Trusting the “experts” is turning us all into pandemic pessimists
In contrast, managerial and consumer research has most often focused on issues associated with over-confidence.
For example, most drivers rate themselves above average, and the vast majority of entrepreneurs and managers believe they will be successful, but such optimism cannot logically be true since approximately 50% of drivers, entrepreneurs, and new products are below average or failures.
Although such over-confidence can problematic at the individual level, it can be useful at the macro-level, because without it most people would probably never dare drive a car, and many new businesses and products would never get started or funded.
Predictions that millions would die from the spread of the coronavirus have seemingly overwhelmed our typical over-confidence this year, and led to unprecedented government restrictions on economic activity and personal freedoms.
These shut-down justifying predictions are pandemic models such as those by epidemiologist and professor of mathematical biology Neil Ferguson at Imperial College London, which initially predicted up to 2.2 million deaths in the United States and 550,000 in the UK.
Fortunately, such estimates have proven to be greatly exaggerated, as it currently appears that Covid-19’s death rates, including its overwhelmingly elderly and sick victim profiles, are within the range typically expected during a bad flu season (Morefield 2020).
No health crisis or pandemic over the past 100 years has resulted in so many economic and civic activity restrictions, or quarantines of so many healthy people as we have seen during this year’s Covid-19 pandemic, and the question remains why governments reacted so forcefully in 2020 to predictions coming from modelers who have been so consistently and pessimistically wrong.
50 years of failure
I have not been able to find a single instance of a widely reported or followed pandemic model that was not wildly off in a pessimistic direction over the past 50 years.
For example, the same Professor Ferguson also predicted 200 million deaths from the 1997 avian (bird) flu (actual deaths: 440), and up to 50,000 deaths from the Mad Cow Disease in the late 1990s (actual deaths: about 200), but Ferguson is not alone in his consistent pessimism as it is a widespread phenomenon among pandemic modelers (Fumento 2020).
This consistent and exaggerated bias towards pessimism is not only associated with health pandemics, however, but also models of global sustainability and climate change that have frequently been used by environmentalists and politicians to promote and implement industry regulation and the curtailment of citizen freedoms.
Such pessimism is reflected by predictions of mass starvation, resource depletion, and ever-growing pollution and poverty from the first Earth Day in 1970 (Perry 2018).
Yet 50 years later, the biggest public health problem is obesity rather than starvation, oil prices briefly dipped into negative values due to over-supply, air and water are cleaner in developed nations than at any time since the Industrial Revolution, and global poverty is at an all-time low.
These examples suggest widespread bias on the part of modelers, because if prediction errors were random it would be expected that approximately half the models would predict fewer than actual bad outcomes and half would predict more.
Covid-19 as a learning exercise
After so many failed predictions of doom, why is over-pessimism growing in influence? One possible cause is that virtually none of the “experts” behind the failed models has suffered any reputational damage despite being consistently and pessimistically wrong in predicting health and environmental outcomes.
Un people who fail in their business endeavors and consequently suffer damage to their reputation, wealth and employment, many failed modelers continue to be sought by the media and politicians during times of potential crisis, as demonstrated by Professor Ferguson’s influence in justifying the Covid-19 shutdowns.
Another possible cause for the persistence of over-pessimism is that sceptics are routinely vilified by the media and political opponents.
For example, despite relatively good health outcomes, Sweden and my home state of South Dakota have been routinely criticized for being more sceptical about Covid-19 predictions and implementing less drastic mitigation policies (Henley 2020; Schow 2020).
In any case, the pessimism justified shutdowns have had massive ramifications for millions of otherwise healthy people who have lost businesses, jobs, income and education.
Months of pessimistic predictions of widespread illness and death are also ly to have lingering effects even after businesses are allowed to reopen, because it may take some time before citizens feel safe in returning to crowded restaurants, stores or airliners, or confident enough to take on debt or make a major purchase.
At this point, we can only hope that Covid-19 might prove to be a learning exercise for the media and politicians, which will make them more skeptical towards crisis modelers in the future, while also considering more fully the costs of shutdowns. We should also hope that consumer and managerial over-optimism will quickly return to spark economic activity and prosperity.
