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The Seven Laws of Pessimism

If life is better than ever before, why does the world seem so depressing?

· 16 min read
The Seven Laws of Pessimism

Have we just lived through one of the best years in human history? As we look at 2023 through the rearview mirror, I think that’s a defensible claim. In fact, the same thing could have been said at the end of pretty much every year since the beginning of the millennium (with the exception of the disastrous pandemic years of 2020 and 2021). Never before have so many people lived in affluence, safety, and good health.

And yet, it doesn’t feel that way. There’s so much horror and misery in the world—look at the situations in Ukraine, Gaza, Sudan, and Yemen alone—that it is hard to believe that, on average, this past year was probably the best year ever. So, if life is better than ever before, why does the world seem so depressing?

One culprit is the media. Every good editor knows that “if it bleeds, it leads.” If the newspapers only focus on awful things and ignore all the good stuff, is it any wonder that people end up believing that the world is going down the drain?

Still, it’s not as if there has ever been a secret boardroom meeting in which the editors-in-chief of all the newspapers and TV stations agreed on a sinister scheme to make us all feel gloomier. And some journalists are making efforts to balance out horrible news with more hopeful stories. Yet, negativity seems hard to avoid, and the few media platforms that focus on good news have not been successes. Most people prefer mainstream news outlets, which dutifully report everything that is going wrong in the world—especially if it can be blamed on the other side of the political aisle.

But there are more fundamental reasons why almost all news outlets display a negativity bias. To understand why news is almost invariably depressing—and why Rolf Dobelli is right that you probably shouldn’t read it—I’ve drawn up a list of Seven Laws of Pessimism. Some of the underlying principles will be familiar to anyone who has read the work of progress thinkers like Steven Pinker, Hans Rosling, Hannah Ritchie, and Johan Norberg, while others are more obscure. Hopefully, this list will work as an antidote whenever excessive news consumption makes you feel despondent.

1. The Law of the Invisibility of Good News: Progress happens gradually and imperceptibly, while regress happens all at once and immediately grabs our attention.

If an event happens at a clearly defined place and moment in time and affects a lot of people at once, it will almost certainly involve something awful: a devastating earthquake, a suicide bomber attack, a stock market crash, a tsunami, a political coup, an oil spill, or the like. Breaking news is often quite literally about things breaking down or being broken. This follows from the second law of thermodynamics: all other things being equal, the universe tends towards disorder; it’s much easier to destroy than to build.

Most people who begin life desperately poor gradually improve their circumstances—but one disaster can send them right back to where they started. Over the past 30 years, 130,000 people have escaped extreme poverty every day. These people didn’t wake up one morning to discover that they were no longer poor. But some people do wake up to find that they have lost everything because their house has burned down, an invading army has pillaged their town, or a storm has destroyed their harvest.

Scientific Progress and the Culture Wars
Luckily for sane people everywhere, project insiders have so far refrained from going to the media and dishing on which team members did or didn’t pull their own weight.

In any event, those 130,000 people who have escaped poverty are a statistical abstraction, and you can’t interview statistical abstractions on the evening news. To find out about progress, we need to consult statisticians who comb through data and make subtle points with boring graphs. To find out about regression, just switch on the TV.

In addition, since declines in violence and other forms of misery tend to be gradual and imperceptible, while temporary upticks tend to be sudden and abrupt, the latter are more likely to grab media attention. As Steven Pinker writes:

If you ignore all the years in which an indicator of some problem declines, and report every uptick (since, after all, it’s “news”), readers will come away with the impression that life is getting worse and worse even as it gets better and better.

Good news is at its most invisible when it is simply the absence of bad news, as is often the case. Every day, there are countless disasters that could have transpired but didn’t: planes that landed safely, volcanoes that didn’t erupt, terrorists who failed to strike. But you’ll never see the headline “BREAKING NEWS: No traffic accidents, hijackings, or gas explosions in Brussels today.”

Human progress is dependent on incremental improvements afforded by infrastructure that quietly hums away in the background, invisible until something goes wrong. Or as my Roots of Progress fellow writer Jeremy Côté puts it: “Progress transforms problems into invisible infrastructure.”

2. The Law of The Velocity of Bad News: Nothing travels faster than the speed of light, except bad news.

In the world of Douglas Adams’ 1978 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Nothing travels faster than the speed of light, with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws.” (The Hingefreel people of Arkintoofle Minor tried building spaceships powered by bad news, but these had to be abandoned because they proved “extremely unwelcome” wherever they went.)

In our universe, too, bad news travels exceptionally fast—especially since the age of mass communication. 

