Sunday, March 13, 2016

The world is not going to hell in a handbasket.

The world has gone to crap. Idiocracy is now a documentary. Every generation is getting dumber, and there is more hate, more stupidity, and more negativity in the world than ever before. We surely are going to kill ourselves off as a species in the next hundred years.

This is something I saw recently on a debate, roughly paraphrased from a few different comments. The sentiment is the same, and multiple people were saying it. Elsewhere, I see posts saying “I have no faith in humanity” or people are all idiots, or cruel, or no longer care about anyone but themselves. I usually counter those points when I see them, but it comes up often enough that I've been thinking of writing something about it. So, I'm going to tackle this in a couple of steps. First, I'm going to explain why these statements are wrong. Then, I'm going to explain why the people that think this believe as they do.

Part 1: Why the world is not crap.

To understand this, it's important to understand statistics, and a lot of people don't. That's why any time a discussion happens where someone says “Well, I've seen people buying televisions with their food stamps!” they immediately assume that rampant corruption in the welfare system is everywhere, and no amount of evidence will convince them otherwise. My favorite statement to show how statistics doesn't play well with how we think about things is “The majority of people have an above average number of legs.” It's totally true, and yet most people at first glance, would say that it was wrong.

Anyway, the point is this. Every generation is not getting dumber, in fact, we are the smartest generation of humans to ever live on the planet. We ARE getting more specialized, but that's not necessarily the same thing. Sure, there are a lot of articles on the internet that say that the average IQ is going down, but those articles fail to take into account that the IQ scale is adjusted every few years to account for people becoming more intelligent. So, a score of 100 today might have rated a 120 a hundred years ago. That doesn't mean people are 20 points dumber, it means the scale was moved.

“But there're dumb people everywhere! Here, look at all these dumb people!” is the general response to this, followed by a healthy dose of examples pulled off the internet, usually consisting of Trump supporters. Sure, it's super easy to find examples of how people are idiots. Of course, it's easier than ever before to find examples of ANYTHING. That's because the internet is fantastic. But that doesn't mean there are more of them, just that it's easier to find them than it was, say, 30 years ago.

As far as the hate and negativity, I can tell you that it's not true either. Patton Oswalt made a fantastic facebook post about the Boston Marathon bombing that I quote often.
This is a giant planet and we're lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they're pointed towards darkness.But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We'd have eaten ourselves alive long ago.

 This is an important consideration. If every person in the world were evil, hate-filled monsters, society would crumble. Human beings are social creatures, and we have an innate genetic programming that drives us to do better for society, because when society succeeds, we succeed. When society fails, we get picked off and eaten by lions. (More on that in a bit.)

Another important thing to note is that we often mis-attribute the actions of others to ignorance or maliciousness. Why do people support Trump? Well, they must be racist idiots. There is no other possible answer. At that point, we stop looking and say, "yep, there's another example of nothing but hate and ignorance in the world!" But that's an entirely too simplistic way to look at it. The truth of the matter is that many of them are working for the same things that supporters of every other candidate are working for: To make the world a better place. It's the way to do that that is the issue, not the person. But if we assume they're idiots, we remove ourselves from the problem. "oh, you can't change people's mind, they're just stupid." I hear that all the time, usually with the phrase "I don't argue on the internet." And with that attitude, you'd be right. If you dismiss the person as an idiot, you don't have to work any harder to fix the problem. On the other hand, if you think of the person as an intelligent functioning member of society that wants the same things you do, but believes the way to get those things is different than what you do, well, that requires a little bit more effort. Oh, and the "you can't change people's minds" isn't exactly true either. I have changed people's minds on the internet, and I've had my mind changed by others. But it requires that we stop assuming others aren't as educated as we are.

Part 2: Why people believe the world is crap.

There's a couple of pretty huge reasons for this. The first is that the message is EVERYWHERE. The news only talks about things going wrong, the internet is full of people doing dumb things, evil things, or evil dumb things, gossip is rampant, and you can't go a day without hearing about something going horribly wrong. But the message isn't everywhere because there's more of it, the message is everywhere because we're more connected than ever before, so it's a lot easier to get the message. With Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, Snapchat, and a host of other social media outlets doing something stupid will get it seen by more people faster than ever before. And once it's on the internet, it's there forever. Did people do stupid stuff 30 years ago? Sure, but there was no way that a million people would instantly see it when it happened.

But if that's true, why don't we see way more good stuff, as well? Why does it seem like all that attention is ONLY bad news?  Well, bad news gets more attention. "Famous celeb gets drunk, destroys hotel room" is going to get a lot more views than "Famous celeb helps teach poor children how to read". Because of that, it skews the results of what gets written, aired, or shared. You could make a show that only highlights good deeds, but people want to see the bad things. It's like we're wired to pay more attention to negativity than the positive. And that's because we are.

This brings us to the second reason people believe the world is crap. Our brains care about negativity SIGNIFICANTLY more than positivity. The positive things are good, as far as our brains are concerned. But the negative things are much more important. Back when our brain programming was being written, a positive influence helps make the world a little bit better, but it doesn't really have much of a lasting impact. "Famous caveman makes fire" is great news, but without it you're still going to survive. "Famous caveman gets drunk, destroys cave" is a serious problem. It means the difference between life or death. So good things get some brain attention, while bad things get a big red stamp that says "PAY ATTENTION TO THIS. IT MIGHT KILL US." That's why even today, we notice bad things sooner, pay more attention to them, and remember them longer. That's why for a "successful relationship" you need to have 5 good interactions for every 1 bad one. And that's why it seems like the world is full of only negativity, when there's plenty of positive things happening all over the place.

Part 3: Conclusion

So, when you see negativity on the internet, remember that there is more positive stuff out there than negative. Keep in mind your own bias to negativity, and understand why it exists. Also, keep in mind that people want the same things you do, and don't immediately dismiss their thoughts as inferior. And finally, try to look for the positive. It's out there, it's just harder to stick in our brains, so we have to make a larger effort to keep it there. But also, pay attention to the bad things, because we don't want to get eaten. But most importantly, never let your brain trick you into believing the only thing out there are lions.