Everything’s not awful: moving beyond Negativity Bias
Can we rewire our brains for Bright Mirror scenarios?
“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past” - Thomas Jefferson
I was an anxious child.
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I recall a television advert by an environmental group that played repeatedly when I was a kid. It showed extreme weather, cities underwater, animals dying and people suffering. These were the apparent outcomes of people like myself not making personal lifestyle changes. The advert then showed a montage of people saving energy: turning off taps while brushing their teeth, switching off lights when leaving the room, and so on. At the end of the advert, these words would flash up: it’s not too late. The ad was about global warming.
It scared the hell out of me.
I was a sensitive child, and the combination of negative environmental messaging and learning about global warming at school took its toll on my hyperactive young mind. This was made worse as a young adult when I joined environmental groups where other members also had anxiety and assured me that my panicked feelings about the state of the planet were justified, rather than pointing out that I needed help.
It was years before I realised that I had a distorted and anxiety-driven worldview, that the nightly panic attacks that left my heart racing and sometimes paralysed me with fear were not normal, and that I needed professional help to address all of these issues.
When the anxiety healed, so too did my panic and fear about the future. Although I still have concerns about the future of our planet, I now channel these worries into taking effective action rather than raging against the system.
Fast-forward twenty years and the doomsday narrative around climate change has gotten worse, not better. Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has repeatedly told people they should be panicking about climate change, and United Nations (UN) secretary general Antonio Guterres told the COP27 climate change summit last year: “We are in the fight of our lives, and we are losing… Humanity has a choice, cooperate or perish. It is either a Climate Solidarity Pact, or a Collective Suicide Pact.” When I was in Extinction Rebellion, fellow spokespeople told young people that they will have no future and will watch loved ones suffer and be harmed because of climate change, and that society will collapse in their lifetimes.
With this messaging from leading figures, is it surprising that so many young people have eco-anxiety?
Bad news travels fast: Are we wired to be biased?
Negativity bias, also known as the negativity effect, is a cognitive bias we all have. It means that even when we hear equally strong good news and bad news, it’s the bad news that we will remember and repeat. Things of a more negative nature have a greater effect on our psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things, and people are more likely to share and remember negative stories. This bias helps to form our worldview.
Negativity bias likely serves a critical evolutionary basis: humans have evolved to react quickly to potential threats, and as children our brains are wired through adaptive functions that rely on negativity bias to identify, for example, negative character traits. These things can be vital signals that we need to change what we're doing to avoid danger. But, as adults who are now exposed to social media and with access to news availability 24/7, perceived threats are now all around us even when they are thousands of miles away or in the distant past. Our brains are overloaded with negative stories, and our bias is out of balance.
We are trapped in a cycle of negative reporting. News outlets use the old model of ‘if it bleeds, it leads’, but research has found that there may be reasons to reconsider this conventional journalistic trope: while it is true that people are more drawn to negative content, just as many are also drawn to more positive stories.
As easy as it is to blame climate change for high rates of anxiety among young people, this is not the root cause of it. Mental health issues are on the rise for multiple reasons, and existing anxiety and depression are then latching onto problems that the media amplifies.
Why are young people so anxious?
Heavy smartphone use has been repeatedly linked to mental health problems among young people, including increased loneliness, anxiety and depression, and poor sleep. Excessive use of social media also impacts self-esteem by creating a distorted self-view, bullying, and even promoting self-harm.
Lockdowns have also taken a toll: they were put in place to protect physical health but without considering potential mental health consequences. As a result of this, lockdowns contributed to increased feelings of isolation, distress, and anxiety. Access to care was also reduced internationally during lockdowns, leading to unmet mental health needs in vulnerable young people. Due to school closures, the number of transferrals for additional help for pupils with mental health needs also declined.
In the UK, there are long waiting lists for getting help for mental health issues, and in 2022, children suffering mental health crises in Britain spent more than 900,000 hours in A&E seeking urgent help. Young people who endured long waits included those with depression and psychosis, and some who had self-harmed or tried to kill themselves.
Struggling families also lead to more stressed kids. Research found that “Among seventeen to twenty-two year olds with a probable mental disorder, 14.8% reported living in a household that had experienced not being able to buy enough food or using a food bank in the past year, compared with 2.1% of young people unlikely to have a mental disorder.” Young people who are well-fed, with support systems and mentally-well parents, are much more likely to have good mental health.
There is also much stigma attached to poor mental health; last year Britain’s largest newspaper actively made fun of and attacked people for engaging in healthy practices. This stigma acts as a deterrent to others getting help. Doom and gloom sells newspapers, after all.
A distorted worldview
Thankfully, despite many challenges, my childhood was not entirely bleak: I took hope from Gene Roddenberry’s visions of a utopian future, where exploration and the scientific pursuit of knowledge were the most important mission; I marvelled at nature thanks to David Attenborough documentaries; and reading stories about others, such as inspirational figures like Maya Angelou, made me think that life might get better one day.
But like most people, I incorrectly believed that the world was in a worse state than it is, and that everything was getting worse.
Everywhere you look, there are reports of war, violence, and people panicking about the worst possible applications of new technologies. I get it: I’m a massive sci-fi fan, and as a teenager I read a lot of dystopian fiction, where techno-phobia is a common theme. I grew up thinking that the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) would culminate in the kind of takeover we see by HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when in reality it may lead to many benefits, including better access to education through digital learning, improved customer services, and better disaster responses. AI is already being used in many positive ways including to fight cancer and reduce repetitive tasks for workers (cobots are already being trailed in some workplaces, and are being well-received).
People are so swayed by the negative narratives around them, that when polled on sustainability facts by the Swedish foundation Gapminder, monkeys achieved better scores than people.
