Published on:

To cheer people up tell them things are OK

Update: see below for a contribution from Steve
Budiansky, the Liberal Curmudgeon.

My friend Geoffrey Miller, the brilliant author ofThe Mating Mind and Spent, was kind enough to send me some
comments on The Rational Optimist. I asked him if I could post them
here as a guest blog. Below I have added some comments of my own on
why people are pessimistic about civilisation.

Here is what he has to say:

I wanted to mention two brief points that you
might find amusing and/or relevant.

First, the society’s collective pessimism
about the human future shares many of the classic ‘thought
distortions’ that accompany clinical depression, and it might be
managed better by a cultural version of ‘cognitive behavioral
therapy’ (CBT). Depressed people have various mental habits such as
catastrophizing (imaging the worst in every situation), all-or-none
thinking, fortune-telling (over-estimating their ability to predict
the future), mind-reading (imagining one can attribute beliefs and
desires to others more accurately than one can), etc. These
thought distortions reinforce the downward spiral of individual
depression, often leading to paralysis, hopelessness, and
suicide. The same thought distortions appear repeatedly in
doom-prophets and civilization-skeptics.

CBT is a set of techniques that encourage
depressed individuals to challenge their own depressogenic thought
patterns and to shift into more optimistic (and realistic) habits
of thought. CBT has a particularly scientific flavor, since it
challenges the depressed to ask themselves continually — what is
the evidence for this view? Are there more realistic
alternative perspectives? Who can I ask for a second opinion?
What evidence would disprove my assumption? CBT is basically
just the scientific method applied to one’s own emotional

It’s striking that of all the psychotherapies
that have ever been developed, CBT is the only one with substantial
evidence of clinical efficacy; indeed, it’s similar in
effectiveness to good anti-depressant drugs such as Prozac,
Wellbutrin, or Effexor. So, I look upon ‘The rational
optimist’ as a sort of collective CBT for the chattering classes
(and, I hope, for many others too).

Second, I think there’s a motivational
challenge that we face in the early 21st century in imagining
medium-term and long-term futures that are genuinely prosperous and
exciting. Science fiction novels and films have played a
crucial role in helping people envision what kinds of futures will
be worth living. Yet most recent SF films have been markedly
catastrophic (e.g. 2012, I, Robot, Avatar, The Matrix, The
Road). I think it’s important for rational optimists to be
able to point to some plausible and visualizable futures that seem
fun, safe, prosperous, and humane, just to get the juices of
ambition flowing.

In my experience, the ‘Culture’ novels of
Scottish SF author Iain M. Banks come closest to this
ideal. If you haven’t encountered them yet, I’d recommend
them, especially his most recent one ‘Surface
Detail’. Sometimes he veers off into anti-capitalist rhetoric
a bit, but the general tenor of his far-future imagined human
culture is one of mass prosperity, peace, tolerance, and
civility. (The only other notable exception to the
future-is-horrible theme in SF is the Star Trek series, which is
why it’s always attracted tech-enthusiast engineers, but been
roundly mocked by culturally-pretentious

Also I’ve been thinking that certain computer
games have been crucial in cultivating an appreciation for the joys
of cumulative technical and economic progress, in at least some
people. Specifically, the ‘Civilization’ games by Sid Meiers. These
have been played by tens of millions of fans, but are almost never
mentioned in ‘serious’ discussions of how to educate the public
about gains from trade specifically, or appreciating and improving
our civilization generally.

The Civ games are superficially just another
turn-based strategy game, but they really function as a vivid
interactive tutorial on how civilizations develop, how populations
grow, how technology accumulates, how historical and geographical
contingencies work, how superior trade is to warfare in promoting
prosperity, etc. A lot of wisdom about history, economics,
demographics, geography, etc. is built into these games, and
players absorb that wisdom quickly and painlessly just through
playing them. So Civ’s designer Sid Meiers is arguably one of
the great unacknowledged educators of the modern world.  
I also suspect that people who have spent at least 40 hours playing
Civ will show a higher appreciation of modern life and more
rational optimism about the human future.

I’d recommend ‘Civ 4‘ if you haven’t seen any of them (the
more recent ‘Civ 5’ was a badly designed exception to an otherwise
excellent series).


This is what I replied to Geoffrey:

The question of why are people so pessimistic is by far the
commonest that I am asked. I should have addressed it in the book,
but my answers are weak and confused:

1. Blame the media (but this is proximate rather than ultimate,
how rather than why).

2. Evolutionary-psychology: excess caution paid off (and had few
drawbacks) in the dangerous past.

3. Nostalgia gilds the past (but why? It just begs the

4. (suggested by somebody to me last week) Because the past was
certain and we know it had a happy ending, since we are here,
whereas the future is uncertain. This is like Richard Dawkins’s
point that most animals die young, yet none of your ancestors died
young. Most of us will have sticky ends, but none of us who are
here have had sticky ends yet…

5. Almost the opposite, suggested today by Anna Blundy, a
journalist who interviewed me: we know we are going to die and we
narcissistically wish the world to end at the same time.

I quite like that last one.

Steve Budiansky had this reaction:

I think there’s another explanation. We all
have learned from experience to be skeptical of optimism: all
children are full of naive enthusiasms; it is part of the (genuine)
wisdom gained by often crushing experience that things are not
always as joyful as we thought they would be once we attain them,
that toys are not as advertised and break, that the people selling
things do not have our best interests at heart, that the pony
involves a lot of work and does not in fact love us, that exciting
careers involve petty politics and drudgery.

This knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to
pessimism but it does make I think all sentient and self-aware
people wary about optimism to some extent, and rightly suspicious
to a degree about people who are telling them that everything will
be wonderful since in truth such people (e.g., salesmen and
politicians) all too often are trying to sell us a bill of goods
and hide the price that will have to be paid later. I don’t think
this is narcissism or wanting the world to die with us; I think it
is protecting ourselves against dashed hopes on the basis of the
often brutal experience of having hopes dashed.

Nostalgia is an interesting part of this and
I don’t think it actually is begging the question to invoke that as
an explanation. Things that seem especially appealing quite often
lose their shine once the novelty wears off due to familiarity and
so things always look better in memory than they in time become,
because in many ways they were better (or at least our experience
of them was better). In one of Trollope’s novels he captures this
very well with a passage on the way men become jaded through
accumulated experience; when you’re young each new restaurant seems
exciting but the initial enthusiasm almost always fades; then when
you get old enough that you’ve had this experience the nth time you
conclude that all restaurants are going downhill, that nothing is
as good as it used to be. Disillusionment is simply by virtue of
experience a part of life; Leonard Woolf said ideally one would
manage things so that one’s death exactly coincides with the moment
one reaches the final point of total disillusionment. (That’s
almost exactly the opposite in cause and effect of the notion that
we want the world to die with us, but then Leonard Woolf was an
amazing man.)

I think most of what you are criticizing in
your book is actually not pessimism per se but excessive suspicion
or wariness of optimism, which is different. I think the “rational”
part of your title is in fact exactly perfectly attuned in
addressing this — you are not so much making the case against
pessimism as for the idea that it is possible to be optimistic
about some important things in the world, without being a dupe.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist