Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist who conducts research in visual cognition, psycholinguistics, and social relations. Currently Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard, he has also taught at Stanford and MIT. Pinker has won numerous prizes for his research and he is one of Foreign Policy’s “World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals” and Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World Today.”
Rainer Zitelmann: In your opinion, why do most people underestimate positive developments and so dramatically overstate negative developments?
Steven Pinker: One reason is an interaction between the nature of cognition and the nature of journalism. People estimate risk and probability by the anecdotes, narratives, and images that come to mind–the mental operation that Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky call the Availability Heuristic. Journalism focuses on sudden events, and events are more often bad than good—a shooting, a terrorist act, a battle, an epidemic. Good things unfold gradually, a few percentage points at a time, and can transform the world without ever creating a headline. On top of this built-in bias, journalism has added two conscious biases: the programming policy “If it bleeds it leads,” an attempt to parlay our morbid interest in disasters into commercial advantage, and a moralistic commitment to raking the muck and exposing scandal and corruption in the belief that this is the only route to social progress.
There is another reason, though, and that is competition among social groups, particularly elites. To acknowledge progress is to endorse some of the institutions of the status quo—democratic government, science, experts, international organizations—and members of other elites may execrate the state of the world as a way of attacking their rivals. It’s a way for businesspeople to discredit governments, academics to discredit business, religious spokespeople to discredit secular organizations, and so on.
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