As editors of the Buzz, we think a lot about the kinds of stories and issues we cover, and how our coverage affects our readers’ perception of life in our local neighborhoods. We are very concerned about the world’s increasing divisions, and how we can help paint both a realistic and positive picture of the community we love, even (and maybe especially) when so many of our community issues are serious, complex and difficult to solve. As the new year approaches, however, both of us have recently been inspired by things we’ve read that teach us to view information and situations accurately, without falling into various traps of negativity. We’d like to recommend them as our New Year’s gift to our readers.
As my family was discussing our goals for the new year ahead, my sister recommended reading an essay published in the Wall Street Journal by John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister, a science writer and research psychologist, respectively, which was adapted from their soon-to-be-published book, “The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We can Rule It.”
In the essay, Tierney and Baumeister assert that humans are prone to negativity and we need to understand it so we can face up to it and challenge what they call “the power of bad.”
“Our minds and lives are skewed by a fundamental imbalance that is just now becoming clear to scientists: the negativity effect. Also known as the negativity bias, it’s the universal tendency for bad events and emotions to affect us more strongly than positive ones. We’re devastated by a word of criticism but unmoved by a shower of praise. We see the hostile face in the crowd and miss all the friendly smiles. We focus so much on bad news, especially in a digital world that magnifies its power, that we don’t realize how much better life is becoming for people around the world,” wrote John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister.
According to the authors, our negativity bias evolved as a survival mechanism, and it served our ancient ancestors well. But while those who paid more attention to threats lived to pass on their genes to us, the threats we face today are different. There isn’t a predatory lion living next door, but we still assume the worst scenario when we are confronted by an angry neighbor or see someone who doesn’t seem to belong in the neighborhood.
As journalists, we at the Buzz know that negative stories often get more readership, and certainly more reaction, than positive stories. But we are heartened when sweet stories about our neighbors also draw lots of comments…and we are determined to continue to highlight those stories as only a very local news outlet can do.
We agree with Tierney and Baumeister, who suggest that “once we recognize our negativity bias, the rational brain can overcome the power of bad when it’s harmful and employ that power when it’s beneficial. In fact, bad breaks and bad feelings create the most powerful incentives to become smarter and stronger. Properly understood, bad can be put to perfectly good use.”
Years ago, a thoughtful teacher at my daughter’s school recommended a book to us anxious parents called “Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom” which uses mindfulness to address the negativity bias. Author Rick Hanson suggests that we try to avoid making those instant positive or negative assessments, and instead calm our mind and let our brains take in the world around us without judgement.
Staying positive, or at least being neutral are my goals for the new year.
I’m often wary of pop-science or social-science books, which tend to make glib generalizations and oversimplify various aspects of our very complex world. So I was a bit skeptical when one of my book groups chose “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things are Better Than You Think,” by Hans Rosling, as our next group read. But I dutifully picked it up, and I’m very glad I did.
Rosling, a medical doctor, professor of international health, advisor to the United Nations and UNICEF, and one of the founders of Doctors without Borders, dedicated much of his life (before he passed away in 2017) to helping people focus on impartial facts, and understanding those facts, without overreaction or bias, when trying to make sense of the world.
In the book, Rosling asks readers a number of questions about specific facts and trends in the world, and points out that most people in most groups he’s surveyed pick the correct (and most positive) answers less often than a random group of chimpanzees would. For example, where do most people in the world live? What percentage of girls worldwide finish primary school? What percentage of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty, and how is that number changing? What percentage of the world’s population has electricity? What percentage of children have been vaccinated against some disease? In each of these cases and more, Rosling’s extensive polls show that most people, in most countries around the world, pick the wrong (and more dire) answers more often than chimpanzees would – no matter how educated and informed the audience is. In fact, most people, in most places, think things are getting worse instead of better, when that’s often not true at all.
Diving deeper, Rosling identifies 10 human instincts that tend to color our perception of facts and situations, often making them seem much more dire than they should. These include instincts about perceived gaps between best and worst-case scenarios (when most situations fall somewhere comfortably between the two), always assuming trends move in a straight line (they don’t), fear of worst-case scenarios, generalizations, blame, and urgency…which can all lead us to fear that bad situations are worse than they are, or that serious problems are simply overwhelming and unsolvable over time…which they tend not to be.
This may sound like Rosling is encouraging looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, but he assuredly is not. For example, he emphasizes that climate change, potential pandemics, and the possibility of global war are absolutely among the most real and serious threats facing the world today. But he also insists that relying steadily on facts, instead of emotional or political outrage, to understand and address our big issues, is the key to addressing them successfully.
He also makes the very important point that the world has indeed been mostly successful, over time, in addressing things like poverty, hunger and health care – as evidenced by the huge, and rapid, shift of the world’s population from various levels of poverty to various levels of relative comfort over the last century. This goes for countries around the globe, and the differences between those countries are closing rapidly.
For more information, and some good facts from around the world, pick up a copy of the book, or see Rosling’s website, gapminder.org, which contains some great TED talks, fascinating facts from around the world, and a fun “Dollar Street” section that compares information about societies across the globe. It helps us see how our society and others have more in common than we may realize, and how the gaps between us are steadily shrinking over time, despite what we may have internalized to the contrary. It’s a good message, and it’s good to also be reminded that things are not as bad, overall, as they may seem, and that even our very real and difficult problems can be successfully addressed if we know how to read the facts about them.