COVID-19, Psychology

Beware Your Innate Pessimist

With the COVID-19 lockdown upon us, anxiety and depression are on the rise. It would be irresponsible to downplay the risks that the novel coronavirus poses to America’s health and economy. But excessive pessimism is also in no one’s interest. Problems and their purported solutions must be evaluated dispassionately. Evidence, reason, and science rather than intuition or emotion must guide us during this difficult moment.

Unfortunately, some of our most basic impulses evolved at a time when the world was very different from the one we now inhabit. “Our modern skulls house a stone age mind,” note Leda Cosmides and John Tooby from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Consequently, that mind can mislead us as we address today’s problems, including those of anxiety and depression, in ways that can have unintended and harmful consequences.

What sort of “habits of the mind” have we developed over the hundreds of millennia we spent living in a world that was more inhospitable than our own?

First, we have evolved to prioritize bad news. “Organisms that treat threats as more urgent than opportunities have a better chance to survive and reproduce,” wrote the eminent Princeton University psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow. This powerful impulse can deceive even the most dispassionate and rational observers. As Marc Trussler and Stuart Soroka from McGill University in Canada found in their 2014 paper ‘Consumer Demand for Cynical and Negative News,’ even when people insist that they are interested in more good news, eye tracking experiments show that they are in fact much more interested in bad news. “Regardless of what participants say,” the authors of the study conclude, people “exhibit a preference for negative news content.”

Second, as the Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker noted in his 2018 book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, the nature of cognition and the nature of news interact in ways that make us think that the world is worse than it really is. News, after all, is about things that happen. Things that did not happen go unreported. As he points out, we “never see a reporter saying to the camera, ‘Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out.’” Newspapers and other media, in other words, tend to focus on the negative. As the old journalistic adage goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Third, the media seldom provide a “compared to what” analysis or put terrible events in their “proper” context. Coronavirus is deadly, but it is not the bubonic plague, which had a mortality rate of 50 percent, or the septicemic plague, which had a mortality rate of 100 percent. Luckily for the long-term wellbeing of our species, we have been re-awakened to the mortal danger posed by communicable diseases by a far milder virus. Hopefully, human and financial resources will be deployed by governments and the private sector to ensure that next time we are ready. Laws will be changed and regulations streamlined to ensure that we are nimbler in responding to future emergencies.

Fourth, the arrival of social media makes bad news immediate and more intimate. Until relatively recently, most people knew very little about the countless wars, plagues, famines, and natural catastrophes happening in distant parts of the world. In 1759, the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

The most frivolous disaster which could befall [a man] himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

But greater awareness about the suffering of others provided by mass media and the Internet also allows us to come to their assistance and co-ordinate a response. Additionally, the Internet is enabling some of us to work while maintaining social distance, as well as providing countless hours of material to watch and listen to and read as we await the end of lockdown in our homes.

Fifth, the human brain tends to overestimate danger due to what psychologists call “the availability heuristic” or a process of estimating the probability of an event based on the ease with which relevant instances come to mind. Unfortunately, human memory recalls events for reasons other than their rate of occurrence. When an event turns up because it is traumatic, the human brain will overestimate how likely it is to recur. Right now, tens of thousands of people are fighting for their lives with the help of ventilators. Others have lost that fight. While that outcome is tragic, don’t immediately assume that that’s the fate that awaits you. To keep depression and anxiety at bay, bear in mind that tens of thousands of people are on the mend.

Sixth, as psychologists Roy Baumeister from the University of Queensland and Ellen Bratslavsky from Cuyahoga Community College found, “bad is stronger than good.” Consider how much happier you can imagine yourself feeling. Then consider: how much more dejected can you imagine yourself to feel? The answer to the latter question is: infinitely. Research shows that people fear losses more than they delight in gains; harp on setbacks more than they relish successes; resent criticism more than they feel encouraged by praise. Try not to dwell on the worst case COVID-19 scenarios and always remember that, statistically-speaking, most people have a good chance of getting through the pandemic without so much as exhibiting minor symptoms of the sickness.

Seventh, good and bad things tend to happen on different timelines. Bad things, such as the outbreak of a pandemic, can happen quickly. Good things, such as the strides humanity has made in the fight against HIV/AIDS, tend to happen incrementally and over a long period of time. As Kevin Kelly from Wired magazine put it in his book The Inevitable:

Ever since the Enlightenment and the invention of Science, we’ve managed to create a tiny bit more than we’ve destroyed each year. But that few percent positive difference is compounded over decades in to what we might call civilization… [Progress] is a self-cloaking action seen only in retrospect.

