Most people think that the world is getting worse. However, when we look at the statistics, things have actually gotten much better. Why is our perception of reality so wrong? The media’s disproportionate focus on bad news is partly to blame, but the fundamental way our brains work is actually the biggest culprit. Evolution has made us good at making quick decisions. This is useful in many situations, but quickly jumping to conclusions without carefully considering all the facts also makes us prone to errors.
We like to divide the world into rich countries and poor countries, but this is a 1960s view of the world. Back then, there was indeed a huge gap between rich and poor countries, but today, 75 percent of people live in middle-income countries. The world can no longer be neatly divided into rich versus poor since it’s more of a spectrum.
Only 9 percent of people live in low-income countries today and life there isn’t as bad as most people think. When we think of poverty, it’s natural to think of the worst countries to live in, namely Afghanistan, Somalia, and the Central African Republic. However, even most poor countries are much better off than these three.
The way data is presented can be misleading. Looking only at averages makes it seem like there is no overlap between groups when they may actually overlap quite a bit. It’s better to avoid comparing extremes since most people are in the middle.
Improvements happen so gradually, they aren’t newsworthy. Extreme poverty has halved in the last 20 years. The majority of people in the world lived in extreme poverty until 1966, now only 9 percent do. In 1997, 42 percent of India and China were living in extreme poverty, now it’s just 12 and 0.7 percent respectively. Our world has improved dramatically in just the past 20 years, yet the news often makes it seem like nothing has changed.
Average life expectancy had risen from 31 in 1800 to 72 today. In fact, no country today has a life expectancy below 50 years. Slavery, oil spills, HIV, child mortality, war deaths, the death penalty, leaded gasoline, plane crash deaths, child labor, disaster deaths, nuclear arms, smallpox, smoke particles, ozone depletion, hunger, and cost of solar panels are all on the decline worldwide. Women’s right to vote, protected natural habitats, harvests, literacy, democracy, girls in school, electricity coverage, water availability, and immunization are all up. (Visit gapminder.com to look at the data yourself.)
We currently live in the best time to be alive, yet we think things are worse. This is due to our instinct to notice bad more than good, our tendency to remember the past as better than it was, and the way the media presents the news. You don’t report every time a plane doesn’t crash. Reporting by its very nature tends to focus on the bad. Most people think crime goes up every year even though it generally trends downwards. Also, nations tend to censor their history to make it look better than it was. History classes give a distorted view, making it seem like things were better in the past when they were actually much worse when you look at the numbers.
When we see straight lines on a graph, we think it will continue increasing forever. The world’s population is one example. However, this is deceptive because the population can’t grow forever. It will level off at some point, just like a growing child won’t continue getting taller forever. Before 1965, each woman had 5 kids on average, but after that the number decreased and the worldwide average now is 2.5 children per woman.
The population of adults will continue to increase into the future due to children growing up, but the number of children born is already leveling off. Up until about 1900, population growth was flat due to high child mortality. Once less children died, the population grew. Now that people are having less children, the population is being brought back into balance.
High and middle income countries (which make up 90 percent of the world), have 2 children per family on average. Only the poorest 10 percent still living in extreme poverty continue to have 5 on average. The media likes to focus on the exceptions to the rule because that’s more newsworthy. We think people are having bigger families than they really are.
Fear makes it difficult to think critically. The media knows it has to trigger our fear to get us to pay attention. This makes us think unusual things are more common than they really are. Deaths from natural disasters have decreased over the last hundred years even though the population is higher. Deaths due to plane crashes are over 2000 times lower than 70 years ago. Battle deaths have dramatically decreased since the end of WWII.
Fear can cause more harm than good. Fear of DDT prevents its use even though no one has ever died from it and it could save many lives. Over 1000 people died fleeing Fukushima while the radioactivity killed no one. Fear of vaccines leads to preventable deaths. Terrorism has actually been increasing, but not in the wealthiest countries. In the US, you’re 50 times more likely to be killed by a drunk person than a terrorist. We fear the wrong things. We’re more afraid of rare dramatic events than the most common ways to die.
Humans often overestimate or underestimate the importance of things. The media focuses on individual stories over the numbers. To avoid misjudging, don’t take any single number at face value, but compare it to another number. 4.2 million babies died in 2016. It seems like a big number on its own, but in 1950, it was 14.4 million. In fact, this number is the lowest it’s ever been.
In 2009, far more people died of TB than swine flu, but swine flu received far more attention. It’s a good rule of thumb to focus on the biggest numbers to avoid panicking over the small stuff. Numbers can be misleading when taken out of context. For example, India and China produce a lot of CO2, but when you take population into account, they don’t produce as much as other countries.