HM is not close on the ideological spectrum to Johan Norbert the author of “Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future.” But the data and the reasoning presented in this volume are sound. HM hopes that readers of the healthy memory blog are not naive realists. That is they are aware that we do not have direct contact with reality, but rather build mental models on the basis of our interactions with the external world. We need to be aware that these models are imperfect and are need of constant updating. The data in Progress indicate that some of these models are way off the mark and are in need to massive updating.
The Gapminder Foundation has done several “ignorance” surveys using multiple-choice questions. In Britain only ten percent thought that world poverty had decreased in the last thirty years. More than half thought that a it had increased. In the United States only five percent answered correctly that world poverty had been almost halved in the last twenty years. Sixty-six percent thought that that it had almost doubled.
Lasse Berg and Stig Karlson are two researchers who traveled to India in the 1970s and had predicted doom in Asia. Their predictions turned out to be wrong, but the Indian people they visited did not think so themselves. When they visited in the 1970s the villagers complained about oppression, illiteracy and how difficult it was for the family to get enough to eat. The children, one of whom was named Satto, worked hard in the fields every day. When Berg and Carlson revisited the village in the 1990s, the woman Sato complained that life was now more difficult and she now had to work hard for her kids. She said that her childhood had been much easier and that she had just played all day. So her memory was playing tricks. Satto is not unique, our memories play tricks on all of us. When Berg returned again in 2010, Satto was happier with life and the living standard the family had attained, but claimed that she didn’t remember her complaints during the 1990s. Her memory now at that life was good in the 1990s as well.
The psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky formulated the “availability heuristic,” which said that we judge the frequency of an event in terms of how available they in memory rather than on their objective frequency. Moreover, we rarely know the objective frequency of any event. So what is available in memory is rarely commensurate with reality. Moreover what is usually available in memory is based on the news, and what is most newsworthy are crime, accidents, natural disasters, so that is the information we have to make generalizations about reality or predictions about the future.
The psychologist Steven Pinker has identified this as one of the three psychological biases that a make us think that the world is worse that it really is. This one is the well-documented fact that “bad is stronger than good” — we are more likely to remember losing money, being abandoned by friends or receiving criticism than we are to remember winning money, gaining friends or receiving praise. Negative information receives more processing and contributes more strongly to the final impression than does positive information.
A second basis is the psychology of moralization. Complaining about problems is a way of sending a signal to others that you care about them, so critics see us as more morally engaged. Thomas Hobbes also noticed that criticizing the present has a way of competing without rivals and contemporaries, whereas we can easily praise past generations, because they are not our competitors.
A third bias is nostalgia about a golden age when life was supposedly simpler and better. Arthur Herman observed: “Virtually every culture past or present has believed that men and women are not up to the standards of their parents and forebears.” The poet Hesiod, in the seventh century ice, thought that there once had been a Golden Age when humans live in harmony with the gods, and did not have to work since nature provided them with food. Hesiod lived in the Iron Age, where conflict and mortality reined, and where humans had to toil to survive. Next came the Silver Age with strife and worry, followed by a Bronze Age with even more strife and worry. Most cultures, religions, and ideologies have had similar mythologies relating a prehistorical lost paradise to which the decadent present is compared.
So the mechanisms for pessimism are fairly well understood. The next posts will be devoted to realigning our erroneous mental models so that they correspond more closely to reality.
The progress that is the topic of this book started with the intellectual Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At this time there were people who began to examine the world with the tools of empiricism, rather than being content with authorities, traditions, superstition, and religions. The political corollary, classical liberalism, began to liberate people from the shackles of heredity, authoritarianism, and serfdom. The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth followed, when industrial power multiplied, and poverty and hunger began to be conquered. These successive revolutions were enough to free of large part of humanity from the harsh living condition it had always lived under. With the late twentieth-century globalization, as these technologies and freedoms began to spread around the world, this was repeated on a larger scale and at a faster pace that ever before.
It is essential that we be aware of a real risk of a nativist backlash, one that might be occurring already. When people do not see the progress the has been made, they begin to search for scapegoats for the problems that remain. Unfortunately, some might be willing to try their luck with any demagogue who tells us that he has quick, simple solutions to make our nation great again.
Subsequent posts will be covering what Norbert calls Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, which are specific areas in which substantial progress has been made. In the meantime, go to http://www.gapminder.org. It is a very interesting website. You might find the documentary “Don’t Panic End Poverty” well worth viewing.
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