Optimism & Pessimism

This page is dedicated to the research why people are optimistic or pessimistic about certain things and how this is influenced by human nature, the media, or social changes.

We are interested in this topic also because it is closely linked to our motivation for publishing Our World in Data. Living conditions around the world have improved in important ways; fewer people are dying of disease, conflict and famine; more of us are receiving a basic education; the world is becoming more democratic; we live longer and lead healthier lives. So why is that we – mostly in the developed world – often have a negative view on how the world has changed over the last decades and centuries? Why we are so pessimistic about our collective future?

Human nature and pessimism

Individual Optimism and Social Pessimism

It is a peculiar empirical phenomenon that while people tend to be optimistic about their own future, they can at the same time be deeply pessimistic about the future of their nation or the world. Tali Sharot, associate professor of psychology at UCL, has popularised the idea of an innate optimism bias built into the human brain.1 That is, we tend to be optimistic rather than realistic when considering our individual future. If you were to ask newlywed couples to estimate the probability they will divorce in the future, they would likely reject the possibility outright. Yet today roughly 40% of marriages in the UK end in divorce. Another example is asking smokers to estimate their chances of getting cancer and again, most would underestimate their risk. This optimism persists even when people are presented with the relevant statistics.

Consider the following graphs from the European Union’s Eurobarometer surveys; they report people’s expectations about their own personal job situation and of the economic situation in their home country. From the end of 1995 to the middle of 2015, around 60% of people predict that their job situation will remain the same, while 20% expect their situation to improve. Compare that with the response of the same group of individuals considering the future of the economic situation in their home country. Although far less stable, the results show that most people expect the economic situation in their home country to get worse or stay the same. The expectation that things are going to worsen nationally is correlated with recessions, yet there is remarkable stability in the results for individual expectations. Does the response to the question about national economic well being better correspond to an individual’s true job prospects?

EU survey responses on individual and economic optimism – Eurobarometer surveys2

EU survey responses on optimism

We are local optimists and national pessimists – in politics

This pattern is also observed on a larger scale. The first chart below shows how individuals in the UK respond to the question: “Thinking about …, how much of a problem do you think each of the following are in your local area and in the whole of the UK?” Individuals tend to believe problems are more pronounced nationally than in their local area.

Local optimists and national pessimists in the UK, 2013 – Ipsos MORI3


We are local optimists and national pessimists – in environmental aspects

This chart shows how many individuals rate the environment in their local area as fairly or very bad, compared with the environment nationally and globally. Again, we observe a similar pattern for most countries. No matter where you ask people are much more negative about places that are far away – places which they know less from their own experience and more through the media.

Percentage of respondents who evaluate the environmental quality of their local community, their nation and the world as very or fairly bad – Lomborg (2001)4

Percentage of respondents who evaluate the environmental quality

Why are we social pessimists?

How can we reconcile this individual optimism with social pessimism? Paul Dolan, professor of behavioural science at LSE, believes people respond pessimistically to questions about national or international performance for three reasons:

  1. Individuals rarely think about grand issues such as the state of the nation or world, and so respond with an ‘on-the-spot’ answer that may not be well considered or even a true reflection of their beliefs.
  2. The framing can influence the individual’s response. Moreover, the question itself may bias responses; ‘who would bother to ask if everything were okay?’
  3. Responses to questions such as these (and more general questions about happiness or life satisfaction) are heavily influenced by ephemeral recent events. In psychology this is referred to as the ‘availability bias’.

This explanation suggests there is a problem of information. If we do not pay attention to human development, then our judgement may suffer from a bias related to transient events or framing. The Gapminder Ignorance Project – which studied how wrong or right people are informed about global development – suggests the reason for all this ignorance is:

“Statistical facts don’t come to people naturally. Quite the opposite. Most people understand the world by generalizing personal experiences which are very biased. In the media the “news-worthy” events exaggerate the unusual and put the focus on swift changes. Slow and steady changes in major trends don’t get much attention. Unintentionally, people end-up carrying around a sack of outdated facts that you got in school (including knowledge that often was outdated when acquired in school).”

Another explanation put forward by Martin Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests a link between control and optimism. If we feel more in control of our lives, we tend to be happier, healthier and more optimistic about the future. This could also help to explain the gap between individual and societal optimism: since we are in direct control of our own lives but not the destiny of the nation we feel more optimistic about ourselves.

Information matters: We are not only pessimistic about the future, we are also unaware of past improvements

We are unaware of the decline of violence

The psychological considerations before suggest that the lack of information is key to understanding why we are largely biased to think negatively about society and how things are changing. When we consider the degree to which the public’s perception can diverge from the reality we find unfortunately a lot of evidence that shows this empirically.

