media industry depends on capturing our attention and is incentivised to focus on the most negative news
- 3. All of us that consume the media now can much more easily recall bad things happening much quicker than we can recall good things
- 4. Because of the Availability bias, we mistake the ease in which we can recall bad news with the actual state of the world as it is
- 5. This solidifies our view of the world and other humans as bad, which causes us to be more likely to seek negative information to reinforce it, which starts the whole cycle all over again…
You may be wondering why I have written all this. Why I have taken the time to explain to you all these biases that colour the way we perceive our lives? I would like you all to invest the energy to try and look past them, and I believe that if you do you can improve the moment to moment experience of this world.
Recently I have had an experience that has left me feeling completely and utterly inspired. I have come across a certain book that has given me an extraordinary level of pleasure.
That book is the wonderful Steven Pinker’s8 Enlightenment Now: A Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress9.
In it he has made the extremely strong case for the reality of human progress. Throughout human history, our circumstances have improved, time and time again. We are living longer, healthier, happier, freer lives and are better educated, entertained and much smarter. The effort to improve the world for others and ourselves isn’t a futile, pointless struggle but important work with potentially far reaching positive consequences.
You know, instead of appealing to our confirmation bias the media could have actually reported that 138, 000 people escaped from poverty yesterday? And it could have reported this every single day for the last 30 years10.
Is the world getting better or worse?
When answering this question we need look past our own biases and the skew of the media and look at actual trends of how society and our lives are actually changing. If you would like to have a look at the trends the world is following I highly recommend you pay a visit to Max Roser’s website Our World in Data. It captures a whole host of trends that we tend to care about and portrays a picture of where the world seems to be going.
I believe the world clearly has been improving, and is a better place today than it was yesterday. However, I may not be the best person to convince you of this.
The following is one of my favourite passages from Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Read it and ask yourself; is the world really so bad?
Since the Enlightenment11 unfolded in the late 18th century, life expectancy across the world has risen from 30 to 71, and in the more fortunate countries to 81. When the Enlightenment began, a third of children born in the richest parts of the world died before their fifth birthday; today, that fate befalls 6 percent of the children in the poorest parts. Their mothers, too, were freed from tragedy: one percent in the richest countries did not live to see their newborns, a rate triple that of the poorest countries today, which continues to fall. In those poor countries, lethal infectious diseases are in steady decline, some of them afflicting just a few dozen people a year, soon to follow smallpox into extinction.
The poor may not always be with us. The world is about a hundred times wealthier today than it was two centuries ago, and the prosperity is becoming more evenly distributed across the world’s countries and people. The proportion of humanity living in extreme poverty has fallen from almost 90 percent to less than 10 percent, and within the lifetimes of most of the readers of this book it could approach zero. Catastrophic famine, never far away in most of human history, has vanished from most of the world, and undernourishment and stunting are in steady decline. A century ago, richer countries devoted one percent of their wealth to supporting children, the poor, and the aged; today they spend almost a quarter of it. Most of their poor today are fed, clothed, and sheltered, and have luxuries like smartphones and air-conditioning that used to be unavailable to anyone, rich or poor. Poverty among racial minorities has fallen, and poverty among the elderly has plunged.
The world is giving peace a chance. War between countries is obsolescent, and war within countries is absent from five-sixths of the world’s surface. The proportion of people killed annually in wars is less than a quarter of what it was in the 1980s, a seventh of what it was in the early 1970s, an eighteenth of what it was in the early 1950s, and a half percent of what it was during World War II.
Genocides, once common, have become rare. In most times and places, homicides kill far more people than wars, and homicide rates have been falling as well. Americans are half as likely to be murdered as they were two dozen years ago. In the world as a whole, people are seven-tenths as likely to be murdered as they were eighteen years ago.
Life has been getting safer in every way. Over the course of the 20th century Americans became 96 percent less likely to be killed in a car accident, 88 percent less likely to be mowed down on the pavement, 99 percent less likely to die in a plane crash, 59 percent less likely to fall to their deaths, 92 percent less likely to be asphyxiated, and 95 percent less likely to be killed on the job. Life in other rich countries is even safer, and life in poorer countries will get safer as they get richer.
People are not getting just healthier, richer, and safer but freer. Two centuries ago a handful of countries, embracing one percent of the world’s people, were democratic; today, two-thirds of the world’s countries, embracing two-thirds of its people, are. Not long ago half the world’s countries had laws that discriminated against racial minorities; today more countries have policies that favor their minorities than policies that discriminate against them. At the turn of the 20th century, women could vote in just one country; today they can vote in every country where men can vote save one12. Laws that criminalize homosexuality continue to be stricken down, and attitudes toward minorities, women, and gay people are becoming steadily more tolerant, particularly among the young, a portent of the world’s future. Hate crimes, violence against women and the victimization of children are all in long-term decline, as is the exploitation of children for their labor.
People are putting their longer, healthier, safer, freer, richer and wiser lives to good use. Americans work 22 fewer hours a week than they used to, have three weeks of paid vacation, lose 43 fewer hours to housework, and spend just a third of their paycheck on necessities rather than five-eighths. They are using their leisure and disposable income to travel, spend time with their children, connect with loved ones, and sample the world’s cuisine, knowledge and culture. As a result of these gifts, people worldwide have become happier. Even Americans, who take their food fortune for granted, are “pretty happy” or happier, and the younger generations are becoming less unhappy, lonely, depressed, drug-addicted, and suicidal.
