The media exploits this interest in problems and disasters. We want to hear the latest, horrible stories, because our stone-age brains think that this is important information upon which we must act. At the turn of the Millenium, a survey from New York University made a list of “Journalism’s Greatests Hits”. Would you expect news stories about new vaccines, fantastic inventions, the rise in living standards, or the spread of democracy from 0% of the countries 100 years ago to 60 % today? You would have been disappointed. The greatest hits were all about war, natural disasters, dangerous chemicals and unsafe cars.
Risks, horrible acts and disasters are easily dramatised and cheap to produce. That is why crime is such a popular theme on the news. Studies from the US show that the more time people spend watching the TV news, the more they exaggerate the extent of crime in their cities. A fascinating study about Baltimore showed that 84 percent feared that criminals will harm them or their loved ones, but at the same time almost everybody, 92 percent, said that they felt safe in their own neighbourhoods, of which they have first-hand knowledge. They all think that there is a lot of crime in Baltimore , but they all think that it takes place somewhere else in the city, in the places they only know about from the media.
These results appear again and again in surveys. People think that the environment is being destroyed, that the economy is going to bits and Germans think that the reunification of Germany was bad for most people. But they also think that their local environment is good, that their personal finances are improving, and that German reunification was good for their own personal situation. Problems and disasters are always somewhere else. And if we all think so, we must all be wrong.
The problem with a globalised world is that there is always a flood somewhere, there is always a serial murderer somewhere, and there is always starvation somewhere. And therefore there is constant supply of horrors to fill our TV screens. If you don’t know the background or study the statistics, it’s tempting to conclude that the world is getting worse.
A very though provoking lecture on capitalism and belief in the future by Johan Norberg, a Swedish writer devoted to globalisation and individual liberty. It reiterates my point about cognitive bias and why you should not get seduced by bearish analysts constant sky is falling rhetorics.