The World is Better, but You Don’t Think So

I’ve been writing this blog for eight years (yeah!) and there have been times when I have used a metaphor that seems completely insensitive. I write these pieces sometimes weeks in advance and I never know what even might happen between writing the piece and its actual publication. For example, I’ve written about a course correction of an airplane only to realize that an airplane had recently gone missing. Find a new metaphor. It can feel like the world is in constant disarray and we are on a collision course with the sun.

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My oldest brother Dave mentioned to me last year that we were safer in the world than a century ago. My immediate thought was, No way, we have to be less safe. There were airport bombings and 9/11 in recent memory. There were mass shootings and terrorists. This thought prompted me to read Hans Rosling’s Factfulness this past month. It’s a well written book that helps you reframe the way you look at the world. He looks at poverty, health, safety and economic progress and the news is good. The problem is, as Rosling points out, most of us believe we are worse off.

Here are the misconceptions most of us believe:

Negativity bias

Negative information holds more weight with us. When my boyfriend asks about my day, I think back to my daughter injuring her back, my dad being in the hospital, or not taking a walk as promised. Folks at work refer to coworkers by the name “Nancy”, as in Negative Nancy. I end up dwelling on what went wrong instead of what went right; the bumps in the road. I had ancestors that were good at seeing danger like a saber tooth tiger, so therefore, I am here. We are all here because our ancestors were good at paying attention to the negative. In today’s day and age, this makes us come off as Nancys. It keeps us focused on what is going wrong instead of what is going right. We decide that every trend line is going down instead of up. The negativity bias skews the way we see the world.

The gap instinct

I think of my parents telling me to eat all the food on my plate because there are people starving in Albania. I was brought up thinking there was a huge gap. Seeing the favelas in Rio de Janeiro and Caracas some thirty plus years ago, helped keep that gap wide open in my mind. As Rosling wrote, “Human beings have a strong dramatic instinct toward binary thinking, a basic urge to divide things into two distinct groups, with nothing but an empty gap in between. We love to dichotomize. Good versus bad. Heroes versus villains. My country versus the rest. Dividing the world into two distinct sides is simple and intuitive, and also dramatic because it implies conflict, and we do it without thinking, all the time.” In reality, we are all on a continuum. There is no gap. We are not divided. It’s not us versus them.

If it bleeds, it leads

The media needs to sell news. It needs you and me to click on a link. It needs to get our attention. They do that through headlines that focuse on the unique, the frightening, and the outliers. As Rosling wrote, “Here’s the paradox: the image of a dangerous world has never been broadcast more effectively than it is now, while the world has never been less violent and more safe.” The media is myopic in that it focuses on the sensational. Rosling espoused, “Forming your worldview by relying on the media would be like forming your view about me by looking only at a picture of my foot.” This is, in large part, why I try and stay away from news. Its focus is on just a small part of what is really going on day-to-day. So much so, that we aren’t even aware that things are getting better.

Outdated information

Similar to the starving Albanians from my childhood, we never update our data files. I still thought that extreme poverty was continuing to grow. As Rosling wrote, “How much has your world changed? A lot? A little? Well, this is how much the world has changed: just 20 years ago, 29 percent of the world population lived in extreme poverty. Now that number is 9 percent.” So, while I was working, rearing my children and focusing on my tiny corner of the world, extreme poverty has dramatically improved. I didn’t know that. I need to update my database. Less of the world is living off one dollar a day. The textbook from my 8th grade World History class is way out of date. Most of us are basing our thinking on outdated information.

Single perspective

Rosling wrote, “Factfulness is … recognizing that a single perspective can limit your imagination, and remembering that it is better to look at problems from many angles to get a more accurate understanding and find practical solutions. To control the single perspective instinct, get a toolbox, not a hammer. Test your ideas. Don’t only collect examples that show how excellent your favorite ideas are. Have people who disagree with you test your ideas and find their weaknesses.” Rosling’s antidote is to travel. I agree. Most of my travel has been to South America but it’s still another perspective. I can remember traveling to Santa Marta, Colombia and staying in a cinderblock house without running water or windows. But the people that lived there were happy and healthy. Seeing other perspectives creates a quilt of experience to reframe your world view. As Max Rosen of Oxford University wrote, “We live in a much more peaceful and inclusive world than our ancestors of the past.” He says, “The news is very much focused on singular events. All of these trends that I’m looking at are slow changes that happen over decades, or sometimes even centuries. These developments never have a ‘now’ moment that would make them interesting for news that is following current events.” Take that in. We are on the upward trend and the world is better off than one hundred years ago. Isn’t that great? Find information that challenges your instincts or take a look at this link my friend Susannah sent to back this up. What is skewing your perspective?

What do you think?

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