Why Isn’t Everyone a Boundless Optimist?

My uncle got my my wife and I tickets to see The Scottsboro Boys in the West-End for Christmas. It was awesome; funny and affecting with a late, optimistic coda. That said generally the entire story was pretty grim (racial oppression and a brutal miscarriage of justice.  But with catchy tunes!) which is even worse if you read the actual history of what happened.

But I got to thinking about how much things have improved.  I’m an optimist and a believer in the steady march of progress so I got to wondering; why would anyone not be? How could someone want social/scientific/cultural progress to slow down, stop (or in the case of reactionaries) reverse?

Thinking about why people are not more optimistic about progress brought to mind several bits of media I’ve seen, heard or read recently.


The first was listening to a regular podcast about human psychology called All In The Mind. The particular episode that stuck in my mind was one about Declinism;

“Declinism is the belief that a society or institution is tending towards decline. Particularly, it is the predisposition to view the past favourably and future negatively.”

Justin Bieber
I can’t think of any other reason why people say modern music isn’t as good as the music from their youth.


There was a lot of interesting information in the podcast but the critical points were that older people tend to remember the ages between 10-30 the clearest (barring their most recent memories) and that positive memories tend to hold better than negative ones. This means there is a definite, positive bias to events people recall from that stage in their lives (the psychologist mentioned the age of 13 being the particular sweet spot).

This might be a bit of a surprise to people who are young enough to remember just how awkward being a teenager was (I’ve tried to come up with a particularly funny and gauche memory from my teenage years, but I just end up wincing and trying to forget the entire decade). This was in the context of society as a whole (especially older people) so my anecdotes are pretty much irrelevant.

A good summary of the phenomenon is here.

It also mentions the increase in the diagnosis of depression in modern times; whether it means more people are depressed or just more people are diagnosed (a good thing) then it certainly explains an increase in negativity.

Thinking Fast And Slow

Another podcast I listened to recently was Freakonomics. On it they had the author of Thinking, Fast And Slow. It’s a book I’ve meant to read for ages as it keeps getting referenced but the gist from the podcast was that humans don’t tend to think rationally (“slow thinking”) by default; instead we normally use “fast thinking” where we respond emotionally or with intellectual short-cuts without considering things thoroughly.

These fast-thinking short-cuts mean that we tend to make decisions using our own experience, the conclusions of our family and peers and a general ‘gut-feel’. From an evolutionary perspective this makes a lot of sense.


“A sabre-tooth tiger! Everyone knows they’re dangerous! Where’s my spear?”


“Ah! A large quadruped with developed incisors and penetrative claws! Looking at its posture it appears to be approaching in a threatening manner and is quite likely going to try and eat m…”

Well, it _might_be friendly…


But it also means in a modern perspective we’re likely to we swayed by our emotions (which can be overly negative if we’re past a certain age), our peers (also in the same boat) or our environment. Our media and press isn’t exactly focused on how life is improving (“If it bleeds, it leads.”) and so we’re constantly bombarded with negative stories which lack a sense of context or proportion.

The Way It’s Always Been

Of course, looking back in fond reminiscence while shaking your fist and the youngsters on your lawn is pretty much a cultural staple.  I suppose there could be an evolutionary benefit to rejecting change

croodsbut maybe not.

It could have come from ancient interpretations of  religion.  I’ve just started reading first book of The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson. It’s set in the 17th and early 18th centuries and is broadly about how a group of natural philosophers (proto-scientists) navigate the politics, religion and perils of the time.

One of the earlier chapters describes how work on the improvement of mankind was considered a waste of time by the population at large due to a belief in The Fall of Man. Life was supposed to be grim and joyless because it was always compared to the State of Grace we came from and were going to (via death or The Apocalypse).

So maybe many of us are pessimistic grumps because we’ve always been pessimistic grumps but most people tend to agree on the march of progress on any topic when they stop to consider it in detail.  You can’t really argue with the improvements to social equality, science, technology or medicine.  You could even argue that culturally things are getting deeper as well.

People are optimists when they think things through but who has the time to do that?

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

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