Fumento, Michael (2020), “After Repeated Failures, It’s Time to Permanently Dump Epidemic Models,” Issues and Insights, (April 18), available here.
Henley, Jon (2020), “Swedish PM warned over ‘Russian roulette-style’ Covid-19 strategy,” The Guardian, (23 March), available here.
Morefield, Scott (2020), “’The Data Is In – Stop the Panic and End the Total Isolation’: Fmr. Stanford Chief of Neuroradiology Discusses Viral Column,” Daily Caller, (April 24), available here.
Perry, Mark J. (2018), “18 Spectacularly Wrong Predictions Made Around the Time of the First Earth Day in 1970: Expect More this Year,” Foundation for Economic Education, (April 22), available here.
Schow, Asche (2020), “Washington Post ‘News’ Article Trashes South Dakota Governor For Not Shutting Down State Over Coronavirus,” Daily Wire, (April 14), available here.
Why are we so pessimistic?
This summer, I will return to Kenya for a family vacation before my older children leave for college. When I was living in Nairobi from 2009-2013, people sometimes said they d my articles and presentations, because I was “so much more optimistic” than everyone else.
While I welcomed the compliments, I didn’t fully endorse them either, because I felt that my team and I were just doing our best to look factually at the numbers and explain them as objectively as possible: no spin, just the facts.
Indeed the trends we saw were at odds with the widely held perception of Africa as a “Hopeless continent,” a vision conveyed by The Economist in an article of 20 years ago (on which the magazine later backtracked).
These thoughts came back to my mind when I was reading three books that recently came out: “Sapiens” (Yuval Noah Harari), “Factfulness” (Hans Rosling) and “Enlightenment Now” (Steven Pinker).
Despite their differences in focus and historical perspective, they all strive to make us better understand the world we live in.
All three books present refreshing counterpoints to the general pessimism that underpins the ambient populism and dystopian fears.
Surely, not everything is getting better. People still die too early, often from communicable and avoidable diseases. Man-made disasters also strike too often. However, as Steven Pinker notes: “Development is not that every aspect of life is getting better all the time. This would not be development. This would be a miracle.”
Pinker and Rosling document in detail—with well-crafted statistics, laid out over hundreds of pages—the many ways in which the world has become a better place on almost all accounts. Simply put, it is undeniable that people in most parts of the world are getting wealthier, healthier, and wiser.
Rosling’s “Factfulness” starts with a quiz of 12 questions—ranging from “How many children will there be in 2100?” to “In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has almost doubled, stabilized or reduced by half?”—to which he then applies his “chimpanzee test”—the lihood that a random choice is superior to that of humans.
Humans always seem to fail the test: even CEOs at the World Economic Forum.
The belief or perception that things are much worse than they really are is widespread and I believe it comes with significant detrimental impacts on societies. If you think that disaster can strike you at any moment, you will most ly overinvest in safeguarding your security and underinvest in your education or other aspects of your well-being.
The political and civic implications are also detrimental: “The problem with dystopian rhetoric is that if people believe that the country is a flaming dumpster, they will be receptive to the perennial appeal of demagogues,” writes Pinker.
At the same time, the opposite perception—that things are always and necessarily changing for the better—can also be counterproductive for, if so, why bother trying to make a change?
A more constructive approach is one that acknowledges that things are getting better but that this progress is neither automatic nor optimal.
But if the facts are so clear, why are we all still so pessimistic? My reading of the three books offers three main explanations:
First, our brains are wired in such a way that we are naturally highly receptive to risks.
Anthropological history would argue this is because our ancestors were always on the lookout for predators, since their chances of being killed by animals or other human beings were once (and for many centuries) very high. A portion of the brain—the amygdala—screens everything for negative news.
Therefore, humans are wired to pay 10 times more attention to negative news than positive news. The reason is that until not too long ago, Sapiens were one of the underdogs in the savanna.
According to Harari, we are thus “full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous.” Today, you can simply watch the evening news on TV to understand how this evolutionary feature of our brain still prevails long after we became—mostly—safe from roaming lions and bandits.
