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The Negativity Trap

Updated: Apr 25, 2020

Many teenagers are reproaching my generation for leaving a mess behind. Hans Rosling, a leading economist, came to the rescue with his book ‘Factfulness’ published post-mortem late last year. He explores the state of the world and deplores individuals’ pessimistic views about it. He argues that incomplete or outdated knowledge, preconceived ideas, the craving for dramatic stories and, last but not least, negative instincts are preventing people from appreciating the reality. Like Tycho Nestoris who tightly runs the Iron Bank of Braavos, he calls upon humanity to embrace facts: ‘Across the Narrow Sea, your books are filled with words like ‘usurper’ and ‘madman’ and ‘blood right.’ Here, our books are filled with numbers. We prefer the stories they tell. More plain. Less... open to interpretation.

And the factual numbers are telling: from slavery, child mortality, battle deaths, hunger, plane crashes to girls in school, women’s right to vote, access to water, electricity coverage or new music, the world has never been in a better place than today. There is not much room for nostalgia. And to bring the discussion to the current macroeconomic situation, I shall add the observation that the global unemployment level is at or near a 40-year low. Kids, take that!

As a result from these advancements, Mr. Rosling demonstrates that the gap between developed and developing countries has melted since the 1960’s, making this dual classification totally obsolete: The vast majority of the global population is now living in the middle (check Mr. Rosling’s website gapminder). That evolution, in turn, is contributing to a slowdown in population growth through a lower baby-per-woman ratio towards a plateau of 11 billion people (from 8 billion today), shattering the notion of uncontrolled demographic growth dooming the planet. When considering the state of the world, he concludes: ‘It is both bad and better’.

Having said so, the younger generation does have a point when it comes to the environment. I would argue that capitalism has been victim of its own success: Nobody expected that thoroughly enjoyable, yet environment-unfriendly foods and mobility, in particular, could become so affordable and so fast, thereby leading to global excess. Building on Rosling’s conclusion, the state of the world is worse, bad and better.

Spurring engagement with respect to climate change has proven to be a difficult task. Shocking news and angry speeches about burning houses are at risk of creating some ‘apocalypse fatigue’ according to Per Esten Stoknes, a Norwegian psychologist and politician. In his Ted Talk, he explains why this scaremongering approach, gladly endorsed by the media, is ineffective and hinders action. The human brain is naturally programmed to resist it as it is too abstract, distant and disturbing. To effect change, a more ‘brain-friendly’ climate change communication is required, relying on storytelling, positive messaging and relevant facts, as exemplified in his talk.

The above illustrates that individuals tend to over-react to negativity and under-act upon it. This is relevant to the assessment of the state of the world, to engagement about climate change… and to the workplace as leadership teams know it all too well.

Beware of the negativity trap.

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