As societies have become healthier, wealthier, freer, happier, and better educated, they have set their sights on the most pressing global challenges. They have emitted fewer pollutants, cleared fewer forests, spilled less oil, set aside more preserves, extinguished fewer species, save the ozone layer, and peaked in their consumption of oil, farmland, timber, paper, cards, coal and perhaps even carbon. For all their differences, the world’s nations came to a historic agreement on climate change, as they did in previous years on nuclear testing, proliferation, security, and disarmament. Nuclear weapons, since the extraordinary circumstances of the closing days of World War II, have not been used in the seventy-two years they have existed.
Nuclear terrorism, in defiance of forty years of expert predictions, has never happened. The world’s nuclear stockpiles have been reduced by 85 percent, with more reductions to come, and testing has ceased (except by the tiny rogue regime in Pyongyang) and proliferation has frozen. The world’s two most pressing problems, then, though not yet solved, are solvable: practicable long-term agendas have been laid out for eliminating nuclear weapons and for mitigating climate change.
For all the bleeding headlines, for all the crises, collapses, scandals, plagues, epidemics, and existential threats, these are accomplishments to savor. The Enlightenment is working: for two and a half centuries, people have used knowledge to enhance human flourishing. Scientists have exposed the working of matter, life, and the mind. Inventors have harnessed the laws of nature to defy entropy, and entrepreneurs have made people better off by discouraging acts that are individually beneficial but collectively harmful. Diplomats have done the same with nations. Scholars have perpetuated the treasury of knowledge and augmented the power of reason. Artists have expanded the circle of sympathy. Activists have pressured the powerful to overturn repressive measures, and their fellow citizens to change repressive norms. All these efforts have been channeled into institutions that have allowed us to circumvent the flaws of human nature and empower our better angels.
Maybe the world isn’t so bad after all. Perhaps the efforts of people all across the world to improve it, aren’t necessarily in vain. We should resist our cynical impulses and be slower to condemn those working for a better tomorrow as being fundamentally naive, delusional optimists, impractical idealists or hopeless dreamers.
In closing I would like to answer one question, namely; why is the banner for this article a cityscape?13
Many people in our society view modernity with distaste. They view a city as symbolic for human greed, materialism and an obsession with progress. They long nostalgically for a simpler time long past and point to technology and progress as having eroded our basic humanity and turned us into soulless machines. That in our pursuit for a better world we have reached a point in which we are more alone, disconnected and worse off than ever before. I hope you now realise that this is simply not the case. By virtually every measure we are better off than our ancestors, and as the columnist Franklin Pierce14 once said:
“Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.”
When you take a walk through a city, you are surrounded by marvels of human ingenuity that have produced a world completely unfathomable to anyone only a few centuries ago. Technology, civilisation and modernity are wonderful things that have improved our lives incredibly over such a short period of time. Instead of dwelling upon how bad you think things have gotten, why not look over the long arc of human history and contemplate to yourself – how far we have come.
- The Availabilty bias is closely related to the concept in cognitive psychology known as loss aversion. That we are more averse to losses than we are happy to receive equivalent gains. That losing a hundred dollars would make us feel worse than how much gaining a hundred dollars makes us feel better.
- I didn’t come up with this question. This is a question commonly invoked to demonstrate the principle of the Availability bias. It was first asked in an experiment posed by the eminent psychologists Daniel Kahnerman and Amos Tversky.
- If you are more interested in comparing the likelihood of dying in a car crash vs dying of a normal plane crash; it appears to be at least more than fifty times likely. Closer to a hundred times. I made the comparison between dying in a car crash and terrorism as a whole because I believe terrorism is a major part of why people are afraid of flying. About the number itself, it’s from a certain book I mention in this piece. If you have reason to believe it is inaccurate, I am all ears.
- There is this pernicious belief that even if the data suggests things are getting better, it is a good idea to raise alarm and increase fear and paranoia in the interests of taking precaution and staying on the safe side. Well, this is a clear example that demonstrates that this is not the case. Being driven by fear (when unwarranted) can indeed produce worse outcomes for everyone.
- Yes, I am well aware of the sexual misconduct instigated by Louis C.K. I would like to point out a few things though. First of all, quoting a person does not mean I agree with everything they have said and done. Second, poor ethical behaviour does not magically make a comedian’s jokes unfunny or insights less relevant.
- Alright, the real quote is “It’s going to space…”. I replaced going with talking to have it read better and make more sense in context. I hope this isn’t an egregious case of misrepresentation…
- I want to add here that I don’t think that you guys are all flawed humans, shrouded in biases while I am some kind of mystical being free of them. I am but an ordinary human being, complete with the full psychological make up of one, flaws and all. I can and often do make mistakes. All I am claiming is that we should try our best to be less influenced by our biased and more influenced by reason. We may never become perfectly rational, but we could certainly be more rational.
- Steven Pinker is a brilliant, intelligent Cognitive Psychologist and Linguist from Canada. He is Bill Gates’ favourite author and an all around positive and insightful person. Check out his latest TED talk here.
- Yes, you should definitely read it.
- This is on average. In the last 25 years over 1.2 billion people escaped extreme poverty. This makes the mean per day amount 138,000 per day. A truly impressive and under appreciated human achievement. These numbers comes from this aforementioned website.
- The Enlightenment was a revolution in thinking and philosophy that arose among Western Intellectuals in the eighteenth century. The book Pinker’s book argues that much of the peace and prosperity we experience today is a result of the ideals of the Enlightenment, which he identifies as reason, science, humanism and progress.
- One hundred years ago, the only country in which women could vote alongside men was New Zealand. Today the only country in the world in which men can vote but women cannot is Vatican City.
- Not that anyone asked, but apparently it’s San Diego.
- Pinker has attributed this quote to him in Enlightenment Now. The source of the quote isn’t of much interest to me, but rather its content.