Second, negative news is bigger news as it is more dramatic (natural disasters, wars, and famines), sudden, and spectacular than positive events, which tend to be more gradual.
The 24h news cycle will always find some (negative) event somewhere, which can be covered, in a way that is much easier and sadly “sexier” to the media and the public than positive news.
The devastating floods in Mozambique make the evening news, not the stunning fact that 8,000 Indonesian escaped poverty that very same day.
Third, this “negativity bias” is further amplified in the era of social media. In the past, traditional authorities and intermediate bodies—churches, political parties, trade unions, sports clubs—neutralized extreme positions.
Today these traditional authorities of intermediation have largely crumbled, and new forms of interactions put people directly in touch with one another, and specifically with -minded folks, including for extreme positions.
Everyone has a responsibility to counter this “de-factualization” because the “media and intelligentsia were complicit in populists’ depiction of modern western nations” (Pinker). A starting point is to make positive news more newsworthy, as Harari, Pinker, and Rosling have already done. Here are two specific suggestions to help create more balanced and fact-based news:
- Put numbers in context—globally and historically: Share the totals, put things in perspective but in a way that allows everyone to absorb it instantly. For example, the World Poverty Clock presents a very complex topic in a very user-friendly way. But it does not lose its complexity as it always puts each number in the context of the total (by country, continent, and the world). This is why it is now being used in many schools. Too often in the media and even in academic articles, we only look at a subset of an issue and then make inferences without looking at overall trends. Pinker makes a similar point historically: “An American in 2015, compared with his or her counterpart a half-century earlier, will live nine years longer, have had three more years of education, earn an additional $33,000 per family member and have an additional eight hours a week of leisure.”
- Make development and good news more exciting. Everyone who follows sports closely knows the power of league tables and rankings. The World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” exercise has been doing exactly that and created incredible focus on those simple things governments can do to reduce bureaucracy for businesses. Doing Business created controversies and its methodology has been upgraded over time, but this is precisely a sign of its success.
As I think of my upcoming holiday, I look forward to seeing how Kenya has progressed since I left it, and this may well be the subject of a future blog!
What to Do When the Future Feels Hopeless
“How to Build a Life” is a biweekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
You live in the future. So do I. We all do. It’s human nature. However, there are times—such as during a pandemic—when this nature makes us suffer.
We are “prospective” creatures, according to the psychologists and philosophers Martin Seligman, Peter Railton, Roy Baumeister, and Chandra Sripada in their 2016 book Homo Prospectus.
Indeed, as Seligman told me, on average we spend 30 to 50 percent of our self-generated thought—what we think about when we aren’t trying to concentrate—contemplating the distant future.
No other creatures do this, with the small exception of some primates who store tools for future use.
Living in the future is one reason meditation and practicing mindfulness are so hard. Meditators speak of the monkey mind: The monkey doesn’t want to sit still; he wants to swing off to the next tree and see what’s up there.
The prospective monkey in our minds wants to see lots of tasty fruit, and have a way to get it; the best way to frustrate him is an empty tree, or one where the fruit is his reach.
Since we spend so much time living in the future, it makes us happy to feel that the future is full of possibilities for improvement, and that we have some control over making those possibilities into realities.
In contrast, a near-perfect cocktail for misery is pessimism and low personal control over our circumstances.
Read: America’s growing pessimism
Because of the pandemic, the future feels difficult and uncertain, and few of us have much control over it, beyond doing our best to keep ourselves and those around us safe. The result is a lot of unhappy monkeys.
Gallup survey data show that pessimism about the future of the pandemic in the U.S. is rising. This is infecting our general outlook: “I wake up every day with nothing to look forward to,” a friend recently confessed to me.
“I feel staying in bed.”
We make light of pessimism, even creating amusing pessimistic characters, such as Eeyore and Charlie Brown. But in real life, pessimism is no laughing matter. Research shows that it is highly correlated with suicide. Young adults who are pessimistic are disproportionately ly to suffer poor health in middle age.
Similarly, scholars have shown that having a sense of low personal control links adverse economic circumstances to poor health and impaired emotional functioning.
