Have More People Become More Awful?

Is it just me, or do people seem a little more awful lately? There seems to be a little more ignorance in the world, a little less compassion, a little more bullying and a lot less courtesy.

Maybe it’s just me.

It’s been a while since I’ve checked in with eternal optimist Steven Pinker.  The Harvard psychologist is probably the best-known proponent of the argument that the world is consistently trending towards being a better place.  According to Pinker, we are less bigoted, less homophobic, less misogynist and less violent. At least, that’s what he felt pre-COVID lockdown. As I said, I haven’t checked in with him lately, but I suspect he would say the long-term trends haven’t appreciably changed. Maybe we’re just going through a blip.

Why, then, does the world seem to be going to hell in a hand cart?  Why do people — at least some people — seem so awful?

I think it’s important to remember that our brain likes to play tricks on us. It’s in a never-ending quest to connect cause and effect. Sometimes, to do so, the brain jumps to conclusions. Unfortunately, it is aided in this unfortunate tendency by a couple of accomplices — namely news reporting and social media. Even if the world isn’t getting shittier, it certainly seems to be. 

Let me give you one example. In my local town, an anti-masking rally was recently held at a nearby shopping mall. Local news outlets jumped on it, with pictures and video of non-masked, non-socially distanced protesters carrying signs and chanting about our decline into Communism and how their rights were being violated.

What a bunch of boneheads — right? That was certainly the consensus in my social media circle. How could people care so little about the health and safety of their community? Why are they so awful?

But when you take the time to unpack this a bit, you realize that everyone is probably overplaying their hands. I don’t have exact numbers, but I don’t think there were more than 30 or 40 protestors at the rally. The population of my city is about 150,000. These protestors represented .03% of the total population. 

Let’s say for every person at the rally, there were 10 that felt the same way but weren’t there. That’s still less than 1%. Even if you multiplied the number of protesters by 100, it would still be just 3% of my community. We’re still talking about a tiny fraction of all the people who live in my city. 

But both the news media and my social media feed have ensured that these people are highly visible. And because they are, our brain likes to use that small and very visible sample and extrapolate it to the world in general. It’s called availability bias, a cognitive shortcut where the brain uses whatever’s easy to grab to create our understanding of the world.

But availability bias is nothing new. Our brains have always done this. So, what’s different about now?

Here, we have to understand that the current reality may be leading us into another “mind-trap.” A 2018 study from Harvard introduced something called “prevalence-induced concept change,” which gives us a better understanding of how the brain focuses on signals in a field of noise. 

Basically, when signals of bad things become less common, the brain works harder to find them. We expand our definition of what is “bad” to include more examples so we can feel more successful in finding them.

I’m probably stretching beyond the limits of the original study here, but could this same thing be happening now? Are we all super-attuned to any hint of what we see as antisocial behavior so we can jump on it? 

If this is the case, again social media is largely to blame. It’s another example of our current toxic mix of dog whistlecancel culturevirtue signaling, pseudo-reality that is being driven by social media. 

That’s two possible things that are happening. But if we add one more, it becomes a perfect storm of perceived awfulness. 

In a normal world, we all have different definitions of the ethical signals we’re paying attention to. What you are focused on right now in your balancing of what is right and wrong is probably different from what I’m currently focused on. I may be thinking about gun control while you’re thinking about reducing your carbon footprint.

But now, we’re all thinking about the same thing: surviving a pandemic. And this isn’t just some theoretical mind exercise. This is something that surrounds us, affecting us every single day. When it comes to this topic, our nerves have been rubbed raw and our patience has run out. 

Worst of all, we feel helpless. There seems to be nothing we can do to edge the world toward being a less awful place. Behaviors that in another reality and on another topic would have never crossed our radar now have us enraged. And, when we’re enraged, we do the one thing we can do: We share our rage on social media. Unfortunately, by doing so, we’re not part of the solution. We are just pouring fuel on the fire.

Yes, some people probably are awful. But are they more awful than they were this time last year? I don’t think so. I also can’t believe that the essential moral balance of our society has collectively nosedived in the last several months. 

What I do believe is that we are living in a time where we’re facing new challenges in how we perceive the world. Now, more than ever before, we’re on the lookout for what we believe to be awful. And if we’re looking for it, we’re sure to find it.

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