Most people are generally not aware that the world is becoming a more peaceful place. Stories about things that are slowly reducing violent conflicts across the globe and saving lives are often fairly boring. Meanwhile, stories about death, destruction, and violence are shocking and interesting, drawing us in and sticking around in our memories for a long time. This misaligned perception of violence combined with our memory of shocking atrocities contributes to the general sense that people cannot be trusted and that the world is a dangerous place. It also makes us very cynical, and may cause us to dismiss people and places as shit-holes.
As Steven Pinker writes in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, it is important that we combat this cynicism. He writes, “the discovery that fewer people are dying in wars all over the world can thwart cynicism among compassion-fatigued news readers who might otherwise think that poor countries are irredeemable hellholes.” A misperception on the levels of violence in LA, the terrorist group participation rate in Afghanistan, or the number of people dying in a war torn country far away from the United States builds cynicism. It can make people think that such places are bad and incapable of changing and advancing. It justifies expending fewer resources in helping and trying to reduce the violence, gang participation, and death. Better understanding that things in such places are getting better or are capable of getting better can combat this tendency.
Additionally, better understanding of actual trends in violence and death can help us be more effective when we do try to help. Pinker continues, “a better understanding of what drove the numbers down can steer us toward doing things that make people better off rather than congratulating ourselves on how altruistic we are.” Studying what actually reduces violence and saves lives will help us be effective. This is more important than receiving a warm glow from donating to groups that don’t demonstrate effectiveness. Rather than donating just for the sake of a warm glow, good information can help us make donations that we can be confident will make a big difference in the actual outcomes that people will experience. Combating cynicism and warm glow donating will be important to continue to improve the world, but we cannot do that if we only hear about violent headlines and not the slow, boring efforts to improve the planet.