Imagine what would have happened had a devastating tsunami struck South-East Asia 500 years ago, during the time of Erasmus. People in Western Europe would have learned nothing about this tragedy, except perhaps some vague and unverifiable stories, told months later by a returning traveler who survived the destruction or sent dispatches back home. But when a similar tsunami hit in 2011, you could watch footage of the devastation on social media within minutes, and within half an hour it was featured in a news segment on CNN, which was watched across the globe.

No matter how much progress the world achieves, there will always be enough catastrophes to fill the evening news. If you rummage through a large enough haystack, you’re bound to find a few needles. And because our brains rely on the availability heuristic—i.e., we tend to estimate the probability of an event based on how easy it is to bring similar events to mind—we massively overestimate the occurrence rates of carjackings, terrorist attacks, brutal murders, shark attacks, and pretty much every catastrophe. For a more realistic perspective, Johan Norberg recommends only following local news, in order to shrink your frame of reference back down to the size it would have been before the age of telecommunication: “Since they only cover a very small geographical area, it is more difficult for them to find horrible stories.”

Nobody exploits the Law of the Velocity of Bad News more effectively than terrorists, which also explains why terrorism is a quintessentially modern phenomenon. Terrorists cannot usually physically harm more than a few dozen people at a time (9/11 was an exception). But they can terrify millions in one fell swoop, especially if they target famous locations that millions of people have visited. As the political scientist James L. Payne explains: “With the terrorism of modern times, publicity is the focus of the violent deed. Perpetrators are aiming for mass media coverage.”

Some people have suggested that we should therefore stop reporting terrorist attacks, or at least refrain from showing gruesome images, especially at famous landmarks. This sounds like a good idea in principle—but can you imagine what would happen if terrorists gunned down dozens of people at a music concert (as they did at the Bataclan in Paris in November 2015) and French newspapers didn’t report the massacre, or failed to publish any images of it? The public would be outraged and would stop buying that newspaper. The problem here is demand, not supply.

So, why are we so eager to consume horrific news in the first place? What kind of sick perverts are we?

3. The Law of Rubbernecking: The more gruesome the news, the more we lap it up.

Why do so many drivers crane their necks to look at a car accident on the other side of the road (a phenomenon known as “rubbernecking”)? Most people do not enjoy the spectacle of bloody and mangled corpses. Nevertheless, we’re irresistibly drawn to it—just as many of us are drawn to news about terrorist attacks and even click on videos of the resulting massacres. (I’ve seen far more Islamic State videos than is good for my mental health).

It’s not that we’re perverts or sadists; it’s just that we have been programmed by evolution to pay attention to really bad things, especially if they invoke what psychologists call “dread risk,” because they affect large numbers of people at the same time (examples include plane crashes and terrorist attacks).

Why did evolution program us that way? Because bad news, on average, has far more serious fitness consequences than good news. If your ancestors were lucky on a particular day, they might have managed to hunt down a large animal, or encountered an unexpected mating opportunity, thus raising their fitness by a few increments. But any unlucky day might very well have been their last. This brings us back to our first law: it’s much easier to screw things up than to improve them. One momentary lapse of attention can bring your fitness down to zero—if you fall off the edge of a cliff, end up in the jaws of a predator, or are bludgeoned to death by a rival tribe. A 2023 study in Nature Human Behavior that analyzed more than 100,000 different variations of news stories recently confirmed what everyone suspected all along: headlines featuring negative words get more clicks than those containing positive ones. Whenever we see something horrible, it’s as if our genes were collectively yelling in our ears: “Pay attention lest this happen to you!” There but for the grace of statistical improbability go I.

This also explains why, even in times of peace and prosperity, many people become spell-bound by prophets of doom who predict imminent catastrophe. As John Stuart Mill proclaimed in a speech of 1828: “I have observed that not the man who hopes, when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” Or, as satirist Tom Lehrer more pithily put it in a 2006 interview: “Always predict the worst and you’ll be hailed as a prophet.”

4. The Law of Conservation of Outrage: No matter how much progress the world is achieving, the total amount of outrage remains constant.

As societies become safer and more prosperous, we demand more of them, and gradually raise the bar for what is considered “safe” or “prosperous.” As a result, even though fewer disasters are happening than ever before, people still have the impression that the world is going downhill. Another Roots of Progress fellow, Fin Moorhouse, has compared this effect to an auditory illusion called “Shepard tone,” in which your ears hear a note as a gradually descending tone while, in reality, it remains at the same pitch. Also, the more infrequently we hear bad news, the more shocked we are when we do.

