FREEDOM AND SAFETY
In Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor’s fictional American town, all the children are above average. And life imitates art, not only in America – and not only for the young. In survey after survey, in rich and poor countries alike, people report feeling satisfied with their family lives, happy with the neighborhoods they live in, and optimistic about their personal futures. The same people tell pollsters that their countries and the world are going to hell in a handbasket.
So adults, apparently, also lead lives that are always above average.
Consider some examples. According to the Eurobarometer poll, around 60% of people predict that their job situation will remain the same, while 20% expect their situation to improve. Yet most people systematically expect the economic situation in their home country to deteriorate or remain the same. Expectations about individual outcomes move very little over time, while expectations about national economic performance worsen with recessions and improve with booms, just as you might expect.
This is not just a European phenomenon. The CEP poll, Chile’s most respected opinion survey, has been asking similar questions since 2004, with results that are just as puzzling. The share of people who report being satisfied with their personal economic situation is always larger than the share who are satisfied with the state of the national economy. And the gap between the two indicators has been growing fast since 2010.
The puzzle is not limited to economics. Bjørn Lomborg reports that in many countries, the share of pessimists about the state of the world’s environment is vastly larger than the share of pessimists about local or national environments. Similar results turn up when pollsters ask people about the extent of poverty, drug consumption, or the prevalence of crime.
The phenomenon is so widespread that Oxford University economist Max Roser has given it a name: “local optimism and national pessimism.” What explains it?
Many philosophers since Aristotle have argued that human beings thrive when they are part of close-knit communities imbued with strong norms of civic virtue. But according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, capitalism’s first critic, markets promote greed, cause those bonds to break down, and set people apart from their fellow beings. Little wonder, then, that when neighbors stare beyond their picket fences, they do not like what they see. Individual satisfaction and the sense that society is hostile can and do coexist.
Classical sociologists made a similar point. Modernization tore people away from their traditional, tight-knit communities and threw them into the anonymity of industrializing cities - the basis of Ferdinand Tönnies’ famous distinction between Gemeinschaft versus Gesellschaft. Even if individuals prospered, they tended to feel alienated from the larger society and pessimistic about it, suffering from what Émile Durkheim called anomie.
Last, but certainly not least, several psychologists and neuroscientists - the best known among them is Tali Sharot of University College London - argue that the human brain is hardwired for optimism. The catch is that this innate bias applies only to one’s own future, not to that of one’s country or the planet’s, so a gap can naturally emerge.
These are all thought-provoking ideas. And there is probably more than a kernel of truth in them. But if you believe that the gap between individual optimism and national pessimism is getting larger - and it is - then one has to point to factors that have changed recently in order to explain the growing gap. Modernization-induced anomie or built-in psychological biases alone won’t do the trick, because they have been around for a very long time.
One tip comes from the observation that, according to studies, the gap is larger among people who have more exposure to news media. And the media - certainly social media - tend to emphasize the gloomy and the gory over the sunny and the sublime. Good news is not news, media executives often mutter. And it takes just a minute on Twitter or cable news to confirm the old adage: “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Add to this a second psychological bias neuroscientists are discussing: because our species has evolved to fend off danger, we tend to be more sensitive to bad news. We react more acutely to pictures of starving children than to reports of improving nutrition levels in Africa. And, of course, we tend to remember those horrible pictures much longer.
One man who has long understood all of this is Donald Trump. Remember the Republican National Convention speech in which he described a nation plagued by “poverty and violence at home, war and destruction abroad”? That was the same evening he pilloried Hillary Clinton’s legacy as one of “death, destruction, and weakness.”
“A little hyperbole never hurts,” Trump explained in The Art of the Deal, and his fellow populists agree. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro may not have read Rousseau or perused the latest neuroscience paper, but they get the gist: never mind what people’s daily experience at home and work suggest; just keep repeating that business elites or immigrants or foreigners are making things worse - much worse! - and sooner or later voters will believe you.
That is one reason why populism is so dangerous - and why even places as idyllic as Lake Wobegon are not immune to it.
Andrés Velasco, Professor of Professional Practice, Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs