2022 was bad — but it could have been worse. This essay is part of an end-of-the-year series looking at the silver linings.
Good riddance, 2022! What a no good, very bad year it was — a veritable annus horribilis. With the unwinding of American democracy, skyrocketing inflation giving way to massive unemployment, a pandemic resurgence after new Covid-19 variants overcame the vaccines, Russia’s lightning-fast swallowing up of Ukraine and our favorite conduit to escape this depressing reality — movie theaters — gone the way of the dodo, could it have been any worse?
Well, as a matter of fact, yes, it could have been — even if all those things had actually happened. Election denialism, while not a dead letter, is on the wane (e.g., nearly all losing candidates promptly conceded in 2022; the death toll from Covid this year was substantially lower than in 2020 and 2021 (i.e., the vaccines worked); Russia can’t seem to defeat Ukraine — nor has it started a nuclear war; despite inflation, hiring is brisk and the unemployment rate has remained low; movie theaters are back; and, hallelujah, the once-superhuman Tom Brady finally returned to Earth with the rest of us. Although we might not feel like partying like it’s 1999, the sky didn’t fall. If anything, the overall picture is improving.
Although we might not feel like partying like it’s 1999, the sky didn’t fall. If anything, the overall picture is improving.
So good on us for dodging the omnibus worst-case scenario. But why were so many of us racked with such outsized pessimism? Moreover, why didn’t we give the things that we were most worried about so much as a passing nod once they failed to materialize? In short, why do we have such a hard time putting things in perspective?
Well, for one thing, most of the above are rooted in terrible things that continue to cast a shadow, including, not least, the attempted overturning of the 2020 presidential vote by Trump supporters, a deadly pandemic and inflation that’s wrecking family budgets. For another, there were a lot of bad things that the warnings proved true for: more school shootings, more devastation from climate change, more ethno-racial hate.
But there’s likely a psychologically deeper reason as well, one that has otherwise contributed to the successful adaptation of the human species since time immemorial. Call it negativity bias or affective asymmetry, but it is this: Relative to positive information, negative information carries more weight; moves us more strongly to act; and leads to greater learning — starting from infancy.
In our daily lives, we are exposed to much more information than we can possibly take in. Evolutionary psychologists believe that the human tendency to attend more to negative than positive information has allowed us to adapt to a fundamental challenge that faced our evolutionary ancestors: staying alive. In essence, those who were more attuned to threats and dangers in the environment were genetically favored by natural selection. That genetic legacy has been demonstrated in myriad physiological, cognitive, emotional and social responses.
According to this survival-based cognitive bias, we likely collectively succumbed to unwarranted negativity about the world in 2022 in at least three ways. First, we might have been more motivated to read and watch negative news stories — those that either reported on or predicted something unpleasant — while ignoring positive ones.
Second, for those who did absorb both positive and negative news, they were more affected by the latter, as many studies have shown that negative stories carry more weight and thus disproportionately drive us to a pessimistic view of reality. This is a failure to accurately integrate positive and negative information by giving too much weight to the latter.
Third, while rational models of human behavior dictate that facts are a cause of our feelings, it’s often the other way around. In many cases, our doom-and-gloom mindset might have led to a biased sampling of the facts. For example, those who felt like democracy was on the chopping block might have subconsciously been drawn to stories that confirmed their fears (behavioral confirmation), rather than them having come across the facts first and then deduced democracy might be imperiled.
These biases are deep-seated in the human mind and can be difficult to overcome. Moreover, they are amplified because counterfactuals can be difficult to generate (i.e., it’s hard to remember the things that didn’t happen). This is further compounded by the fact that we tend to extract the “evaluative gist” of events and proceed to forget the descriptive details, as the latter are no longer relevant. Those details may be needed to update our beliefs at a later time but by then may be unavailable (either because they never made it into our long-term memory or because their memory traces are too faint for us to retrieve).
So, how can we do better? To answer this question, perhaps it’s helpful to understand that the human mind is motivated by three, often contradictory, goals: to get a decision right (accuracy), to preserve our cognitive resources (efficiency) and to leave our prior beliefs intact (cognitive consistency). That is, we like our beliefs to be settled and valid, and we like to arrive at them without too much effort at reasoning. As economy-minded souls, we also have a tendency to engage in theory-based (or top-down) reasoning, which means we often develop expectations about an event, and we too-often proceed to confirm those expectations even when they aren’t borne out by the evidence.
To do better, we need to try harder, and that entails two principal actions: We need to temper our expectations so that we remain open to the “evidence,” and we need to guard ourselves — especially in a time of political polarization — against “us versus them” reasoning so that we recognize that we are not always right and they are not always wrong. This is no easy feat, as belief confirmation and sticking with the in-group provide strong psychological rewards. But it would be a good goal to place at the top of our New Year’s resolutions come Jan. 1.