Turn to any major news platform and what will you see? Headlines about the spread of COVID-19, political parties bashing each other, continuing deaths in Syria, and streets tormented with violent crimes and even tornadoes.
With bad news constantly at our fingertips, it is no wonder that many people believe the world is in a new state of elevated chaos that is now well-beyond our control to reverse. But, is this view accurate?
One prominent psychologist in particular, Dr. Steven Pinker from Harvard University, strongly disagrees. Around 10 years ago, he began publishing books and speaking out about numerous examples of longitudinal data that indicate
people are actually better off now than ever before.
Dr. Pinker is an experimental psychologist who has published 10 books and frequently writes for The New York Times, The Guardian, Time, and The Atlantic. Having also taught at Stanford and MIT, he is a two-time
Pulitzer Prize finalist, one of TIME’s “100 Most Influential People in the World Today,” and one of Foreign Policy’s “World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals.”
In this exclusive interview, he explains that there is much to be gained from having a more accurate view about the overall state that people are in, namely because our informed decisions are then more likely to bring about better
results. He says, “If we want to be more prosperous, happier, healthier, better educated, and more satisfied with our lives, and if we want to reduce poverty, disease, and violence elsewhere, then we’ve got to understand what
drives them up and down.”
Due to COVID-19, Harvard and many other schools recently implemented an online-only format to socially isolate all students in undergraduate and graduate courses. And yet, despite this pandemic hitting close to home for Dr. Pinker
and many other psychologists around the world, he continues to stand by his views. Here’s why.
First, Some Facts
Although Dr. Pinker is quick to say that some people disagree with his views, his evidence just consists of numbers based on human well-being. Here are some of his examples:
- Life expectancy has increased from about 30 years to more than 70 worldwide, and to more than 80 in developed countries.
- Literacy has increased from maybe 10% of the population worldwide to 90%—at least among people under the age of 25.
- Extreme poverty has decreased from 90% of the world’s population to about 8%.
- The rate of death in war has fallen from about 20 per 100,000 in the late 1940s to 1 per 100,000 today.
- The homicide rate has fallen over time from maybe 20 or 30 per 100,000 per year to maybe 1 or 2 depending on the country.
- Overall happiness has increased in a majority of countries for which we have longitudinal data.
Dr. Pinker explains that he chose these particular measures of longitudinal data, in addition to many others, not because they are the ones that showed an improvement in human flourishing, but because they were the basic dimensions
of human well-being: life, prosperity, and education.
He says, “I began with violence because, as a psychologist, I had written about our violent impulses in The Blank Slate, and I wanted to note that there had been reductions. And then, as I became aware of more and more declines
in violence, that became the basis of its own book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.” Other measures of importance that he included in that book were safety from natural accidents, options to enjoy cultural and natural
richness, and self-rated happiness or life satisfaction, which he feels was the ultimate criteria.
Summarizing his findings and the response to them, Dr. Pinker says, “In measure after measure, we are better off. But, most people deny this, most people think that life is getting worse. This is partly because of the availability
bias that Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman documented long ago where people get their view of the world from anecdotes, narratives, and images.”
Will the news always present us with wars, shootings, and famines, and now epidemics? Dr. Pinker thinks so, and that this is partly because of people’s built-in nostalgia. He elaborates, “We tend to forget how bad past times were
while we were living through them. And it is partly also because of social competition. To criticize the present is a way of criticizing your contemporaries, your rivals, the other elites, and so there is always a niche for
social critics. People who point to improvement are often considered to be apologizing for the status quo.”
What’s at Stake
A common confusion Dr. Pinker faces is that people sometimes hear his ideas and then assume that he is saying that there is no need for continued improvement in the world. However, Dr. Pinker definitely does not want people to
become passive or indifferent to the problems that exist, nor does he believe that having a more accurate view of the world will cause this to happen.
Quite the contrary, he explains, “Eight percent of the world is still in extreme poverty. That’s hundreds of millions of people, which is far too many. So, better does not mean perfect. Decline does not mean a disappearance. But,
we should look at the past successes to embolden us to continue to progress and try to bring poverty and war down as close to 0 as we can.”
