The Politics of Pessimism

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“Our country is in decline, we are a failing nation,” bemoaned the indicted Donald Trump. On that much, most folks concur, with 83 percent of Americans telling Gallup the country’s “state of moral values” is “getting worse.”

The moral gloom is global. When psychologists Adam Mastroianni and Daniel Gilbert harvested survey responses from 12.5 million people across 60 countries and 70 years, they found that people always and everywhere have perceived morality (including kindness, honesty, and other virtues) in decline. This despite most manifestations of immorality—war, murder, child abuse, slavery—subsiding, and people reporting no change in their own morally relevant behaviors. While the world has in fact become more humane, an illusion of moral decline remains pervasive.

This dark delusion of plummeting social and economic well-being crosses domains. But the truth tells a different story:

  • Crime feels up, while crime rates have fallen. “We have blood, death, and suffering on a scale once unthinkable,” bewailed Donald Trump. “Crime infests our cities,” echoed Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.   Americans agree: Each year since 2005, 7 in 10 have told Gallup that crime has increased in the past year—a perception shared by Republicans and Democrats alike. It’s not just Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy who contends that “violent crime is at record highs.” Yet since the early 1990s violent and property crime rates have fallen by about half. And the National Crime Victimization Survey confirms that we are much safer today.
  • Poverty seems up, while poverty has abated. In a Gates Foundation–funded survey, 87 percent of people surveyed across 24 countries believed global poverty has either stayed the same or gotten worse. But the percent of humans living in extreme poverty has fallen by two-thirds since 1990.
  • Life conditions seem to be worsening, while life has gotten easier. Nearly 6 in 10 Americans told Pew Research in April that “life in America today” is worse than it “was 50 years ago for people like you” . . . despite increased life expectancy, more than doubled real average income, decreased percentage of income spent on food, and today’s material blessings ranging from dishwashers and air conditioning to smartphones and streaming TV.
  • The national economy is tanking, but my finances are okay. In a 2023 Federal Reserve survey, only 18 percent of Americans viewed the national economy as good or excellent. And nearly two-thirds told Gallup they had little or no confidence in President Biden’s management of the economy. Nevertheless, 73 percent say their own finances are doing “at least okay.” No surprise, given that unemployment is at a 50-year low, inflation has moderated, and job satisfaction and the nation’s GDP are at all-time highs.
  • Undocumented immigrants seem a threat, despite their compartively low crime rate. “Criminal elements,” we’ve been told, are “pouring in,” while “sanctuary cities are unleashing vicious predators and bloodthirsty killers.” Half the public agrees, Gallup reports: “Americans are five times more likely to say immigrants make [crime] situation worse rather than better (45% to 9%, respectively).” This despite undocumented immigrants reportedly having a much lower incarceration rate than U.S.-born citizens.

To be sure, some social and ecological indicators, such as teen mental health and the climate future, are worrisome. Nevertheless, excessive pessimism prevails. The modal American believes the Black incarceration rate increased between 2006 and 2018 (it decreased 35 percent), that the teen birth rate has been increasing (it has been decreasing), and that the high school dropout rate has increased (though it decreased).

People’s dour outlook applies to the nation, but not to their own local experience. My neighborhood, my town, are safe, healthy, flourishing places, we mostly observe. But the rest of America—the America we see on TV—is a cesspool of immorality, crime, and poverty.

Our national pessimism arises partly from what psychologist Cory Clark and his University of Pennsylvania colleagues call our natural “hypervigilance toward bad outcomes.” From a young age, we are attuned to possible harms and to threatening or negative information.

A second, powerful contributor to our bleak outlooks is the famed availability heuristic—our human tendency to judge the frequency of events by the ease with which instances of them come to mind. Vivid, mentally available images of plane crashes, terror attacks, and school shootings lead us to fear too much the things that kill people in bunches, and too little the less dramatic threats that take lives one by one. Thus, many people fear air travel, though by distance traveled we were, in the last decade, 595 times safer on a commercial flight than in a passenger vehicle. Gut feelings, fed by vivid anecdotes, hijack evidence-based thinking.

“Mass media indulge this tendency,” note Mastroianni and Gilbert, “with a disproportionate focus on people behaving badly.” Journalists don’t cover planes that land, people behaving morally, or immigrants living peaceably. Moreover, say Mastroianni and Gilbert, biased exposure is compounded by biased memory: The negativity of past bad experiences fades faster than the positivity of past good experiences.

Thus, relative to yesteryear’s Golden Age, we badly overestimate today’s dramatic risks, crime rates, poverty, and immorality. And believing this decline narrative, we become receptive to the politics of gloom—to demagogues who embrace dystopian pessimism and pour petrol on its festering flames. “Crime and inflation are rampant.” We are beset by “poverty and violence at home.” “Our country [is] rapidly going to hell!” “I alone can fix it.” Elect me, we hear, and I will make our nation great again.

“What is the one thing wrong with the world that you would change?” the Harvard Gazette asked Steven Pinker, author of 2021’s Rationality. His answer: “Too many leaders and influencers, including politicians, journalists, intellectuals, and academics, surrender to the cognitive bias of assessing the world through anecdotes and images rather than data and facts.”

If only we could fix that.

David Myers, a Hope College social psychologist, authors psychology textbooks and trade books, including How Do We Know Ourselves: Curiosities and Marvels of the Human Mind.

 

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About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).