Pinker’s “The Psychology of Pessimism”

Being pessimistic by inclination, I find Steven Pinker’s “The Psychology of Pessimism” a valuable corrective. He notes that violence is at historically low levels, yet many people think the world is going to hell. He mentions three emotional reasons for pessimism: that more different bad things could happen than good ones, that people become more dissatisfied as they grow older, and that criticism of wrongs is seen as a virtue. In addition, bad things are more newsworthy and memorable, creating a cognitive bias toward pessimism.

When I’m convinced that the future of the world is one of constant surveillance, censorship, and nominally elected dictators, it’s good to remember that things have often been worse in the past. Two hundred years ago, the US had widespread slavery. A little less than a century ago, Americans were thrown in jail for opposing the war and the draft. Fifty years ago there were state laws against interracial marriage. Has the tendency toward freedom stopped and reversed itself? Maybe, but I might just not have the necessary perspective. There are still good things happening, such as rapidly growing awareness of the injustice of civil forfeiture.

I can think of another reason for pessimism. We can change the future but not the past. We need to think about bad things that could happen in order to prevent them; when looking back, though, we might as well remember the good and let the bad go. Planning against disaster should make us more optimistic, since we’re prepared, but it can turn into worry and expectations of doom.

Murphy’s law was originally a reminder that the way to make a reliable product is to make as sure as possible that nothing can go wrong. In popular culture, it’s turned into the idea that the universe conspires against us. It’s important to remember the difference betwen preparedness and pessimism.

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