Tell someone they are in danger and you shall have their undivided attention. Tell someone that everything will be great, and they will be likely to either shrug at you or offer a skeptical eye.
The historian Deirdre McCloskey wrote “For reasons I have never understood, people like to hear that the world is going to hell”
Indeed, most people, when interviewed, thinks the world is more frightening, more violent and more hopeless
Pessimism holds a special place in our heart. It looks smarter and more seductive than optimism (that is often labelled as being oblivious to risk).
The intellectual allure of pessimism has been know for ages. John Stuart Mill wrote in the 1840s
“I have observed that not the man who hopes when other despair, but the man who despairs when the other hopes is admired by a large class of persons as a sage”
The Nobel Prizes Khaneman and Tverski with their pioneering studies on the Prospect Theory have helped us to understand why pessimism is so seductive. Part of it is instinctive. Homo Sapiens has a built-in asymmetric aversion to loss, as evolutionary shield. They write:
“When compared and weighted against each other, losses loom larger than gains. The asymmetry between the power of positive and negative expectations or experiences has an evolutionary history. Organisms that treat threats as more urgent than opportunities have a better chance to survive and reproduce”
This asymmetrical predisposition is mirrored on media. Stock rising 1% might be briefly mentioned in the evening news. But a 1% fall will be reported in bold, all cap-letters usually written in blood red.
During the pandemic, the news on TV report constantly, on one of the sides of the screen, the death toll of SARS-COV 2, without reporting the people that are in good health-yet positive or are recovered from Covid, who account for the 99.5%.
Fear keeps you tuned in. If media broadcast good news, people would turn off the TV and would go to spend the time with the family. But if media broadcast bad news, people will glue to the screen!
Since 2010, the media massively increased headlines that use fear, anger, disgust, and sadness.
Why has the media become more negative?
A blended study of 105,000 headlines and 370 million impressions concludes “each additional negative word [in a headline] increased the click-through rate by 2.3%”
Another reason, that explain the allure of pessimism, is that the progress happens too slowly and noiseless to be noticed, but setbacks happen too quickly to ignore. There are a lot of overnights tragedies. There are rarely overnight miracles.
A further reason is that it is easy to create a narrative around pessimism because the story pieces tend to be fresher and more recent. Optimistic narratives require looking at a long stretch of history and developments, which people tend to forget and take more efforts to “piece” together. Progress is slow and captures less attention than quick and sudden losses like terrorism, pine crashed or natural disasters.
This is evident in career: reputation takes a lifetime to build and a single event to destroy.
Another reason to be “instinctively” pessimistic is that expecting things to be bad is the best way to be pleasantly surprised. And the Stupor is the engine of evolution. And threats and stupor incentives inventions and solutions.