In the US, survey evidence shows that most Americans believe crime is on the up, even in years where crime is falling or remains the same. Teen pregnancy is another area in which most Americans believe the situation is deteriorating. In fact, teen pregnancy has fallen 42% since 1990 and is at its lowest level in two decades.5

Crime perception and realised changes in crime in the US, 1989-2014 – Vox6

We are unaware of global development

The chart below shows the survey response to the question how global poverty has changed. While the share of extremely poor people has fallen faster than ever before in history over the last 30 years the majority of people in the UK thinks that the opposite has happened and that poverty has increased!

The chart presents the evidence from the survey in the UK and the ignorance of global development is even greater in other countries that were surveyed. The ignorance in the UK is particularly bad when one considers that the shown result is for the subsample of the UK population that has a university degree.

See the Gapminder Ignorance Project for more evidence of this for global trends.

Survey response in the UK to the question how global poverty has changed7



Declinism and development

Declinism refers to the belief that a country or some other institution is in decline. Declinism was a prevalent feature of British political and economic history, whereby the decline of Britain as a world power was seen as the result of internal failures rather than international forces or global convergence. David Edgerton writes: “Declinism is beginning to appear as one of the last vestiges of imperial grandeur: for declinism holds, implicitly but clearly, that if Britain had done better it would have remained a much larger player on the world stage.”8 Today declinism in the United States is fashionable with many politicians. Donald Trump’s campaign slogan for the 2016 Republican nomination election was “Make America Great Again!”

The major flaw in much of the declinist narrative is the failure to distinguish between absolute and relative changes. Between 2010-14, US real GDP growth rates have fluctuated between 1.5-2.5% and yet, the US economy was recently overtaken by the Chinese economy measured in PPP-adjusted terms.9 In many ways this may capture the reason why the most developed nations tend to believe that their economy is in decline: relative decline is interpreted as absolute decline. Unsurprisingly, new EU member states tend to be much more optimistic about the future. The four largest economies — the UK, France, Germany and Italy — are the most pessimistic. This pattern persists when considering economies at different stages of development: developing countries are more optimistic about the future, while developed ones tend to be pessimistic.

Optimism about the future of the next generation by country – Pew Research Center10

Optimism surveys on the next generation by country

Declinism and Age: The Reminiscence Bump

One interesting explanation for declinism is that it is the result of the way we encode memories and what we remember. Firstly, researchers have long established a robust pattern in the age at which we retain the most memories. In old age, memories from our lives are not evenly distributed but instead concentrated in two regions. These regions are (1) memories formed in adolescence and early adulthood, between the ages of 10-30, and (2) recent memory of events. The following figure is a useful representation of this distribution.

Lifespan memory retrieval curve – Wikipedia11

Lifespan Retrieval Curve

Secondly, research finds that as we get older we tend to have – on average – fewer negative experiences and that we are more likely to remember the positive ones over the negative ones.12 This effect combined with the reminiscence bump could explain why declinism exists among older generations, and why your parents could never stand the music you listened to! The universality of this effect is illustrated by Harvey Daniels with the use of these quotes about the decline of the English language:13

  1. “The common language is disappearing. It is slowly being crushed to death under the weight of verbal conglomerate, a pseudospeech at once both pretentious and feeble, that is created daily by millions of blunders and inaccuracies in grammar, syntax, idiom, metaphor, logic, and common sense…. In the history of modern English there is no period in which such victory over thought-in-speech has been so widespread. Nor in the past has the general idiom, on which we depend for our very understanding of vital matters, been so seriously distorted.” (A. Tibbets and C. Tibbets, What’s Happening to American English?, 1978)
  2. “From every college in the country goes up the cry, ‘Our freshmen can’t spell, can’t punctuate.’ Every high school is in disrepair because its pupils are so ignorant of the merest rudiments.” (C. H. Ward, 1917)
  3. “Unless the present progress of change [is] arrested…there can be no doubt that, in another century, the dialect of the Americans will become utterly unintelligible to an Englishman…” (Captain Thomas Hamilton, 1833)
  4. “Our language is degenerating very fast.” (James Beattie, 1785)

In the light of this research on human nature it is then not surprising that one of the earliest Sumerian tablets discovered and deciphered by modern scholars was a complaint by a teacher about his students’ writing ability.

Why does realism matter?

There are three main reasons we should try to combat social pessimism and declinism. The first reason is simple; indicators of living standards are significantly improving around the world. By monitoring and researching these changes we can identify ways in which progress can be achieved. Over the long-run, say 50-100 years, human progress has been staggering with the benefits not confined to the richest or most powerful. The second reason is that if our perceptions of the reality are wrong, we can end up prioritising the wrong things and making ineffectual change. Finally, being optimistic can be good for your health, while having a pessimistic outlook can be detrimental to your health.

