What’s Wrong (and Right) With the World

15 Jan, 2015

By Doug Pinkham

Public Affairs Council President
January 15, 2015

Is the world falling apart or getting better?

It’s not hard to make the falling-apart argument. On TV and online, we see scary images of terror attacks, wars, plane crashes and Ebola outbreaks. We read about economic distress in Europe, instability in the Middle East and poverty in Africa.

In the U.S., despite improving economic news, people are gloomy about the future. A USA Today/Pew Research Center poll showed that 71 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country today. And only 49 percent believe 2015 will be better. This is the first time in 25 years that the public’s optimism for the next 12 months has fallen below 50 percent.

Around the globe, 65 percent of people living in 10 advanced economies predict children will be worse off financially than their parents, according to another Pew study.

There are optimistic voices, however, and they are finding their way into the public conversation. Chief among these is Harvard psychologist and author Steven Pinker, who co-wrote a much-tweeted article in Slate called “The World Is Not Falling Apart.”

Pinker believes that media coverage exaggerates life’s dangers and makes it seem as though “lurking disasters” are around every corner. When we pry ourselves away from these disturbing images and negative narratives and focus on current statistics, he argues, there are many reasons to be optimistic.

For example:

  • Wars and other types of armed conflict are less common now than in the 1990s, despite a recent surge in civil wars and battle deaths.
  • Democracy is on the rise. Most of the world’s nations are now democratic, and countries leaning that way can be found in places ranging from Eastern Europe to sub-Saharan Africa. 
  • Across the globe, homicide rates are down significantly. Among 88 countries with reliable data, 67 have seen fewer murders in the past 15 years. 
  • Violence against women is on the decline in the U.S. Heightened concern about the issue has produced measurable progress. 
  • Violence against children in the U.S. is also decreasing.

Pinker isn’t the only one who thinks people are unnecessarily glum. Late last year, Dylan Matthews of Vox.com posted “26 Charts and Maps That Show the World Is Getting Much, Much Better.”

He points out that extreme poverty is in steep decline, as is the child mortality rate. Meanwhile, global life expectancy and literacy rates are rising. Teen birth rates in the U.S. have decreased by one-third since 2007. To everyone’s surprise, homelessness has declined — not increased — since the financial crisis of 2008-2009. Those are powerful findings.

Political leaders and academic experts are also quick to point out that terror attacks, plane crashes and other major tragedies are still extremely rare occurrences — even though we have had a cluster of such events in recent months. The odds of them directly affecting you are really, really small.

Feel better? Not really? The problem is that rational thinking and hard facts (even 26 charts and maps) never alleviate all of our fears and concerns. Why not? And what are the implications for society?

Humans are wired to react emotionally to perceived dangers, notes David Ropeik, author of several books on risk communication and an instructor at Harvard. (Ropeik also spoke at the Council’s Public Affairs Institute in January.)

“A world that feels scary is scary to people who see things that way,” he recently wrote on the website Big Think, “and those perceptions, far more than the numbers alone, compel the choices we make, how we act and how we treat each other.”

A host of psychological factors make certain risks seem larger than they really are. The less control we feel we have over risks, for instance, the more worried we are. (That’s why many prefer driving over flying, though it’s far more dangerous to travel by car than by plane.)

Man-made risks tend to be scarier than natural risks. Close-to-home risks are worse than generalized risks. Risks to children are worse than risks to adults. And imposed risks are more alarming than risks we choose to take.

Humans also experience “loss aversion,” which causes them to be more concerned about the drawbacks than the benefits of any choice or judgment. “Excessive precaution may not seem rational, but it sure helps us survive,” Ropeik writes.

These instincts, which vary in intensity from person to person, come in handy when we are running from a lion or changing lanes in traffic. But they also can make the public unnecessarily afraid of new technologies, rare diseases, social change or people with a different ethnic background. And they have a huge effect on government decisions and business practices.

Watching the news certainly adds to our anxiety, but Ropeik believes it’s “simplistic and insufficient” for Pinker and others to blame the media for most of our current fears. Granted, the human brain tends to exaggerate the severity of dangers displayed in front of us. Yet there has always been sensationalistic media coverage of bad news and tragic events.

The real question, writes Ropeik, is not whether things are getting better or worse; it’s “why do so many people who are indeed living longer, healthier, safer lives deny the sunny numbers and still see a sky full of storm clouds?” It would be great if more people would check the data, have faith in the future and try not to worry about unlikely threats. But it’s unrealistic to expect human beings to think rationally about issues that affect them emotionally.

Unfortunately, many government and business leaders still believe the key to effective communication is convincing the public to be more sensible. But in a crisis or controversy, this approach often makes things worse. And it can prevent leaders from addressing real problems and finding ways to help people come to terms with their emotional reactions.

So, on paper at least, the world is not falling apart. But with all the challenges and changes going on around the globe, it’s perfectly normal to be nervous about it.

Comments? Email me.