This isn’t a problem, per se. One of the benefits of progress is that you can afford to be more demanding of the world; we don’t have to tolerate the same levels of misery and suffering that we once did. But if you don’t realize that you’ve been raising your own standards, you may get the impression that the world is steadily getting worse and worse. This results in the conservation of outrage: no matter how much progress the world is achieving, the total amount of kvetching and whining will stay roughly constant, as we see when affluent people complain about first world problems like delayed flights or malfunctioning Wi-Fi.

The conservation principle shows up in other domains as well. It seems to be how our brains are wired. A 2018 study in Science by David Levari et al. showed that what they call “prevalence-induced concept change” even influences basic perception. Subjects were asked how many dots in a consecutive series were a specific color (for instance, blue). As long as the frequency of blue dots remained constant, people accurately reported the number of blue dots. But when the blue dots became less frequent over time, people didn’t count fewer blue dots. Instead, they expanded their definition of “blueness” to include purple dots as well. Researchers have observed the same phenomenon with other stimuli, too. As angry faces become less frequent, people start interpreting neutral faces as angry. And when unethical requests become rare, people start seeing innocuous requests as unethical. The researchers conclude: “The fact that concepts grow larger when their instances grow smaller may be one source of [societal] pessimism.”

Like Alice and the Red Queen in Through the Looking-Glass, although we keep running forward, we feel as though we are standing still (or even sliding backwards). When I review a stack of student essays, the ones that were submitted last (which tend to be rushed and therefore poorly written) are on top of the pile. So, the quality of the essays improves as I read through the pile. Without even realizing it, I start raising my bar as I mark, and I have to recalibrate my grades at the end, otherwise I grade the better essays too harshly (or the early ones too leniently).

Some people even “seek a steady supply of new things to get angry about in order to maintain a pre-set level of disgust with the world,” as Rob Tracinski points out. Many activist groups, which derive their raison d’être from the specific evils they are fighting, actively resist acknowledging that any progress has been made, because that would threaten to make them redundant. As Matt Ridley writes in his 2009 book, The Rational Optimist: “No charity ever raised money for its cause by saying things are getting better.”

Four Flavors of Doom: A Taxonomy of Contemporary Pessimism
Sydney. London. Toronto.

In The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), Steven Pinker has documented the steady decrease in violence over the past centuries. But, as Pinker notes in his 2019 book Enlightenment Now, when people are confronted with overwhelming evidence that our societies have become ever less violent, they often inflate their concept of violence to justify their pessimism: “Isn’t Internet trolling a form of violence? Isn’t strip-mining a form of violence? Isn’t inequality a form of violence? Isn’t pollution a form of violence?”

5. The Law of Awful Attraction: If you don’t find bad news, bad news will find you.

New age gurus believe in something called the Law of Attraction. If you focus on positive thoughts, good things will happen to you. But if you fret about all the things that could go wrong, you will surely get cancer or die in a car accident. Most of the time, of course, the universe just doesn’t work that way.

But there is one realm that does follow the Law of Attraction, as the mathematician Spencer Greenberg has noted: in fact, we have expressly designed it to do so. Social media feeds work this way. In real life, if you pay attention to cute puppies while taking a walk, you will not be followed by hordes of cute puppies on your next walk. If you can’t resist rubbernecking a horrible car accident, you will not go on to see more horrible car accidents further down the road. But this is exactly what happens on social media when your attention is drawn to either cute puppies or horrific accidents. Even if you don’t consciously decide that you would like to see more cute puppies (by clicking the “follow” button on an account like The Dogist, say), the algorithm will pick up on your preference and give you more of what it thinks you want.

Social media algorithms can therefore reinforce any biases and impulses we already have—even those we are unaware of or even consciously fighting to overcome. Thus, in the age of social media, if you pay bad news the slightest bit of attention, more bad news will soon find you.

The Future Is Already Here
Sydney. London. Toronto.

6. The Law of Self-Effacing Solutions: Once a solution has been achieved, people forget about the original problem (and only see further problems).

As Eliezer Yudkowsky has pointed out, progress has a way of rendering itself invisible: we simply raise our standards to accommodate the new normal. But this is not the only way in which progress becomes a victim of its own success. All problems are soluble, the physicist David Deutsch explains in his 2011 book The Beginning of Infinity, but every solution will give rise to novel problems. If these are less severe than the original problem, we will rightly call this “progress”—but only if we remember just how bad the original problem was. Many ugly problems give rise to solutions that are far less ugly, but still not exactly ideal. Chemotherapy is a terrible ordeal: it ravages your body, it makes your hair fall out, it makes you vomit. It is literally toxic because its very purpose is to destroy (cancerous) cells in your body. But no matter how bad chemotherapy is, it’s vastly better than having untreated and metastasized cancer.

