Pessimism and Availability Heuristics
If you had to choose a moment in history to be born, and you did not know ahead of time who you would be — you didn't know whether you were going to be born into a wealthy family or a poor family, what country you’d be born in, whether you were going to be a man or a woman — if you had to choose blindly what moment you’d want to be born, you’d choose now.
- Barak Obama, 2016
Steven Pinker makes an observation in his new book, Enlightenment Now (2018), that the reason for our general unhappiness and the fear that the world around us is going to hell in a hang basket, contrary to all evidence, is a result of a heuristic known as the availability bias.
The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to our mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method, or a decision. The availability bias operates on the notion that if something can be recalled, it must be important, or at least more important than alternative solutions which are not as readily recalled. Subsequently, under the availability heuristic, we tend to heavily weigh our judgments toward more recent information, making new opinions biased toward the latest news.
We live in a digital information society that assaults us constantly with feeds and other forms of stream of consciousness. Fake or real, it makes little difference, for to qualify as “news” it has to be bad. Good things rarely make it to the news cycle. Since we are constantly absorbing things that are bad, we internalise this negativity and begin to consider the world around us as getting worse by the day.
Picking up any Sunday paper could easily lead us to believe that we could at any moment be killed by a terrorist bomb, our democratic way of life is under existential threat from immigration, or that the Chinese will imminently destroy the US economy. None these claims are factually true, but as the media spends inordinate quantities of bytes and ink on these issues we fall in the availability heuristic trap and start thinking that the world as we know it is about to end.
The only way for us to deal with availability biases is to read widely, listen to experts, and always, before deciding for ourselves, ask the question of what motivates the statement that is being made by the media and the numerous commentators and experts. And let’s not forget Obama:
…if you had to choose blindly what moment you’d want to be born, you’d choose now.