Negativity and our perceptions of the world
About two years ago I heard about a book that Bill Gates had made free for all college students to be able to download called “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think” by Hans Rosling. I read a couple chapters and then life happened and I forgot about it.
Last week, though, I saw it on my recommended books on Amazon so I decided to buy it and give it another read. I’m not even through the introduction and many lessons can be drawn for 2020.
In the introduction, Rosling asks the reader to complete a short 13-question test which asks such questions as: “In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?” and “In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has…”
On the latter question, 95% of Americans got it wrong regardless of education or voting preference. That means, obviously, that only 5% got it right (there were three possible answers: A. almost doubled, B. remained more or less the same, C. almost halved). Now to use an example the author brings up, if they asked a group of chimpanzees to answer the same question by presenting 3 bananas labeled “A”, “B”, or “C”, theoretically 30% would get the right answer. What does this say about us as humans? It evidently means our worldview is too negative; we think things are worse than they really are.
In my opinion this is because of the way mainstream media works, as well as the addition of social media and click-bait headlines. Part of the reason I’ve been reluctant to fall into the “pandemic” insanity surrounding COVID-19 is the way media is overly negative about everything; they want you to believe things are worse than they are so that you buy more newspaper and watch more news to stay informed about whatever catastrophe they’ve thought up this time.
I don’t mean this to sound like I’m denying COVID exists…I think it’s a deadly virus the same way the flu can be a deadly virus to people with immune system problems and the elderly. Prior to COVID, if someone living with cancer was on the verge of death and had complications after contracting the flu, they wouldn’t say that person died from the flu. Instead, they said that person died from cancer. However today, if that same person contracts COVID and subsequently dies, that person is said to have died from COVID.
COVID is real and it appears to be more deadly than the normal flu strains that go around every year…but it’s nowhere near the catastrophe the media is portraying and businesses are shutting down over. Politicians deserve a lot of the blame for the overreaction as well because of the perception that they need to “do something” rather than do nothing. This is referred to as “action bias.”
What is action bias? It’s the phenomenon that urges us to act in ambiguous situations where we feel we should be doing something whether it’s a good decision or not. It pushes us to act to make ourselves feel good, even if it does not lead to anything. Often, the best strategy is to let the event pass and wait until the situation is clarified in order to act later.
Politicians have action bias. Despite not understanding COVID completely, there was a push to act. No one wanted to be seen as doing nothing, even if it’s the right decision. Statistically, a goalie “doing nothing” and standing in the middle of the goal on a penalty kick is the right decision; but in practice this looks foolish, and so the goalie usually dives to one side or the other to avoid the perception of doing nothing.
I’m using COVID as an example here, but the reality is this phenomenon can be witnessed with just about any issue imaginable. The media can also help perpetuate this by seeking answers and criticizing politicians who don’t act quickly enough — even if that action is the incorrect action.