If you feel smug about this, take one of the quizzes yourself to see how well you understand topics like poverty and population. Gapminder has found many other common misconceptions that most people believe, including: that there are ten times more refugees than in reality, that suicides are becoming more common in the world, and that more than a third of all plastic waste ends up in oceans.
The apocalyptic narrative is not new. Nor are the dangers to humanity that it brings with it. Malthusian Paul Ehrlich, whose bestselling book The Population Bomb led to a worldwide moral panic about ‘overpopulation’, told readers in the 1970s that: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over…. Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” He predicted that “nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” Ehrlich preached of “mass starvation” on “a dying planet,” and pointed at the number of people in India after a trip to Delhi.
Negativity bias has consequences. Because of Ehrlich’s polemic, the Indian government “embraced policies that in many states required sterilization for men and women to obtain water, electricity, ration cards, medical care and pay raises. Teachers could expel students from school if their parents weren’t sterilized. More than eight million men and women were sterilized in 1975 alone.”
This panic was unnecessary, and birth rates in most countries are actually on the decline: China's population has fallen for the first time in over six decades, while Russia, Germany, South Korea, and Spain will also experience their populations beginning to decline by 2030. Europe's population as a whole will begin to decline soon.
Everything’s not awful
Humans now live longer than before. Many of us have access to healthcare, medication, and education, which were less common in some countries just a few decades ago. Data shows that less than 1% of people in high-income countries now live in extreme poverty, around 70% of all people now have easy access to safe drinking water, more children have access to education than ever before, and child mortality rates are consistently on the decline.
Advances in technology are improving lives in many areas. People with severe hearing impairments can now stream audio from smart TVs directly to their cochlear implants for the first time in history, which makes it much easier for them to understand what’s being said. A promising new drug has been found to effectively reduce weight loss and is being made available for struggling patients. This year, wheat production in India hit a new record high (stick that in your pipe, Ehrlich).
In 2022, eight countries eliminated a neglected tropical disease, meaning there is no more parasitic guinea worm disease in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; trachoma was eliminated in Togo, Malawi, Saudi Arabia, and Vanuatu; and a type of sleeping sickness was eradicated in Rwanda, Uganda, and Equatorial Guinea.
In Britain, a nineteen-month-old girl born with the rare and deadly genetic condition metachromatic leukodystrophy (MLD) recently became the first person to be cured with the help of a revolutionary new gene therapy. The new drug, Libmeldy, corrects the genetic cause of MLD by inserting functional copies of a faulty gene into the patient’s stem cells.
Earlier this month, nations reached a historic agreement to protect the world's oceans, the first of its kind since the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982. The High Seas Treaty aims to place 30% of the seas into protected areas by 2030. Previously, only 1.2% of these waters were protected.
These achievements are only a few of many, and they are not to be undervalued. Little by little, many people are working towards improving life for everyone on the planet, and they are succeeding.
Can we rewire our brains to be more positive?
We know that ‘doom-scrolling’ can take a significant toll on our mental health, but most of us spend hours a week scanning social media anyway. The content we choose to read is relevant: studies have linked the consumption of bad news to increased distress, anxiety, and depression even when the news in question is relatively mundane.
One study found that “optimists, those with high levels of general trust, and those who do not believe in conspiracy theories show lower levels of fear and higher levels of preventive behaviours. Pessimists on the other hand, show higher levels of fear. Fear was related to all information sources suggesting that more information leads to higher intensity of fear - except information from the president which did not show any effect.”
We need to tell better stories. While many of us can now enjoy a high quality of life, the mental well-being needed to enjoy that life has been neglected.
When I was anxious, I couldn’t see outside of a filter of fear and anxiety. I moved from one environmental organisation to another, desperately trying to do my bit in the world while repeatedly being told that it was too late for my actions to make a difference. After I stepped away from doomerism, I began to see how much good there is in the world too, and how powerful one voice can be within it.
By failing to tackle mental health issues head-on, we are letting down future generations who will inherit the world's problems. These problems are challenging and serious but are also ultimately solvable. Can anxious and depressed minds see that and work to resolve such problems?
A brighter future
Thanks to the efforts of many smart and hard-working individuals, new drugs and technologies are enabling people to live better lives every day. For me, it’s a relief to have realised that the future isn’t necessarily going to be a hellish nightmare and to understand how much progress is being made globally in many areas. Now, when I read about advances in AI, I think “maybe they’ll be less like HAL and more like Data from Star Trek”.
According to IPCC Chair Hoesung Leeoday, the results of today’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023:
“clearly show that humanity has the knowhow and the technology to tackle human-induced climate change. But not only that. They show that we have the capacity to build a much more prosperous, inclusive and equitable society in this process. Tackling climate change is a hard, complex and enduring challenge for generations. We, the scientific community, spell out the facts of disheartening reality, but we also point to the prospects of hope through concerted, genuine and global transformational change.”
This change requires a shift in perspective. When it comes to climate change, the challenges are real but manageable. Many things are not awesome, but they can be fixed.
It’s not unusual for there to be some negative reactions to new technological advances, but we should also remember that people have reacted hysterically to all new technologies in the past, including radios, televisions, phones, and even novels. While in the state of technology panic, we can also forget that the outcomes of all new technologies are still undecided and that collectively we get to shape them.
Instead of only considering Black Mirror-style scenarios of future tech, we should consider the best possible applications and outcomes of these new advances too - and then ensure that they are implemented. Things are getting better all the time precisely because of a few ‘Bright Mirror warriors’ who approach the world in this way.
To attain this future where humankind prospers, we need to own our part in negative storytelling, and move beyond technology panics into envisioning brighter visions of the future. The only thing we should want to collapse is negativity bias. We don’t need it as adults in a world full of bad news, because the truth is that we’ve never had it so good.
Live long, and prosper. It’s not too late.
Zion Lights is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.