Perception and Priority

The public perception of these indicators matters because it directly influences the priorities of voters in democratic countries and politicians. If, as in the example above, the public believes crime is increasing, it is likely that it demands more policing not for a reason grounded in reality, but for an imagined worsening of the society they live it. This is one reason why incorrect public perceptions can be a problem.

The following figures underline just how sizable these effects can be. The first shows how spending on crime has moved with the public’s confidence in the government’s ability to crack down on crime. As the public’s confidence fell, spending on crime increased and recorded crime fell; without any uptick in the public’s confidence.

Public confidence, recorded crime and government spending in the UK, 1997-2007 – Ipsos MORI (2008)14

Spending on crime, crime levels and public confidence - Ipsos MORI

The media matters for pessimism

One contributing factor to some of the widespread misinformation seems to be the content consumed through media channels.

Of those who believed crime was increasing, more than half suggested that information on TV was a reason they believed there was more crime. In addition to this, almost half suggested that what they read in newspapers was a factor.

TV and newspapers are largest factors driving crime perceptions in the UK, 2007 – Ipsos MORI15

Why do people think there is more crime? - Ipsos MORI

Research conducted by Stefano DellaVigna and Ethan Kaplan highlights the degree to which the media can influence voting behaviour.16 DellaVigna and Kaplan looked at how the introduction of Fox News between 1996 and 2000 in different towns affected voting patterns and turnout in the Presidential election of 2000. They find “a significant effect of the introduction of Fox News on the vote share in Presidential elections between 1996 and 2000. Republicans gained 0.4 to 0.7 percentage points in the towns that broadcast Fox News. Fox News also affected voter turnout and the Republican vote share in the Senate. Our estimates imply that Fox News convinced 3 to 28 percent of its viewers to vote Republican, depending on the audience measure. The Fox News effect could be a temporary learning effect for rational voters, or a permanent effect for nonrational voters subject to persuasion.”

Another dimension to this debate is the extent to which the perceived terrorism threat affects the willingness of individuals to trade-off civil liberties.17 Darren Davis and Brian Silver find that “the greater people’s sense of threat, the lower their support for civil liberties.” This effect is attenuated by the people’s trust in government but fairly consistent across nearly all political affiliations and demographics.

Things are getting better and it is good to know that

With all the negative news stories and sensationalism that exists in the media it may be hard to believe things are improving. These events can be contextualised as short-term fluctuations in an otherwise positive global trend. Quantifying this progress and identifying its causes will help researchers develop successful strategies to combat the world’s problems. Below are just two examples that show important positive changes: A larger share of the world population is living a life free of poverty and more and more people live in democratic countries. More examples – on education, health, violence, hunger and many other important aspects – can be found throughout this publication.

Click to open interactive version
Click to open interactive version

The relation between health and optimism

There is a large literature that links an optimistic outlook on life to positive health outcomes. While it is interesting to read and think about this, one should be prudent not to over-interpret these findings and consider carefully if it is possible to think of these relationships as causal:

Studies have found a link between an individual’s optimism/pessimism (measured by surveys) and their health outcomes. Julia Boehm and Laura Kubzansky reviewed over 200 published studies to investigate the link between a positive psychological outlook (optimism, life satisfaction and happiness) and cardiovascular health.18 They found that a positive psychological outlook was strongly associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease: “For example, the most optimistic individuals had an approximately 50% reduced risk of experiencing an initial cardiovascular event compared to their less optimistic peers.”19 Boehm et al. (2011) also find a link between optimism and the composition of cholesterol in the blood. Optimistic individuals had higher levels of good cholesterol and lower levels of triglycerides.20

Further research using data from the Women’s Health Initiative found that over an eight year period, the most optimistic women had a 9% lower risk of developing coronary heart disease and a 14% lower risk of dying from any cause.21 Similar results were also found by researchers writing in the Archives of General Psychiatry; using data from the Netherlands, they found that the most optimistic individuals had a 55% reduced risk of all-cause mortality and a 23% reduced risk of cardiovascular death.

The future is always bad – and always was

End of the world predictions

Dire predictions for the future are nothing new. Indeed we can go back centuries or even millennia and find plenty of examples of pessimistic accounts of the future of the world.

The infographic below shows a series of predictions for the year in which the world will end – from religious figures to scientists like John Napier and Isaac Newton.

End of the world predictions – The Economist22


The future of the world in literature

The beautiful visualisation below presents a time of predictions of the future as foretold in novels.

The future as foretold in the past – Giorgia Lupi and Accurat23