The World Has Been Getting Better for Decades, So Why Aren't We All Happier?

In this week's Rule Breaker Investing podcast, Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner brings his listeners a special treat: an interview with Dr. Steven Pinker of Harvard University. He's a psycholinguist, award-winning researcher, and, according to Time magazine, one of "The 100 Most Influential People" in the world today.

He's also the author of a number of books -- among them The Stuff of Thought, The Blank Slate, Words and Rules, How the Mind Works, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and The Language Instinct -- but here's how Bill Gates described his latest, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. "My new favorite book of all time."

In this segment, they dig into the peculiar thought processes that lead us to see things as getting worse even when they are getting better.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on March 7, 2018.

David Gardner: All of these amazing advances. You quote the Louis C.K. who is now not as popular as he was about a year ago. I see a lot of us have seen the YouTube video of him talking about how things are much better, and why are we all whining about...

Steven Pinker: Everything is amazing, and no one is happy.

Gardner: There we are. Let's talk a little bit about why no one's happy. Now, I know a little later in the book, you point out that actually we are quite happy, and I don't want to steal the thunder, so we'll get there. But let's first talk about why I think most people seem surprised.

I don't have the exact fact, but this is more true than fake news. Here in the District area -- so Washington D.C., the city of my birth -- the homicide rate over the course of the last 30 years has declined by about 75%. It's been amazing to watch. D.C. was the "murder capital of the world" back when I was a teenager, and there were about 330 to 350 people who got killed in the District area every year. Now it's down to more like 100.

Most people don't realize that. They think their children are not safe going out of the home. There are all kinds of threats. And we are kind of, I think, fooling ourselves to think that things are really dangerous and bad out there. Negativity bias, availability bias, or anything you'd like to speak to that; I'm curious.

Pinker: Those are two of the psychological phenomena that give rise to irrational pessimism; irrational in the strict sense that people often will think that things are getting worse as they are getting better, and rates of violent crime being a prime example. The availability heuristic identified by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman is that we tend to assess risk and probability according to how easily we can retrieve examples from memory.

And when you combine that with the nature of news -- namely, news tends to be about things that go wrong -- you never see a journalist saying, "Here I am reporting live from a city that has not suffered a terrorist attack or a school that has not been shot up." As long as rates of violence and other bad things haven't gone to zero, there will always be plenty of examples to fill the news.

And in fact, as the news becomes more efficient at reporting bad things wherever they occur anywhere in the world, we might even get the impression that things are getting worse even if the number of parts of the world that are in boring peace increase. But that doesn't get reflected in stories. It's something you can only see in percentages. In data.

Then there's the negativity bias, which is that our mind does tend to gravitate toward things that go wrong. Probably an adaptation to the fact that there are more ways for things to go wrong than to go right, and the things that can go wrong can do you a lot more harm than any of the things that go right, at least in most of human history. It's rare that there is something like a vaccine that in one fell swoop saves millions or hundreds of millions of lives. More often they're tiny, little improvements and risks that can kill you. And so our mind tends to focus on what can go wrong.

Which opens up a market for professional prophets and doomsayers who can remind us of things that can go wrong that we may have overlooked. And I quote your colleague, Morgan Housel, who said pessimists sound like they're trying to help you. Optimists sound like they're trying to sell you something. So there is a bias in the reception of optimists and pessimists where a lot of our most revered social critics really are critics in that they whine, and carp, and moan about all the things that could go wrong.

Gardner: And quoting you, and I love this quote. That's why I have it. "Seeing how journalistic habits and cognitive biases bring out the worst in each other," in combination, "how can we soundly appraise the state of the world?" And you write, "The answer is to count."

Pinker: It's something that doesn't come naturally to people, probably because as Tversky and Kahneman pointed out, our mind is driven by anecdotes, and narratives, and images. And the idea that you count up the number of actual bad things as a proportion of the number of opportunities for bad things -- and that's the way you assess the state of the world, the risk, the danger -- that's highly unintuitive, but I argue that's not only the intellectually enlightened way to assess the state of the world, there's also the morally enlightened one, because it means that we treat all lives as having equal value instead of the ones that are closest to our neighborhoods or most photogenic.

Gardner: Kevin Kelly, who I interviewed a few weeks ago, Wired magazine, uses the word "protopia," so Rule Breaker Investing listeners will remember that that's his description of we're not in a dystopia. We're certainly not in a utopia, but a protopia, the notion that every day things get just infinitesimally better.

Pinker: But they accumulate, yes.

Gardner: They accumulate over time, and so it ends up explaining a lot of the upper-left bad stuff to lower-right good stuff that you show throughout Enlightenment Now.

Pinker: Well, indeed. And as Max Roser pointed out -- Max is the proprietor of the wonderful website Our World in Data, from which I downloaded a number of the data sets that I plotted in graphs -- they point out the papers could have had the headline, "138,000 people escaped from extreme poverty yesterday, every day for the last 25 years."

Gardner: And that is just amazing.

Pinker: Yes, it is amazing, and it is a headline that you never see, because it didn't happen on a Tuesday in March.

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