Low personal control in the workplace—called low decision latitude by psychologists—especially in combination with high pressure, was found to be a significant predictor of depression and low job satisfaction among workers in one 1990 study.
Read: What you’re feeling is plague dread
In short, bad things happen when your monkey is frustrated. Things get even worse when all our monkeys are in the same empty tree. Not only do many people feel pessimistic about their personal future right now; there’s also an overwhelming collective sense of powerlessness and negativity. It’s not just that my future feels bleak, so does ours.
And since the pandemic is a collective phenomenon, there is little any of us can do to ignore it or avoid the constraints it imposes on our lives. There’s very little novelty to break up our days, few new faces, little movement, few fun events to look forward to.
All we can do is wait—for a vaccine, for the election, for herd immunity, for something, anything, that might change our prospects.
But we are not helpless. While there’s little we can do to change the harsh realities of the pandemic, we can change the mindset we use to face them. By doing two things, we can improve our ability to cope with this situation, as well as with negativity and feelings of powerlessness in the future.
1. Channel your inner lawyer
Pessimism generally distorts reality. Seligman and others recommend that pessimists combat their tendency to expect the worst by employing what they call a disputing technique—verbalizing the negative assumptions we are making about the future, and disputing them with realistic facts.
Here’s an example: I teach at a university, and something I love is spending time with students in the classroom. It gives me energy and joy. Due to the coronavirus, all classes are online; I record my lectures in advance in front of a camera in my makeshift video studio. The only real-time feedback I get is a message telling me I’ve run space on my hard drive.
The other day I found myself darkly musing that I would ly never go back in person; that this would be my new normal, forever.
This pessimism, fueled by news stories I’ve read with titles “Will the Coronavirus Forever Alter the College Experience?,” is completely unwarranted in my school’s case. So I disputed it with the facts.
We are, in fact, creating hybrid classes, and planning for an in-person future. There’s a good chance I’ll be back in the classroom within the next year. My odd work situation is tedious, but temporary.
Most ly, your future is also brighter than what you may think at your darkest moments, so dispute your pessimism not with mindless optimism, but with facts.
Build a solid case for something other than the worst-case scenario, and argue it to yourself a lawyer. And while you’re at it, read fewer stories about the pandemic.
You probably aren’t learning anything new, but, rather, just trying to get a bit more certainty about the future, which is impossible.
2. Turn constraints into decisions
For a while in my 30s, I made my living performing military analysis for the Rand Corporation, a think tank in California.
When I ran into trouble in my work, my boss used to say, “Turn constraints into decisions.
” In other words, start an examination of every problem by listing the apparent limitations on your freedom, and instead of taking them as given, consider how you can change them.
For example, in the case of the coronavirus lockdowns, the complaint about work I most often hear is that with the inability to work in a normal way, productivity is ruined.
We can’t perform up to our own standards—whether because of competing child-care demands, being isolated from co-workers, or just Zoom fatigue—and it is maddening.
Many people feel they are stuck in a cycle of frustrating mediocrity.
The answer is to change the definition of productivity. Many of us have a twisted notion of a productive life that revolves around pure work output.
Some have little choice in the matter, but most Americans work more than they need to in order to meet their job responsibilities. In 2018, according to a survey from the U.S.
Travel Association, 55 percent of American workers did not use all their paid vacation, amounting to 768 million unused days. And when they do take vacation, 54 percent say they feel guilty about it.
If this describes you, you might use this period to reset your definition of productivity. True, many aspects of many jobs have been made more difficult by the pandemic. But other parts of a truly productive life are begging for your attention.
You can set goals for exercise, work on acquiring new skills, spend quality time with loved ones, or learn to tame your monkey mind in meditation.
This is the sort of productivity that will reward you in the long run and can help you establish a healthier, happier equilibrium when the pandemic is over.
As I have often written in this column, the healthiest way to look at the pandemic—or any difficult period in our lives—is as an opportunity for improvement and personal growth, without pushing away the negative emotions that are a natural by-product of hard times.
As we confront pessimism in the context of COVID-19, we will start to see and manage it more generally in our lives. If we are lucky, this is the most pessimistic and powerless period we will ever face.
But even if harder times await, what our monkey learns today will help him later.
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