The case for optimism, cont’d: “You can’t change the world if you don’t believe it’s changeable”

Sam Harris interviews Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler, authors of Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, as they make the case for optimism (much as Hans Rosling does). Read the interview for all the details of their argument; what’s interesting to me, at the moment, is their view on why we tend to dismiss such well-founded optimism, why it’s so hard for good news to get past the filter of our negativity:

Why aren’t we more aware of these positive trends?

The simple answer is, because we’re hard-wired not to notice. As the first order of business for any organism is survival, our brain privileges information that appears to threaten us. As a result, we tend to focus too much on the bad news even as the good news struggles to get through. The media are so saturated with bad news — if it bleeds, it leads — because they’re vying for the amygdala’s attention.

Furthermore, to handle the massive influx of information we process on a moment-by-moment basis, the brain relies on heuristics. Most of the time these work. Sometimes they fail. When they fail we call them cognitive biases. As it turns out, a lot of our cognitive biases keep us pessimistic as well. The negativity bias is a tendency to give more weight to negative information and experiences than positive ones. Confirmation bias is our tendency to search for or interpret information in ways that confirms our preconceptions — which might not be so bad on its own, but when you add the media’s focus on negative news, you have a recipe for psychological disaster. This list goes on. The result is a brain that believes the end is near and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.

The upshot:

What do you hope people will get from reading your book?

The first is hope. You can’t change the world if you don’t believe it’s changeable.

The second is a vision and road map: a way to take bigger risks, create an innovation culture, and focus on solving problems rather than complaining about them.

Most importantly, we want people to understand that, more than ever before in history, individuals can now band together to solve grand challenges. We don’t believe abundance happens automatically. It’s up to each of us. That’s what makes today so different. We face enormous problems, but we — as individuals — have enormous power to solve them.

Yes. The key thing about rational optimism isn’t that it guarantees a better future, but that it empowers us to recognize our own capacity — and our own responsibility — for making it happen.

More reasons for optimism here.

(via The Dish; image via



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4 responses to “The case for optimism, cont’d: “You can’t change the world if you don’t believe it’s changeable”

  1. Your pieces on optimism are very uplifting and inspiring! Great stuff!

    • Thank you! I enjoy reading your pieces as well. And what a great idea to have a “peace clock” — the perfect counterargument to the “doomsday clock” we hear so much about.

  2. ‘If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a closed room with a mosquito’. African proverb.

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