As the year nears its end and we are approaching the moment of the new year’s resolutions we also enter a period of reflection on what has been, what is almost guaranteed to come given the rippling of causality and what we desire to realize given our remaining degrees of freedom. It is important to engage in this practice with the correct mindset and tools if we want it to be a helpful exercise.
We suffer from systemic errors in evaluating reality
Looking at humanity as a whole, we seem to have a tendency to under evaluate the progress that we make. We tend to be significantly more pessimistic about where the world actually is today in comparison to the reality with which we are dealing with. In his book Factfulness, Hans Rosling & co. show that we suffer from a systemic evaluation problem which affect us across all education levels. What Rosling discovered is that the process through which we evaluate the world is so devastatingly wrong that a chimp which makes random choices can outperform us on a multiple-choice questionnaire about the state of the world. At the end of the day, highly educated people who take an interest in the world got on average 16% of the test correctly while the chimp picking randomly got 33% correctly.
Given that 12,000 people from 14 countries and from most walk of life suffer from a systemic problem in their evaluation of reality, we must consider that we ourselves will very likely be affected by the same errors in judgement that affect the studied group. While we may blame access to data as a cause for these errors in judgment, we would be wrong in doing so. When applying some of these questions to world leader that have access to the best information in the world at the annual World Economic Forum conference at Davos, still only 61% of the audience got the correct answer to the questions. Thus, the problem is not access to data, but it is our mindset.
Easy access to negative news is skewing our view towards pessimism
Our minds are constantly bombarded with an overflow of negativity, we read and hear on a daily basis about inequality, climate disasters, possible recessions, trade and normal war, terrorism, we hear of new dictators, of democracy decreasing and the rule of law crumbling. Fear and hopelessness are being seeded and watered in the process. As a result of this, in many places in the world, the past 3 to 4 years have each been proclaimed as the worst year ever, one after another of course. On the back of this, our reflex to look for an Edenic past is triggered. We are thinking that as we move forward, we certainly only getting closer to an apocalyptic end. But as Franklin P. Adams pointed out: “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory”. It becomes much easier to see declines if we compare negative events of the present with rose tinted images of the past. Having a mindset of criticism also doesn’t improve our situation and sadly there seems to be a tendency to become ever more catastrophical the more intellectual you are.
One of the reasons that we have such a big problem with appreciating progress is due to the availability heuristic. The easier it is to recall something from memory the more probable we judge it to be. Social media plays a big role in what we see, and generally we are give access to two things: 1) mostly photos and videos of how awesome people we know are doing, because almost no one wishes to post realistic documentation of their life events on such websites, and 2) ever more pessimistic news, as no news report will start with: “I’m here in China where for the past 30 years extreme poverty has decreased by 87.3 percentage points.” As a result of this we see people we know leading a seemingly better life than us and a world with no redeeming qualities that seems to only be getting worse. As a result, it is not surprising we can get stuck in a state of anxiety, pessimism, depression and catastrophically inclined thinking.
Some tips on how to overcome our biases
Now, I am not proposing that we should reverse our view of the world by 180 degrees and paint what is going on around us as completely rosy. However, I do think that we need to look at the world and at ourselves in a different way. Doing so requires that we start becoming aware of the biases that we have. As such, here are some quick tips from Hans Roseling’s book on how to make sure that you are judging your reality as it is and not as your biases consider it to be. I hope that these tips will help you generate a better reflection of the past and allow you to see more of the possibilities that are in front of you.
- Information about bad events is more likely to reach us. Progress can generally be found behind a wall of negativity noise. Becoming aware that the amount of times we hear the same bad or good news has no impact on the suffering of happiness it generates is a must. Aka, more bad news does not mean a worse world. It is the aggregate of the number and impact of unique positive and negative events that really matter.
- When we compare what is happening, we have a tendency to look at the extremes and evaluate based on that. This is a big error because most things tend to happen around the median. Thus, ask yourself if what you are thinking is in fact a generality and not just an extreme that was better printed in your memory.
- Seeing a momentary increase or decrease does not tell us much about what is really going on. We need to abandon the heuristic that reality moves in a straight line. Very often trends have S-bends, humps and pullbacks. Thus, if we look furthered back and recognize that things are a bit more complicated can we actually succeed in making a proper evaluation.
- Evaluating the world from a position of fear will make the world seem dangerous. Calm yourself before reflecting on anything
- Nothing has any value in and by itself. An elephant taken alone is neither big nor small. But if compared to a human he is large, while if compared to a blue whale he is small. Thus, try to think in amounts or rates, as absolutes can easily be misleading.
- Don’t let yourself think that nothing is happening just because progress or decline in a certain domain of your life or of the world is slow. Big things move slower so make sure that when you are looking at rates of change you are comparing apples with apples before you evaluate. If not sure ask a wise grandpa or grandma. They have been around longer and have a better understanding of how big things evolve and decay.
- Every single perspective has a narrow and limited view on reality no matter how broad it may seem. Thus, make sure you analyses the same thing from multiple perspectives before you come to a conclusion. Many surprising opportunities await you behind this practice.
- If you think you have found the fault, or the villain please think again. In reality, almost no effect has a single cause. The more complex the system within which you are searching for a cause the less likely the possibility of a single cause becomes.
- Finally, remember that there is almost always time. While our high speed, instant access and instant delivery society seems to be pushing us to think that it is now or never, in actuality, very few things will bring about the end of the world if you don’t solve it in the next minute. Thus, remember to take the time to evaluate the situation before you take any action or decision.
Having personally applied these changes in my own reflection process has been highly empowering. Because once I saw that the world while in a state of constant struggle is getting better over time it allowed me to feel that my efforts are not in vain and that positive change is possible. It also allowed me to see better where I really am and how to evaluate what I am building. Thus, I encourage you to try this out and you might have the same shock that I had when you realize that your current state is much better than you expected and that you have more power than you think.
I hope that this will empower you to drive more positive change in your personal life, at work, and in the larger world in the year that is to come.