Bad news

“Major portions of the world are in conflict and some, in fact, are going to hell,” President Donald Trump said two years ago in a speech before the United Nations. Most things the president says are controversial, but the only disagreement most Americans across the political spectrum might have had with this statement was his use of “some.” As a rule, we tend to believe — mistakenly — that the world is getting worse.

There is a natural human bias toward bad news. The title of a 1998 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology sums it up: “Negative Information Weighs More Heavily on the Brain.” Negative stimuli get our attention much more than positive stimuli — which makes evolutionary sense for survival. Nice things are enjoyable; bad things can be deadly, so focus on them. And given that, in the news media, attention equals money, we can see the commercial reason for a lack of headlines such as “Millions not going to bed hungry tonight.”

Frequently, however, the bad-news bias gives us a highly inaccurate picture of the world. For example, according to a 2013 survey, 67% of Americans think global poverty is on the rise, and 68% believe it is impossible to solve extreme poverty in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, starvation-level poverty has decreased by 80% since 1970, according to economists at Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The truth is that while there is plenty to worry about on any given day, the world is generally getting better. A few prominent voices are pointing this out. Take, for example, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who has said he believes that by 2035 there will be almost no poor countries in the world.

Fresh, comprehensive evidence of progress comes in the new Legatum Prosperity Index, based on data from 167 countries — with 99.4% of the world’s population — on 300 social and economic indicators of well-being. (I am a board member of the Legatum Institute, but I was not involved in preparing the index.) Across those dimensions, from 2009 to 2019, 148 of the 167 countries have seen net progress , and especially so among the poorest countries .

The natural tendency with an index is to look for the “best” country or region. According to the index’s scoring, Denmark and the other Nordic countries come out on top, while the best-scoring region as a whole is North America. However, the real differences between the wealthy countries are differences not captured in the index because they correspond to personal preferences.

Greater insights from the report come from seeing the progress in the developing world. In the vast majority of countries, health, living conditions and education are advancing . Not long ago, the two most improved countries from 2009-2019, Myanmar and Togo, were considered by many to be lost causes.

Not all countries are improving, unfortunately, but here again there are important learning opportunities. In the past decade, 19 countries have deteriorated. The greatest declines came in Venezuela (the victim of incompetent and kleptocratic government), Syria and Yemen (which have suffered civil wars). In general, the index reveals that when countries fail to progress in the modern world, it is not due to region or any population-specific characteristics.

There is still a great deal of work to be done around the world, but the good news from the Prosperity Index and from people such as Gates should be much more salient in our thinking. Bad news doesn’t just hold our attention; it also demobilizes us because, particularly when it concerns people far away, it suggests that disaster is inevitable, when in fact it is not. Hope — the belief that something can be done, and we can do it — inspires action. Bad news, especially in world poverty, often stimulates hopelessness and, thus, inaction.

The world is not getting worse; it is getting indisputably better for most countries and most people. Billions of our brothers and sisters are freer, healthier and more prosperous than they would ever have been in human history. We should be thankful for that this holiday season, and resolve to push even harder.

Arthur Brooks is a Washington Post columnist, professor of public leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, senior fellow at the Harvard Business School and author of the bestseller “Love Your Enemies.”

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