To do this, Dr. Pinker believes it is important to be accurate in this assessment, recognizing the threats that exists and their severity, while also recognizing any progress. Otherwise, deluding ourselves into thinking that no
progress is being made can lead to a kind of fatalism and helplessness where one might say, “Well, if decades or centuries of trying to make the world a better place have led to nothing, then why even bother? Let’s just enjoy
ourselves while we can. Trying to improve human life is utopian, romantic, or idealistic!”
Another problem with perceived helpless is that it can lead to radicalism. Voicing someone with this mindset, he says, “If everything is failing, then we should just tear the whole system down and hope that whatever rises from
the ashes will be better than what we have now.” But as history shows and as Dr. Pinker reminds people, radicalism itself can lead to atrocities and catastrophes.
Want to Hear More From Dr. Pinker?
Listen to an extended version of this interview. "Dr. Steven Pinker Says Bad News Isn’t the Whole Story" is avaialble at www.psichi.org/PodcastSeason2.
Incentivizing the Media
It is common knowledge that bad news sells, and so the media often focuses on stories of discontent because they make a profit in doing so. However, when asked what incentive the media has to portray a more positive view, Dr. Pinker
was quick to reply with this:
“People are increasingly avoiding the news because it puts them into such a foul mood. They get anxious, they get depressed, they feel hopeless, they undergo learned helplessness. So, of course people are turning away from mainstream
media in droves, particularly the newspapers. Pulling them back somewhat is the morbid appeal of violence, threats, and disasters; it sells in our fictional entertainment and it sells in our news because people are kind of
gruesomely captivated by the threat of mayhem. But, this can lead to a point of diminishing returns where people avoid the news altogether.”
Dr. Pinker believes that most journalists, together with their desire to sell papers and get online clicks, deeply believe that they have an altruistic responsibility to tell the truth. He says, “I think that most people in journalism
feel that they are not just in it to make a buck, because journalism would not be the most lucrative career choice. They feel that they have a responsibility to inform the world and that good things come from that.”
As a part of this responsibility, Dr. Pinker thinks that journalists should strive to present a more accurate picture of where progress has taken place. Doing so will then help people isolate the factors causing these improvements
and seek to carry them forward.
What Happens Next (Is Up to You)
Dr. Pinker doesn’t see his research on this topic as a prediction so much as an attempt to identify what’s responsible for improvement. He says, “The subtitle of Enlightenment Now was The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.
‘Progress,’ I argued was the result of ‘reason, science, and humanism.’ ”
In other words, Dr. Pinker’s prediction of continued program is “only to the extent that our collective norms and our institutions are dedicated to reason, science, humanism, progress.”
He says, “A better future is not guaranteed, because there can be rude shocks—like a pandemic or climate change if we don’t deal with it successfully—but if we abandon the ideals of reason, science, and humanism, then we may not
see progress, because progress is not a force of nature. It doesn’t happen by itself. It happens only to the extent that we dedicate ourselves to these ideals.”
So, what are some notable improvements in the world? And, what are examples of organizations that set a positive message and have made meaningful differences that could be carried forward?
To conclude this interview, Dr. Pinker is more than happy to tell you about these:
- The United Nations set up a norm that war is not a legitimate way for nations to settle their disputes and that nation states are immortal—countries may no longer be conquered and territory can no longer be acquired as a way
of settling dispute. That deserves some of the credit for the decline of war since 1945.
- The Rockefeller Foundation, which sponsored the research leading to the Green Revolution from Norman Borlaug, has been credited with saving a billion lives.
- The civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights movements have all attained real progress.
- The attempts to reduce child labor and child exploitation led by Kailash Satyarthi won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.
- Within countries, programs like Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, the Earned Income Tax Credit have reduced poverty.
- The Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Environmental Protection Agency have reduced the amount of air and water pollution in the United States.
- The Montreal Protocol to eliminate the emission of chlorofluorocarbons eliminated the ozone hole.
Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist who conducts research in visual cognition, psycholinguistics, and social relations. He grew up in Montreal and earned his BA from McGill and his PhD from Harvard. Currently Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard, he has also taught at Stanford and MIT. He has won many prizes for his research, teaching, and 10 books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and The Sense of Style. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Humanist of the Year, a recipient of nine honorary doctorates, and one Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World Today.” His latest book is Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.
Copyright 2020 (Vol. 24, Iss. 4) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology