If you get your knowledge of what's happening in the world from any form of mainstream news media, you would probably say war and violence are increasing. And you'd probably say it with a lot of confidence. And I'm happy to say, you’d be wrong.
You’re not alone. Many leading scholars and policymakers who should definitely know better have the same impression. But several groups have studied it carefully and they all come to the same conclusion: Wars have become less frequent and less violent. The trend is strong and long-running.
One of the reasons for our mistaken impression is the media’s negative bias. Another reason is the simple, unfortunate fact that a war breaking out is front page news while a war coming to a peaceful end is not (unless it is your own country, of course).
So when Mozambique erupts into civil war, it is front page news around the world. If negotiators go in and get the two sides to compromise or work out their differences, that may be news, but it will be a relatively obscure 10th-page item and not many will see it. It will certainly not be a lead story on television news.
The successful resolutions of violent (or potentially violent) situations in East Timor, Namibia, Eastern Slovenia, etc., are almost unknown.
Yet when things go wrong, as they did in Rwanda, for example, everybody hears about it. Violence is more newsworthy. If it bleeds, it leads, as they say in the newspaper business. To stay in business, they have to do what works. But by doing so, we get a false impression of the world.
Our brains were not carefully designed. They weren’t designed at all. They evolved, and are not perfect in any sense of the word. The human brain evolved in a world where it was obviously adaptive to respond to potentially dangerous information with increased alertness.
During the millions of years of our evolution, there were no advertisers or evening news programs. We evolved no defenses against their negative influence.
So we have a built-in reaction to potential danger — and the media exploits this natural instinct.
Teams of persistent people scour the world to find the unusual, the shocking, the scary, the things that will compel the viewers’ attention and won’t let them turn away or change the channel. They gather it all up and pack as much of it into their newspaper or television program as they can, giving your brain and nervous system the impression that this is happening in your world, making it seem immediate, and making you feel more threatened and more helpless than you really are.
Studies have shown that most television news leaves the viewer depressed because it is primarily bad news the viewer can do nothing about. The problems shown on the screen are too big or too far away or too permanent to do anything about. This sort of news nurtures a pessimistic view of the world.
Given all this (not to mention your own brain's negative bias) you will see a natural, gradual increase in your own pessimism unless you deliberately do something to prevent it. What can you do? You can protect yourself with the Antivirus For Your Mind.
Adam Khan is the author of Self-Help Stuff That Works and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.