We’re not as Bad as We Think We Are (so keep your hopes up).

One of the ways we can become more hopeful about ourselves is to continually step back from the daily deluge of information. When we do, we will likely remember two human tendencies. 1) We engage in negative biasing, which is the lower brain’s belief that danger/evil lurks everywhere (connected to our survival instinct), and 2) We tend to see things subjectively, through our own limited experience, yet we don’t think our view is subjective; we think it’s ‘the truth’.

What is the primary source for our view of the world? The News.

And watching the news often makes us think we live in a terrible world. But do we really?

As practitioners in the field of conflict management, we have come to believe that – most of the time – “The News” is not a representative picture of what actually happens in the world on any given day (or even in our local community). “How so”, you ask?

Our opinion is that in many cases, you could safely insert the word “Bad” between “The” and “News” and thereby create an accurate description of what is presented. Said differently, the news – in our opinion – primarily presents negative stories: conflict, violence, crime of all sorts, social or environmental problems, etc. “Good news” stories are few and far between.

Why is so much of our news “bad”?

The cynic’s view would say that since news organizations need to maintain ratings/circulation/readership to stay in business, they have to err on the side of the dramatic. Bad news is dramatic, so they use it. There may be some truth to this, but here’s a more interesting question: why is bad news dramatic? Why are we as a species so drawn to it? Our theory: it’s dramatic and shocking because it’s different than what we expect and different than most of what we experience in our own lives. Most of the time, things go well – or at least ok. It’s also shocking because it triggers the survival instinct we referred to above, which is a very powerful motivator indeed.

The more important point here, however, is the one we made earlier: that “The News” is generally not a representative picture of what happens in the world on any given day.

Why do we say this? Think about the communities (in the literal and figurative senses) that you circulate in and are connected to: most people go about their lives safely and peacefully most of the time. Think about your own life experience: how often does something terrible happen to you? Not very often, we suspect. If terrible things happened to you too often, you probably wouldn’t be here anymore to tell the tale. And if that were true of the human race at large, we could well be at risk of extinction as a species. Sounds outrageous, but think about it for a few moments. Now consider parts of the world where violent conflict does take place often (not war zones, but regions of the world where there is political, religious, or ethnic conflict that regularly erupts into violence) – even there, most of the people most of the time go about their lives without terrible things happening to them.

But the good stuff isn’t generally exciting and dramatic, so it doesn’t get reported.

Imagine what a nightly newscast would sound like if it did put forth a representative picture of what happened on any given day. It might sound something like this:

“Today, in most parts of the world, 95% of people had a normal day or better: spouses and other loved ones told each other they loved each other, people bought groceries, got exercise, went to work or school, visited friends, gave and received gifts, and so on. Moreover, a large chunk of this 95% had a good day, not just a normal one. And, a fair proportion of people had an absolutely outstanding day! They were given awards, won contests, got new jobs, got married, had babies, fell in love, achieved long sought-after goals, and so on. Here are some examples of the kinds of normal, good, and outstanding things that happened today around the world…”

You’d probably be asleep by the time they got around to the bad news.

We must add one very important clarification: with this article we do not mean to diminish nor dismiss the importance of or pain caused by hardships and losses that are endured by people around the world on a daily basis. We acknowledge this and wish to give it the respect it is due. We also do not mean to say that social and environmental problems do not deserve attention. They certainly do.

Our goal has simply been to provide balance and perspective; perspective that – in our humble opinion – is fairer and more accurate, leaving us with a justifiably more hopeful picture about who we are.

P.S. For a potent and concrete example of something that is probably much better than we believe, see Harvard Professor Steven Pinker’s TED Talk about the surprising decline in violence, wherein he describes how and why he believes “we are probably living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence” – a bold claim indeed. Read also our Founder’s blog post about the decline in violence, after his meeting with Professor Pinker at Harvard last autumn.

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