How are we doing?

“Not too bad.” That’s the common reply on the prairies to a friendly “How are you?” It’s also common out here in my new home in the Maritimes.

I had to laugh when a friend of mine, born and raised in agricultural country, explained its popularity.

“When you farm, every day is bad. But today? Not toobad.”

How are we all doing nowadays?

It’s easy to watch the evening news, or scan the news feed on the Web, and feel that every day is bad and that all trends are downward. 

Some of that feeling can be the crankiness and selective memory of older people, to be sure. One of my favourite New Yorkercartoons has a grandpa out walking with his son and grandson and grumpily exclaiming, “Everything was better when everything was worse!”

But some of what we’re feeling is a result of what psychologists call the “availability heuristic.”That is our tendency to estimate the probability of an event occurring by how readily we can call to mind examples of such an event.

If our news is full of school shootings, we believe that schools everywhere are in imminent danger. A couple of decades ago, parents (like us) were terrified of stories about child abductions by horrible strangers, and we took extreme measures to protect our kids. Years later we learned that the vast majority of snatchings were by an aggrieved divorced parent and we shouldn’t have fretted so much.

How are you doing? Well, it depends on what you think is going on, doesn’t it?

Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker’s recent book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, released last month in paperback, tells us that majorities in polls taken in fourteen countries—from the United States to Thailand—believe the world has gotten worse and is heading ever downward. And it’s easy to agree, isn’t it?

[For the rest, please click HERE.]

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