Disbelieving Our Own Narratives

By | March 27, 2012

I got to participate in a live online event yesterday talking with Abundance authors Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler. What a treat. I put myself in the queue for questions and asked the authors the following: now that the book has been out for a few weeks, how has it been going dealing with the media?

Owing to the fierce devotion the media has to painting a bleak picture of what’s occurring in the world today and to drawing up even grimmer scenarios for the future, you would think that the constant media exposure of a book tour would generate a lot of friction, or at least tension. But no. Both authors report that they’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well everyone, or at least most everyone, is taking the news that the world is not going to hell in a handbasket.

Why is that? I think it’s because most of them, deep down, don’t really believe their own narrative. Now don’t take that as an all-out slam on the media. I know it sounds pretty bad, but the mitigating factor (if this is a mitigating factor) is that most of us don’t believe our own narrative about the future.

Research shows that most people have a positive expectation for their own future. In fact, most people have an unrealistically positive expectation for their own future. And that’s okay. Apparently there are evolutionary advantages to this sort of optimism. Over the long haul, optimists — at least this particular variety of optimists — have done a better job than pessimists of living long enough to reproduce. (This is a vast oversimplification, of course. Sometimes it’s advantageous to be a pessimist, and sometimes being an optimist will get you killed. But statistically, over the long haul, optimism appears to provide a greater survival advantage than pessimism.)

Interestingly, that set of expectations doesn’t necessarily get applied to others. If anything, we tend to underestimate their future happiness. But I think the’re’s an important difference. The notion that we are each going to have an extraordinary future is an ingrained belief. It’s the way we think when we’re not thinking about how or what we’re thinking.

Our views about the future of humanity, on the other hand, are more just a position that we have assumed. And if you’re going to pick an outlook on humanity, optimism has never been all that socially acceptable. The cool kids are mostly cynics, resigned to the inevitable decline and downfall that their species. It’s an insult to call somebody a Pollyanna. But what’s the opposite of that? A cynic? (That sounds way better than Pollyanna.) A Gloomy Gus?

Nobody says that.

Plus, a generally pessimistic outlook is increasingly built into our political discourse. If things don’t change soon…you can pretty much  insert your favorite doom scenario. Environmental, social, economic — take your pick. The world is divided between US, the people who genuinely want things to be good, and THEM, the ones who are carelessly or perhaps even deliberately leading us to our doom. The more precarious things sound, the more urgently we need people to sign onto our side — and possibly make a donation. Go to just about any political blog and that’s the basic narrative you’ll find. The ideology doesn’t matter, although (not surprisingly) the farther you are to either the left or right, the greater the evil of the other side and the greater the danger they represent.

I think what happens is that when people, even media people, hear something like what Diamandis and Kotler have to say,  it reminds us of what our true disposition towards the future is. Deep down, we believe that things can work out, and that we’re going to find a way to make that happen. Of course, I doubt that  many (or, sadly, any) of the media folks the authors have spoken to over the last month have undergone a permanent change in outward position towards the future.

If it bleeds, chances are it’s still going to lead.

Still, I find great encouragement in the fact that Diamandis and Kotler have been (mostly) warmly received so far. It tells me that cynicism and pessimism need not be permanent. If they can be set aside for a few moments, they can be set aside.

Anyway, here’s Peter Diamandis telling us what (deep down) we all suspected might be true: that the future might not be so bleak after all; that the world may, in fact, be getting better all the time.

Cross-posted from Better All the Time.