Summary: Optimism flourishes more in rapidly growing countries, fueled by the promise of improvements in living standards, a phenomenon less evident in relatively developed nations like the US. Human nature, predisposed to focus on negative news, collides with media outlets’ profit-driven emphasis on sensationalism, perpetuating a cycle of pessimism. Understanding our negativity bias and learning probabilistic reasoning skills can help navigate the deluge of alarming headlines, while seeking out sources of positive news can provide a more balanced perspective.

Surveys show that optimism is highest in rapidly growing countries that are catching up with the developed world. High growth rates allow the citizens of those nations to experience massive year-on-year increases in standards of living – something that, in the absence of an AI-led revolution in productivity, is unlikely to occur in already developed countries. Slow and steady progress, such as the one currently underway in the United States, does not seem sufficient to inspire widespread optimism about the future.

The problem of incrementalism is compounded by the interaction between human nature and the media. Given the inhospitable world we have evolved in, humans have learned to prioritize the bad news. Consequently, the media has embraced the “if it bleeds, it leads” business model. Worse still, growing competition between television, newspapers, and websites has significantly increased negative content over time. The inclusion of an additional negative word in a headline, for example, leads to 2.3 percent more clicks, according to a recent study.

Unfortunately, most people are unaware of our innate negativity bias. It may be helpful to include the understanding of basic human psychology in high-school curricula. While we may not be able to purge the negativity bias from our brains, understanding how and why we react to a ceaseless barrage of terrifying headlines in certain ways may help us gain a proper perspective on the world around us.

Another way to get around the apocalyptic headlines and focus on the largely positive trendlines is to develop a more sophisticated understanding of statistical probabilities. While evidence suggests that humans have an innate capacity for probabilistic reasoning, the formal application of Bayesian inference – which is to say, adjustment of our beliefs or guesses about something as we learn more information – is a learned skill. Infants and untrained adults show abilities that align with Bayesian principles on a basic level, indicating an intuitive understanding of probability and uncertainty. However, the precise and formal application of Bayesian reasoning requires education, especially in complex scenarios.

Finally, humans can choose what kind of information to consume. Knowing that traditional media does not offer a realistic picture of the world, people can sign up for services – such as the Human Progress weekly newsletter – that collate the positive happenings ignored by mainstream media outlets.