To that end, remember that our species has eradicated or almost eradicated smallpox, cholera, typhoid, measles, polio, and whooping cough. We have made great progress in our struggle against malaria and HIV/AIDS. And the speed of our successes is increasing. The earliest credible evidence of smallpox comes from India in 1500 BC. The disease was eradicated in 1980. That’s 3,500 years of suffering. In 1980, we started to learn about HIV/AIDS. By 1995, we had the first generation of drugs that kept infected people alive. That’s 15 years of suffering. The Ebola epidemic raged between 2014 and 2016. The first Ebola vaccine was approved in the United States in December 2019. That’s five years of suffering. Last December, the coronavirus did not have a name. Today, human trials for the coronavirus vaccine are underway throughout the world.

Eighth, humans also suffer from a psychological quirk known by such names as “turning-point-itis,” pessimism extrapolation, or the end of history illusion. As the former Wall Street Journal financial columnist Morgan Housel observed, even people who are aware of the progress that humanity has made in the past, “underestimate our ability to change in the future.” “If you underestimate our ability to adapt to unsustainable situations,” he noted, “you’ll find all kinds of things that currently look bad and can be extrapolated into disastrous. Extrapolate college tuition increases and it’ll be prohibitively expensive in 10 years. Extrapolate government deficits and we’ll be bankrupt in 30 years. Extrapolate a recession and we’ll be broke before long. All of these could be reasons for pessimism if you assume no future change or adaptation. Which is crazy, given our long history of changing and adapting.” Indeed. Humans have changed and adapted in the past and we shall do so and thrive once more.

If we bear these eight biases in mind as we assess the world around us, it can help us to keep our spirits up during this challenging time. Humans, unlike other members of the animal kingdom, are intelligent beings uniquely capable of innovating their way out of pressing problems. We have developed sophisticated forms of cooperation that increase our chances not only to survive, but to prosper. There are, in other words, rational grounds for optimism about the future. And while it is true that, as the financial brokers like to say, past performance is no guide to future performance, recall the words of the British historian and statesman Thomas Babington Macaulay, who wrote in 1830:

In every age everybody knows that up to his own time, progressive improvement has been taking place; nobody seems to reckon on any improvement in the next generation. We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who say society has reached a turning point – that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us and with just as much apparent reason… On what principle is it that with nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?

As we go through the COVID-19 lockdown together, it is important to remember all the different ways in which the human mind can misinform and mislead. We are members of a species that’s always on the lookout for danger and this predisposition toward the negative provides a market for purveyors of bad news. The negativity bias is deeply ingrained in our brains. It cannot be wished away. The best that we can do is to realize that we are suffering from it.


Marian L. Tupy is editor of HumanProgress and a senior policy analyst at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash.


  1. O death where is thy sting, O grave where is thy victory

  2. Do we really know how stone age people thought about things?

  3. Speaking of that, where are the economic models to compliment the medical models?

    How many permanent unemployed, how many new homeless, if the shutdowns continue intermittently for 30, 90, 120 days, a full year?

    Someone must have done the math by now.

  4. Apparently you have not talked to a lot of voters.

  5. The reason for pessimism is we scan for potential danger. Pessimism is not necessarily a bad thing. Optimism is not necessarily a good thing. I used to be an idealist. I worked in media for many,many years (which is one of the reasons I was and am very skeptical about the true danger of the coronavirus). While many might agree with the writer that the world is always getting better, albeit incrementally, my experience is that it oscillates. Once upon a time, circa 1980, Venezuela was envied for its economy. It’s irredeemably Third World now. The international community beamed when Zimbabwe became independent but, of course, Robert Mugabe proved a great deal more evil than Ian Smith. You can say slavery is over, but child labor and sweatshops are rampant. The internet was initially forecast as an instrument for democracy, everyone would have a voice. However, now, the internet is used for surveillance. Google deliberately distorts searches and social justice warriors persecute those not in line with their dogma. I’m not saying there aren’t improvements in the world, but it’s not simply a smooth upward slope. It’s more jagged than that. While I am a coronavirus skeptic, I am certain that the lockdowns will result in an economic mess of major proportion. I am also fairly confident that the same media that encouraged panic over the coronavirus will castigate governments for overreacting to the coronavirus a year from now.

  6. No one can. What they can do is… er, model :grinning: Economic models are a good deal less reliable than epidemiological models, and the latter have proven not reliable. All that can be said is, a great deal of pain will follow. And, death will follow probably----less in advanced economies, but a whole lot more in poor countries.

