We live in the safest and most prosperous world in human history. The statistics show that in almost all areas the world is improving. We live longer and there is less war and violence. The perception of most people, however, is different. Negativity is everywhere; the media mainly bring bad news and journalism has become more negative and dramatic over the years. The misery of the world enters our living room every day.
Negative thinking has major consequences for society. It creates political unrest and leads to a decline in solidarity, creativity and well-being. This obsession with negativity is not only present in journalism. People are faced with negativity almost every day at work or in school. The education system is aimed at avoiding bad grades and most employees only receive feedback when they make a mistake. Negative signals are omnipresent.
Decline in empathy
Another relevant development is that in Western society individual freedom is considered to be sacred. This philosophy of liberal individualism has become increasingly dominant in the rest of the world. It has led to personal freedom, human rights and prosperity, but it also has its repercussions. Narcissism has increased and social involvement has decreased. After 500 years of increasing empathy, there has been a decline in the last 20 years. Each person lives in their own information bubble, where dissenters are filtered out by their own preferences and algorithms. If people don’t listen to those who think differently, there will be no ground for understanding. Groups will only polarise and drift apart.
Individual freedom is valuable, but it also implies individual responsibility. You are expected to stand up for yourself and put personal performance first. There is a growing group of people who suffer negative consequences from the pressure to perform, combined with the negative signals from work, study and the media. In the Western world we are seeing an increase in burnout and depression. Especially among young people, the number of psychological problems has risen and the growing number of suicides is cause for concern. Psychiatrists are sending out alarm signals because their waiting rooms are filling up with young people. Strangely enough, this subject is receiving little attention. In the delusion of negativity, some serious problems are apparently being overlooked, while lesser problems are overestimated.
My book Negativity Mania is a search for the delusion of negativity. Why has mankind created a world where we are surrounded by negative signals, while positive developments remain almost invisible? Why is there a relatively large amount of attention for acute but relatively small problems (an attack, a plane crash), and yet relatively little attention is paid to major problems that gradually manifest themselves (depression, obesity)? Why did we build organisations where so many employees are dissatisfied and dropping like flies? How can it be that the tolerance between population groups and even between different departments of an organisation seems to be decreasing?
The answer to these questions must be sought in the human thinking biases. The human brain naturally has an oversensitive alarm function, is inclined towards short-term thinking, self-overestimation and group thinking and has a sensitive antenna for danger (negativity bias). Historically this was important for survival, but in modern times it is getting in our way. Especially now that technology is racing ahead and the consequences of our thinking errors are getting more and more far-reaching. It is necessary to understand the working of our brain to avoid the pitfalls. The consequences of our thinking errors are visible everywhere, on a personal and organisational level and at the level of society as a whole. It has repercussions in journalism, politics, business and education. Recent insights from the brain sciences and psychological research provide leads to turn the tide. Innovative movements within journalism, education and business utilise these insights and point the way to a new and more constructive society. Everyone can contribute. If we are aware of our errors of reasoning, we can reduce the pitfalls for ourselves and our suroundings. In this way we can help ourselves, the people around us and the generations to come.
If you would like to read more about this subject: Negativity Mania; how the negativity bias, short-term fixation and groupthink rules our world.