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How to Combat Gloom and Pessimism

Blog Post | Education & Literacy

How to Combat Gloom and Pessimism

Given the inhospitable world we have evolved in, humans have learned to prioritize the bad news.

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.

U.S. News | Drug Use

US Drug Overdose Deaths Decline for First Time in 5 Years

“The relentless rise in deaths from drug overdose in the United States may finally have stalled: New data from 2023 show the first decline in such deaths since 2018.

‘Statistics indicate there were an estimated 107,543 drug overdose deaths in the United States during 2023 — a decrease of 3% from the 111,029 deaths estimated in 2022,’ CDC statisticians wrote.”

From U.S. News.

CNN | Noncommunicable Disease

ALS Patient’s Brain Implant Translates Thoughts to Computer Commands

“Staring at a computer screen, Mark focuses deeply, his arms resting by his side. His right index finger trembles ever so slightly on top of a pillow, and then an alert rings out from the screen in front of him, a message to a caregiver that he needs assistance.

Without ever clicking a mouse or touching a screen, Mark selected this command on his computer simply using signals from his brain. Mark, whom CNN agreed to identify using only his first name for privacy reasons, has an implant inside his brain that is translating his neural activity to commands on a computer.

Mark is only the 10th person in the world implanted with this particular type of brain-computer interface, or BCI. He’s participating in a human trial with a company called Synchron and underwent the procedure in August, after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – sometimes called ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease – in 2021.

The hope is that the technology in Mark’s brain could assist him and others like him who are losing their motor function.”

From CNN.

CNN | Noncommunicable Disease

Spinal Cord Implant Helps Parkinson’s Patient Walk in New Study

“Marc Gauthier can now step into an elevator without his body stiffening and freezing in place. He can take a 3-mile lakeside stroll without stopping. He can stand up out of a chair with ease. For Gauthier, 63, who has been living with Parkinson’s disease for almost three decades, these everyday activities were a challenge — until now.

‘Walking in a store would be really difficult, impossible before, because of the freezing of gait that would often happen in those environments. And now, it just doesn’t happen anymore. I don’t have freezing anymore,’ Gauthier, who lives near Bordeaux, France, said in a news briefing, speaking in French that was translated to English.

In a new study, Gauthier was surgically implanted with an experimental spinal cord neuroprosthesis to correct walking disorders in people with Parkinson’s disease. Step by step, he said, it has helped him get his stride back.”

From CNN.