  7. Yeah, “modeling”. I’ve come to see that as the mathematical equivalent of interpretive dance.

  8. As someone who spent a good deal of his career doing math modeling, all I can say to that attitude is :+1::+1::+1::slight_smile:

  9. Modeling … being an engineer (this was many, many years ago) who was interested in “control systems”, the second thing I learned was that your (mathematical) model is only as good as your understanding of the system you’re trying to model. Initial assumptions related to something like an aircraft wing might include factors such as weather, airspeed, purpose of the wing (eg. transport/fighter/civilian applications),cold, heat, icing, deformation, aging.

    Assumptions are based on previous experience gleaned from experience with previous designs. What can you ignore, which characteristics can’t be ignored, how many things you can estimate with a fair degree of certainty. So you build the wing and then test it in a wind tunnel.

    And you discover that some of your assumptions were wrong. Rethink. Try again. Several times.

    Then you put the wing on the aircraft and test it. Not quite right. Rethink. Try again. Several times.

    For those who forecast economic conditions, weather and climate, stock and other markets, this is a mug’s game. It doesn’t matter how fast your computers are or how good your coders are. Unless you have a really good understanding of what your modeling, of the math behind the model and of the validity of your assumptions and, let’s be honest, your guesses, the resulting model will be at best misleading and at worst, wrong.

  10. A model with no predictive ability is near worthless. This is yet another part that I detest about the media, they trot out these pseudo-scientific models to bolster an agenda. Generally computer models have numerous assumptions and shortcuts and only by comparing to physical scale models or real-world experiments can they be refined for useful results. If the model cannot even match data that is already known, then it is of no use in predicting what is not known.

  11. Beyond the cognitive tricks our brains play upon us, the fact that many in the West suffer from a purpose void, particularly in the Anglosphere, must surely also be a factor. In a Viktor Frankl interview I recently watched, he explained that the crisis of meaning which many experience, is made worse when the individual is raised in a society that largely believes in a deterministic universe, in which we are all just sums of our genetics and our environments.

    Perhaps it is better in some ways to be ignorant of the deterministic worldview, in that it can rob us of our sense of agency and personal autonomy- because without the belief that we are the masters of our fate, even liberty becomes a questionable concept. But as Viktor Frankl reminds us, even if we are subject to the whims of a cold deterministic universe and find ourselves in the direst of straits, we still have the personal choice to decide how we will face whatever adversity comes our way.

    by William Ernest Henley

    Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the pit from pole to pole,
    I thank whatever gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul.

    In the fell clutch of circumstance
    I have not winced nor cried aloud.
    Under the bludgeonings of chance
    My head is bloody, but unbowed.

    Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    Looms but the Horror of the shade,
    And yet the menace of the years
    Finds and shall find me unafraid.

    It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll,
    I am the master of my fate,
    I am the captain of my soul.

  12. I really appreciate this article. There is no doubt many of us are prey to this instinctive pessimism. However, I believe there’s a corresponding bury-your-head-in-the-sand attitude too, where people refuse to acknowledge true danger (and end up dead from the chinese virus).

    The same person might believe (1) that due to climate change the world will become unlivable in ten years and (2) that China or open borders represent no threat. I suspect we all walk around half Cassandra/half Pollyanna. What we choose to see as bad is always a choice on some level.

  13. I must have watched every episode of the Flintstones as a kid in the late 60s and early 70s, and as such I feel very well versed on what the stone age folks were thinking. Among other things, to spend that extra found cash on a new bowling ball or fishing rod before the wife squanders it on a new dress.

    I’m also up to speed on the thinking of future humans due to my total absorption of the Jetsons.

  14. Carl Jung (from Modern Man in Search of a Soul) believes we are fundamentally not different from archaic man; we just have more scientific explanations for reality.
    He spent a lot of time living among primitive societies in Africa and the Americas, spoke Spanish and Swahili and came to be trusted and respected by the people. He had some fascinating stories and insights but the best way I can think of understanding it is by observing the people that think in this way living among us today - the astrologers and the conspiracy theorists. To foster plausibility they sometimes attempt to overlay their beliefs with a veneer of science but it’s really the same impulse as the archaic man. Everything is down to unseen forces, by connecting the dots the wise shaman (David Icke?) can discover and reveal the “Truth”.
    It’s driven by hunger to understand and thus reduce the chaos of reality with a comforting explanation; in the absence (or rejection) of science you can’t just have nothing or you’d be completely lost.
    Jordan Peterson covers a lot of this in Maps of Meaning, The Architecture of Belief, I’m working my way through that extraordinary book.

Continue the discussion in Quillette Circle

133 more replies