How to avoid the “overdramatic” worldview

When you think about the overall state of the world, are you an optimist or a pessimist? What do you think about where humanity is today? What do you think about where humanity is headed? Below are a few questions about the state of the world we live in; take a moment to think about each one and venture a guess:

  • Does the majority of the world live in conditions considered poor, working poor, or middle class?
  • How has the percentage of the world population living in extreme poverty changed over the past 20-30 years?
  • What has happened to life expectancy rates worldwide over the past 100 or so years?

We will start with the first: according to the Brookings Institution, over half the world is now living in circumstances considered middle class or higher. More precisely, there are 3.8 billion people who now live in circumstances which allow them to do things like take vacations or weather an economic downturn while maintaining their standard of living. The power of this fact when you consider it is truly mind-blowing. For the first time in all of history, the majority of the world is not poor. And, as the Brookings report points out, middle class people have the ability to get involved in their government, to demand fairness and freedom.

Given the answer to the first question, it’s not hard to guess the answer to the second. As the role of the free market has expanded around the globe, more and more people have been lifting themselves out of poverty. But what you may not have guessed is the magnitude of the change. In the past 20 years alone, the number of people living in extreme poverty (defined as just under $2 a day in today’s dollars) has been cut nearly in half. The below graph shows how that trend is even more marked since 1990:

Source: Goalkeepers Report

The third question is also linked to the other two in a profound way. As incomes have grown worldwide, health outcomes have increased substantially. According to Our World in Data, a person born in England or Wales in 1900 had about a 50% chance to live to see age 70. Somalia today beats that with a life expectancy of 53.5. Even in the richest of countries (in 1900, the U.K. was at the peak of her powers as a global empire), it wasn’t too long ago that expected life outcomes were quite low.

So how did you do? Like many people, it is likely that you found yourself giving much more pessimistic answers to the questions than is actually warranted by the facts.

In fact (no pun intended), that’s the theme of the late Hans Rosling’s book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.

I would venture to say that if you only read one book about politics this year, this one is your best bet. Drawing only on freely available data and his own experience as a doctor serving some of the poorest people in the world, Mr. Rosling crafts a compelling argument for why our pessimism is real and why it is probably due to some of our cognitive biases rather than any factual reality.

The book begins with a quiz which asks questions similar to the ones just posed. Rosling has given similar quizzes at many of his talks and seminars throughout his professional life, and has always been staggered by the outcomes:

“I have tested audiences from all around the world and from all walks of life: medical students, teachers, university lecturers, eminent scientists, investment bankers, executives in multinational companies, journalists, activists, and even senior political decision makers. These are highly educated people who take an interest in the world. But most of them—a stunning majority of them—get most of the answers wrong. Some of these groups even score worse than the general public; some of the most appalling results came from a group of Nobel laureates and medical researchers. It is not a question of intelligence. Everyone seems to get the world devastatingly wrong.”

This tendency to “get the world devastatingly wrong” is what Rosling calls the “overdramatic worldview.” This pessimistic viewpoint leads to systematically wrong answers to the types of questions he asks. These tendencies stem from the deep psychology of survival that we humans have evolved over the millennia. Further, many of these tendencies are an important part of any definition of meaning in life. After all, who would want to live a life based purely on reason, totally devoid of emotion? Sounds awful if you stop and think about it for a moment.

So what are the biases that result from these deep psychological phenomena? And what can we do to fight the dark side of these tendencies in our daily lives? The rest of book seeks to answer these questions. From the “gap instinct” to the “straight line instinct” to the “negativity instinct,” Rosling shows how each one applies to our daily lives in surprising ways.

Rosling’s argument ultimately boils down to an admonishment to always consider the broader perspective. There surely is great suffering in the world. It needs to be addressed. But when we accept simplistic arguments as to the reason why there is suffering or when we only focus on what we think needs to be addressed, we are in danger of becoming “overdramatic.” It pays to remind ourselves to take a step back and be thankful and grateful for the positive changes that have already taken place.

When we are constantly bombarded with “urgent” messages from politicians, journalists, activists, salesmen, or marketers, we are likely to begin to internalize the frantic tone of their messages. We forget how far the quality of life for the majority of mankind has increased over the past 50 years. We forget that more people have a shot at a flourishing life than at any time in human history. We can even become envious or develop righteous anger against our neighbors or fellow Americans.

It is far better to try to remember what for me was Rosling’s most poignant advice. He says that we must train ourselves and our children to hold two ideas at the same time: that “bad things are going on in the world but many things are getting better.”

If we constantly remind ourselves of this fact, we will go a long way toward keeping our biases from hampering our ability to bring positive change to our lives, our families, and our communities.

Read the book, or if your reading list is already stacked, check out Rosling’s TED talk:

How not to be ignorant about the world by Hans Rosling

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