Why pessimism is pointless — and pernicious


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The world of self-help teems with motivational quotes about the power of positive thinking, and the importance of reframing the negative. “Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll start having positive results.” “Positive thinking is more than just a tagline.” “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (That last one is from Shakespeare himself, via Hamlet.)

Yet when it comes to the way in which we think and talk about the world outside our own heads, its future in particular, striking anything other than a very gloomy tone is not the done thing. We seem to have collectively decided that we must at all times pursue and project a sense of relentless, spirit-crushing pessimism. Not only will you sound careless and insensitive to all the suffering in the world if you say anything optimistic or upbeat, you will also find yourself lacking gravitas and just sounding deeply uncool. 

Over the years, I have often been struck when, upon asking a friend or acquaintance how they’re doing, they answer me with something along the lines of “Oh you know, not great, the world is just so f***ed right now”. I tend to nod along, not always entirely sure what particular aspect of f***edness in the world I’m nodding along with. The plethora of dreadful things they could be referring to at any given moment (is it Gaza, antisemitism, climate change or AI this time?) proves that it is not hard to find stuff to be pessimistic about. 

But there is plenty to be positive about too. I don’t intend to list it all here, but just last year infant mortality hit a new record low, a breakthrough came in the treatment of Alzheimer’s, a cheap and effective malaria vaccine was approved and golden eagles reached record numbers in Scotland following a conservation project.

We might think we are being clever when we are being pessimistic, but research would suggest otherwise: a 2017 study of 28 countries by Ipsos Mori found that respondents who were least informed about various measures of human progress were also the most pessimistic about the future.

While 52 per cent of respondents overall wrongly believed extreme poverty was getting worse (about 100,000 people escape extreme poverty every day), those in poorer countries were both more knowledgeable about this and more optimistic about the future. While some 41 per cent of Chinese respondents said they agreed that “the world is getting better”, only 4 per cent of Britons and 6 per cent of Americans agreed (the French were the most misérable, at just 3 per cent).

Pessimism, in other words, is often misplaced. But, more than that, it can be harmful, too. Pessimists might think that their doom and gloom is helpful in motivating people to act, but many studies have shown the opposite is true.

In a 2015 study published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, researchers tested the hypothesis that exposing people to information about how geoengineering can help reduce carbon emissions could make them complacent about climate change. This was not borne out: instead, they found that if you show people possible practical solutions, they become more concerned about climate change.

“People think pessimism is a call to action, a way to shake people out of their complacency — that if you tell them the world is ending then people are going to be spurred into action, they’re going to protest on the streets and they’re going to vote for the right party,” Ghent University philosopher Maarten Boudry tells me. “But the more catastrophist you are, the more you give people the idea that the window of opportunity has closed and there’s nothing to be done.”

A 2023 paper in the journal Philosophy & Public Affairs came to a similar conclusion, finding that “pessimism is a hindrance rather than a support to the case for existential risk mitigation”.

Exaggerated pessimism also risks creating a crying-wolf problem, deepening distrust in supposedly trustworthy sources when catastrophic warnings are proved to have been overblown. US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in 2019 that “the world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change”. Presumably we are now seven years away from extinction?

It is often said that “it’s the hope that kills you”, but it’s actually the lack of it that is genuinely fatal. Studies have shown all-cause mortality is higher among pessimists. And into the void that pessimism leaves in its wake come all sorts of nasty and dangerous phenomena: chaos, nihilism and, perhaps just as frightening, the kind of reckless and deluded nothing-could-possibly-go-wrong optimism put forward by Marc Andreessen in his “techno-optimistic manifesto”.

We need to find a way to ensure that we don’t make pessimism a self-fulfilling prophecy. We need to Make Pessimism Uncool Again.

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