Evolution has favoured organisms on the basis of their ability to respond to threats and utilise opportunities to survive and procreate. However, this equation is not evenly balanced between opportunities and threats! If you survive to live another day, you can hope to get another opportunity tomorrow even if you miss one today! But if you miss warding off that threat to your existence today, you won’t live to see another day.
The essential survival tool, therefore, has been pessimism, and do we love it! Even when its “use by date” is long gone.
Hearing that the world is going to hell is more interesting than someone saying that things will gradually get better over time, even if the latter is accurate for most people most of the time. In the last one year the world has been significantly derailed by Covid-19 – and if we extrapolate from the stories which I have come across in that one year, the inevitable conclusion is that the lives of MOST people (“Most” – not just a large number of people) have been disrupted like never before. On the other hand, if I look at it anecdotally – the picture is kind of different. I must be inactive, direct and personal contact (through whatever channels – meetings, phone calls, emails, messages, social media posts and so on) with a few hundred people during the year, some quite close, some just nodding acquaintances. Out of these, significantly many more people have not been infected compared to those who have been infected. Of those who were infected, significantly many more did not have to be hospitalised compared those who had to be hospitalised and many more, by several orders of magnitude, did not die compared to those who did die. Significantly many more did not lose their jobs compared to those who did. Significantly many more did not suffer serious financial difficulties compared to those who did for a while due to temporary loss of income. Most suffered nothing more than inconveniences brought on by lockdowns and shortages of non-essentials in the markets or having to manage their kid’s schooling-from-home and this includes people living in cities doing white-collar jobs (more numerous of course) to those living in small villages and depending on local trades or farming!
Hearing that the world is going to hell is more interesting than someone saying that things will gradually get better over time, even if the latter is accurate for most people most of the time.
It is not my intention to trivialise the effects of the pandemic or the need to take appropriate action to combat it, or the need to provide succour to a very large number of people who were severely affected by it.
But clearly, the picture of the world painted during this time by every agency, included NOTHING about all those whose lives were not disrupted, who did not die, who did not contract the infection, who continued to lead pretty much their lives as they used to (except perhaps wearing a mask which they may never have done in the past) despite being numerically larger by several orders of magnitude compared to those who were badly affected!
Even the few stories of Covid-19 survivors (which were orders of magnitude more numerous than those who succumbed to it) which were published, were stories of disasters, warnings, sufferings and not of triumphs saying, “I managed to pull through and so will you”!
Why do we NOT find such stories where nothing bad happens interesting?
And one can’t argue that, that is so because these stories where nothing bad happened are boring, there is no drama in them. That argument then automatically begets the question. Why do we NOT find such stories where nothing bad happens interesting?
Perhaps it is to do with the asymmetry between our sense of loss vs our sense of gain – as behavioural economists like Daniel Kahneman found. A monetary loss is perceived as far more grievous than the pleasure of a windfall of the same amount – even when the loss suffered by someone else in that story is more eye-catching than a story of a gain of the same amount. (Kahneman actually describes methods of calculating this imbalance – that is his Prospect Theory)! A trait he too believes is a relic of our evolutionary past where warding off threats was more urgent than exploiting opportunities. BUT perhaps the mindless process of evolution has not yet caught on that we may not be living in as unforgiving a world as the one that shaped our innate responses.
Perhaps it is to do with the “End of History illusion” – a belief that whatever good things, progress, enhancements, change were to happen in our life have already happened and nothing much more is in store in the present or the future. Despite an awareness of how powerfully we have changed in the past, it is too easy to underestimate our ability to change in the future. And therefore, we wind up coddling pessimism longer than necessary.
But here is the thing – we seem to live under the burden of the belief that when we are carrying a plateful of buttered toast and one of them falls down, it will fall buttered side down for a very good reason.
Or perhaps it is our inability or unwillingness to separate the short term from the long term – yesterday’s market crash has a far greater impact than the steady growth of the market over the last two decades amidst occasional booms and busts not too different from yesterday’s crash!
But here is the thing – we seem to live under the burden of the belief that when we are carrying a plateful of buttered toast and one of them falls down, it will fall buttered side down for a very good reason. Because the funny thing is that this is absolutely true. It has been extensively tested in a lab and a simple application of Newton’s laws will tell you that the toast will always (or mostly) fall buttered side down. BUT what we ignore is another fact. That the toast falling buttered side down is a consequence of “the average” height from the ground at which a person of “average” height will carry that plate which gives the falling toast just enough time to complete just one-half turn as it tumbles. If only you carry the plate at a different height you can ensure that the toast will get enough time to complete one full turn and therefore always (or mostly) fall unbuttered side down and not ruin all your early morning efforts! That is optimism for you.
What is true of a piece of toast is just as true of Covid-19 or anything else for that matter!