Since progress tends to cover its own tracks, people often forget the ugliness of the original problem and focus on the residual ugliness of the solution. The “ugly problem fallacy,” as Étienne Fortier-Dubois has called it, is a good way to make sense of calls to “defund the police.” The police can be violent, and some people understandably want to reduce that violence by removing their funding. But, as Fortier-Dubois writes: “The obvious problem with this proposal is that the police are there precisely to reduce violence. Their presence is meant to discourage any non-police person or organization from using violence to achieve their ends.”

One recent, tragic example of the law of self-effacing solutions is the response to lockdowns and other Covid measures. Yes, lockdowns caused enormous economic and social collateral damage. In many hospitals, delayed surgeries led to an increase in deaths from cancer and other untreated diseases. Confining people in their homes caused a spike in loneliness, depression, and domestic violence. The resulting economic recession condemned thousands to poverty and bankrupted thousands of small businesses. Lockdowns are extremely ugly, and therefore some people understandably blamed them for all the misfortunes of the pandemic years. But Covid measures averted more misery than they caused. It was the virus itself that caused the massive neglect of other medical conditions, by overwhelming hospitals and caretakers; the Covid measures actually reduced that collateral damage. The virus itself destroyed the economy—not the lockdowns. But the extreme ugliness of the original problem (an unchecked and deadly virus ravaging through societies) was an invisible counterfactual, so all the ugliness was blamed on the imperfect solutions.

I suspect that you could apply the law of self-effacing solutions to many other examples: prisons, standing armies, container ships, compulsory vaccinations, democratic elections, artificial fertilizer, consumerism, drone warfare, and life-saving medicines with harmful side-effects.

7. The Law of Disinfecting Sunlight: The freer a society, the more ugly things will surface.

As US diplomat and Democratic Senator Daniel P. Moynihan once pointed out: “The amount of violations of human rights in a country is always an inverse function of the amount of complaints about human rights violations heard from there. The greater the number of complaints being aired, the better protected are human rights in that country.” This phenomenon is widely known as “Moynihan’s Law.”

Under an authoritarian regime like that of Stalin’s Russia, Pinochet’s Chile, or Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea, dissent is ruthlessly silenced. In liberal democracies, by contrast, people are free to complain about both real and imaginary violations. So, the freer the society, the more complaints you will hear about oppression and abuse. As the political scientist Kathryn Sikkink has explained, this is the information paradox of human rights activism: by raising awareness of human rights abuses, activists—whether deliberately or unwittingly—have often given “the impression that practices were getting worse, when actually they were just becoming more visible.” Many free citizens in affluent countries love complaining about all the censorship and oppression they suffer. This attitude is lampooned in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which an anarcho-syndicalist communist pleads with the assembled knights: “Come and see the violence inherent in the system! HELP! HELP! I’m being repressed!”

People like to bite the hand that feeds them, provided it will not slap back—and in a free and tolerant society, it won’t. As the Dutch-Somali writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali told journalist Avi Lewis in a 2007 interview: “You grew up in freedom, and you can spit on freedom because you don’t know what it is not to have freedom.”

In a way, we should celebrate the pessimism of our societies. If you ever find yourself in a place where everyone tells you that their country is marching gloriously forward into the future, or where everyone is constantly applauding the people in power for making their lives better and better, you can be pretty sure that you’re living in a ruthless dictatorship where no-one can speak their mind.

Conclusion: We Need More “Idiots”

Pessimism confers one final, unmistakable advantage: it makes people sound smarter. If you claim that the world has never been in better shape than it is today, you risk sounding like Voltaire’s foolish Dr. Pangloss, who thinks that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” because he is totally insensitive to all the misery and suffering around him. As Hannah Ritchie admits, in her latest book Not the End of the World: “I often feel embarrassed to admit that I’m an optimist. I imagine it knocks me down a peg or two in people’s estimations.” As the German historian (and inveterate pessimist) Phillip Blom once quipped, “Only idiots are optimists today.”

If you claim that the future will be better than the past, that although new problems will arise, we will find fresh solutions to them—just as we always have—you might seem to be taking a leap of faith because you’re placing trust in things that haven’t even been invented yet. By comparison, as Jason Crawford has pointed out, “If you very soberly, wisely, prudently stick to the known and the proven, you will necessarily be pessimistic.” If you claim that humanity is teetering on the verge of collapse, you will sound like someone who dares to face the frightening truth, while everyone else is too afraid or too stupid to see it.

But it’s important that people take that rational leap of faith because progress is not inevitable. It is not a law of nature. If we want to make the future even better than the present, we will need people who see through the cognitive fallacies that the Seven Laws of Societal Pessimism encourage. We will need people who believe that progress is both possible and desirable and are therefore willing to work towards it—even if they risk coming across as total idiots.

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