It’s not quite as sociopathic or negative as it sounds. Specifically, he addresses a problem which is that the human mind was forged over eons in the wilderness, where we hunted and gathered, and is thus not suited for an era of abundance.
We’re also depressingly optimistic.
As a product of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years of trial and error, it is perhaps not surprising that our species is excellent at many things. Bred to survive on the open savannah, we can run quite fast, throw quite accurately, and climb well enough. Above all, we have excellent spatial awareness and hand/eye coordination. We are often flexible and occasionally inventive.
For dealing with the modern world, we are not, however, particularly well-equipped. We don’t seem to deal well with long horizon issues and deferring gratification. Because we could not store food for over 99% of our species’ career and were totally concerned with staying alive this year and this week, this is not surprising. We are also innumerate. Our typical maths skills seem quite undeveloped relative to our nuanced language skills. Again, communication was life and death, maths was not. Have you not admired, as I have, the incredible average skill and, perhaps more importantly, the high minimum skill shown by our species in driving through heavy traffic? At what other activity does almost everyone perform so well? Just imagine what driving would be like if those driving skills, which reflect the requirements of our distant past, were replaced by our average maths skills!
We also became an optimistic and overconfident species, which early on were characteristics that may have helped us to survive and today are reaffirmed consistently by the new breed of research behaviorists. And some branches of our culture today are more optimistic and overconfident than others. At the top of my list would be the U.S. and Australia. In a well-known recent international test,1 U.S. students came a rather sad 28/40 in maths and a very mediocre eighteenth in language skills, but when asked at the end of the test how well they had done in maths, they were right at the top of the confidence list. Conversely, the Hong Kongers, in the #1 spot for actual maths skills, were averagely humble in their expectations.
Fortunately, optimism appears to be a real indicator of future success. A famous Harvard study in the 1930s found that optimistic students had more success in all aspects of their early life and, eventually, they even lived longer. Optimism likely has a lot to do with America’s commercial success. For example, we attempt far more ventures in new technologies like the internet than the more conservative Europeans and, not surprisingly, end up with more of the winners. But optimism has a downside. No one likes to hear bad news, but in my experience, no one hates it as passionately as the U.S. and Australia. Less optimistic Europeans and others are more open to gloomy talk. Tell a Brit you think they’re in a housing bubble, and you’ll have a discussion. Tell an Australian, and you’ll have World War III. Tell an American in 1999 that a terrible bust in growth stocks was coming, and he was likely to have told you that you had missed the point, that 65 times earnings was justified by the Internet and other dazzling technology, and, by the way, please stay out of my building in the future.
This excessive optimism has also been stuck up my nose several times on climate change, where so many otherwise sensible people would much prefer an optimistic sound bite from Fox News than to listen to bad news, even when clearly realistic. I have heard several brilliant contrarian financial analysts, siding with climate sceptics, all for want of, say, 10 or 12 hours of their own serious analysis. My complete lack of success in stirring up interest in our resource problems has similarly impressed me: it was like dropping reports into a black hole. Finally, in desperation, we have ground a lot of data and, the more we grind, the worse, unfortunately, it looks.
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