Why Is Optimism Gauche?

There is something impolite about optimism, I think. On Twitter I follow @HumanProgress. It is almost horrifyingly cheerful. A sample:

Crime is down, but most people don’t know it. Indeed, many people don’t want to know it: “Criminologists often get angry responses when we try to tell people the crime rate has gone down,” said Dr. Edward Day, about a recent study of American fears.

Shunning good news? When good news is everywhere? Why why why? Let’s try a thought experiment.

Imagine an alien world — one that is not our own — in which many, many things were really getting a whole lot better. Not perfect — nothing is — just better. In this world, some things are also getting worse, and no sensible alien would deny it. But on the whole, the worst forms of poverty are in retreat, and much of the world is joining the middle class. Diseases are disappearing, because for the very first time in this world’s history, medicine actually works. New technologies are arriving almost daily, and old technologies keep getting better and better. Wars are becoming fewer and less deadly, and in the already peaceful and prosperous places, crime is way, way down.

Now imagine that in this imaginary world, almost no one wanted to believe any of it.

This ought to be strange, and I think we would find it strange in any world but our own. Yet as you already know — This world is ours. It’s not made up.

Why are we like this? I have several theories. Here they are, in no particular order:

Signaling: Pessimism signals sophistication or intellectual depth. Opinion makers don’t want to signal anything else, and opinion takers just breathe it all in.

How does this signalling work? It may be like this: The intellect is commonly understood as a capacity to unearth hidden facts and to draw new conclusions; when surface appearances are positive, we are obliged to be pessimistic if we wish to pass as people of intellect.

Equilibrium: Some parts of our consciousness need to feel bad, and we’re simply feeding them.

Ideology: Marxism predicts that capitalism will make things worse, and we are in many ways still under its spell.

Declension: Ever since Plato – and confirmed by Christianity – the West has adored its declension narratives. Long before Marx, Americans in particular have been neck deep in them.

Game Theory: Say that the payoff for being wrong about a good thing is only slightly negative. But the payoff for being wrong about a bad thing is very negative. Players with imperfect information will predict bad things much more often.

How would we start knocking out some of these hypotheses?

5 thoughts on “Why Is Optimism Gauche?

  1. I have another theory, perhaps related to declension; we might call it ‘crisis reaction.’ Wrong path fears inspire action; if things are good, there is no reason to change paths or do anything. This results in some weird negative feedback loops; the constant string of political emails predicting disaster instead of promoting accomplishment, for instance. Or the parent who jumps in to help a kid with homework when they’re at risk of failing, but doesn’t proffer help when they’re getting B’s. The people who take their car to a mechanic when it starts making funny sounds, but not for a checkup to prevent it from making funny sounds.

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  2. I think we are still in the thrall of our evolutionary past where the ability to identify and react to threats was very important. We are creatures who evolved to be able to avoid “the bad” and thus we tend to see it more often and exaggerate its badness. It’s only in the last 200 years that we can seriously talk about things getting better. Why be surprised that it’s hard for us to accept?

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  3. I’m not sure the evolutionary explanation works. Why should evolution have predisposed people to making inaccurately negative judgments? It seems like such systematic inaccuracy would be selected against and tend to disappear, at least barring some other beneficial characteristic that accompanied it.

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  4. I don’t want to downplay your existing list, but I think there’s one to add to the mix. Namely: when one group sees something as a problem and another doesn’t see it as such (or is unwilling to take action to address it), the second group will often adopt the rhetoric of “things in general are improving” (with an implied value of “we don’t need to care so much about [Problem X]”). So anybody who adopts “things are improving” rhetoric is implicitly placing themselves on the opposite side of those who want to change society in some way. Since basically everybody involved in politics wants to change society in some way, “things are improving” won’t exactly make you popular among people who are politically active, and you spend a disproportionate amount of time in dialogue with such people.

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