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Are We Biologically Programmed to Be Pessimists?

The authors of Abundance show us how negative thinking and pessimism are biologically programmed in the brain's response systemBlame it on our brain’s warning system, the amygdala, which causes us to focus on bad news instead of good. Unfortunately, this survival instinct trumps the truth—that the industrialized world has never been safer. From Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler.

These days, we are saturated with information. We have millions of news outlets competing for our mind share. And how do they compete? By vying for the amygdala’s attention. The old newspaper saw “If it bleeds, it leads” works because the first stop that all incoming information encounters is an organ already primed to look for danger. We’re feeding a fiend. Pick up the Washington Post and compare the number of positive to negative stories. If your experiment goes anything like mine, you’ll find that over 90 percent of the articles are pessimistic. Quite simply, good news doesn’t catch our attention. Bad news sells because the amygdala is always looking for something to fear.

But this has an immediate impact on our perception. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, explains that even under mundane circumstances, attention is a limited resource. “Imagine you’re watching a short film with a single actor cooking an omelet. The camera cuts to a different angle as the actor continues cooking. Surely you would notice if the actor changed into a different person, right? Two-thirds of observers don’t.” This happens because attention is a seriously limited resource, and once we’re focused on one thing, we often don’t notice the next. Of course, any fear response only amplifies the effect. What all of this means is that once the amygdala begins hunting bad news, it’s mostly going to find bad news.

Compounding this, our early warning system evolved in an era of immediacy, when threats were of the tiger-in-the-bush variety. Things have changed since. Many of today’s dangers are probabilistic—the economy might nose-dive, there could be a terrorist attack—and the amygdala can’t tell the difference. Worse, the system is also designed not to shut off until the potential danger has vanished completely, but probabilistic dangers never vanish completely. Add in an impossible-to-avoid media continuously scaring us in an attempt to capture market share, and you have a brain convinced that it’s living in a state of siege—a state that’s especially troubling, as New York University’s Dr. Marc Siegel explains in his book False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear, because nothing could be further from the truth:

Statistically, the industrialized world has never been safer. Many of us are living longer and more uneventfully. Nevertheless, we live in worst-case fear scenarios. Over the past century, we Americans have dramatically reduced our risk in virtually every area of life, resulting in life spans 60 percent longer in 2000 than in 1900. Antibiotics have reduced the likelihood of dying from infections . . . Public health measures dictate standards for drinkable water and breathable air. Our garbage is removed quickly. We live in temperature-controlled, disease-controlled lives. And yet, we worry more than ever before. The natural dangers are no longer there, but the response mechanisms are still in place, and now they are turned on much of the time. We implode, turning our adaptive fear mechanism into a maladaptive panicked response.


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