The Quicksand Theory of Pessimism

Whatever your opinion of the world is, it’s probably justified. The world is a big enough place that you can find plenty of evidence for whatever argument you can think of. 

If you want support for the belief that the world is an incredibly horrendous, evil place, destined for societal collapse, you'll find it. If you’re looking for evidence that the world is an incredibly beautiful, good place, destined for a bright future, you’ll find it.

Imagine a square with dots covering every inch of it - this is the map of potential and justified beliefs one can have of the world. Justified because whatever opinion you hold of the world - positive or negative - you can find an abundance of evidence for it.

square with black dots

You remember your statistics teacher saying that more evidence for x means higher probability that x is true. Except that this rule doesn't work here because you can find an infinite amount of data for argument x, but also for the opposite of x, and for any argument in this square.

This means that no single opinion of the world is truer than the other. We cannot objectively say which dot in the box is the “right” one. Because of this, you have a choice in what you choose to believe the world is. This post exists to encourage you to choose wisely.

In the box of possible views on the world, imagine the further down you go, the more negative your views are. The higher up, the more positive your opinion.

square with green and red dots

There’s a quicksand-like pull downwards in your view of the world, caused by natural reasons (negativity & confirmation bias, evolutionary focus on danger) and societal reasons (news and the “panic sells” mentality, algorithms and the “enragement is engagement” mentality). This pull is amplified by our tendency to conform; when a person or media tells the world is doomed, it’s easier to adopt the opinion than to counter it.

square with arrow from green to red dots

To avoid succumbing to pessimism, there are two challenges to overcome. The first is the quicksand pull of pessimism; if you’re not deliberate in what you believe in, it’s easy to drift down by default.

The second, perhaps more pressing challenge is that you don't actually view this box from third person like we do here. You tend to view it in the first person. To you, what you see is all there is. The world may, when looked at from the third person, have a reasonable balance between green and red. But that’s not how we experience the world.

square with dots and a red ball with a stick figure inside

This is where things get dangerous, where people become cynical and we start to talk about echo chambers. If you believe the world is a negative place, you tend to find supporting evidence for it wherever you go. Your mind is looking to confirm your belief. And it doesn’t help that the news and social media give you more of this evidence 24/7 because it has learned that doomscrolling is addictive. And it doesn’t help that pessimistic people can congregate on the same online forum to share their pessimistic views with an infinite group of other pessimists.

If you try to show the green side of the world to people who have been exposed to red for a long time, they tend to not care because suddenly believing in green would mean rejecting some of their current beliefs and documented opinions, media consumption and friend groups. A restructuring of their identity and environment. That’s a tough ask.

And remember, everyone is justified in what they believe the world is! Every dot in the box is a plausible opinion of what the world is because you can find an endless stream of evidence to support each dot. So how can you get someone to ditch their dot and adopt yours? By showing them evidence for why your dot is more plausible? Pfft, they can give you exactly as much evidence for their dot.

So if we cannot pull people out of the pit of pessimism through evidence for optimism, what can we do?

I think the key isn’t to try to convince a pessimist that they are somehow wrong or irrational in believing the world is a negative place. They are justified in their belief. Instead, we must help them realize that what they believe is entirely up to them.

Yes, there is clear evidence for what you currently believe in. But that doesn’t mean other possibilities would be any less likely. This doesn’t make intuitive sense, but multiple opposing beliefs can coexist. Please understand this.

When you realize that any single dot in the box is as justified as the other, then you realize that you have a choice in what you believe in.

The implicit way we choose our dot is based on evidence we acquire via personal experience and interpretation and information from outside sources. We try to make a wise choice given all of the evidence available to us, and often this means being pessimistic because of the quicksand pull of pessimism. Mostly, the information we receive beyond personal experience presents the world in a negative light, which guides us to interpret the world through a negative lens. All the news & tv series about terrorism, murder, corruption and the like have led you to grossly overestimate the negativity of humankind.

Get rid of this implicit way of choosing a dot. It won’t lead to an accurate worldview. If you could explicitly assess all possible evidence, your view of the world would have a balance between all shades of green and red.

disorganized dots and a square with ordered dots

But it simply isn’t possible for us to assess everything. We construct our worldview based on a miniscule set of data, and assume it accurately represents the world. Of course, it doesn’t. 

disorganized dots and a square with ordered dots

The main point isn’t to gather more evidence, but that you can choose what to believe in.

So the goal isn’t to be right because there isn’t an objective answer to what is the “right” dot. The objective is to believe in a dot that serves you well. Do you want to choose a belief that fills you with energy, hope and life? Or a dot that makes you hate humanity, society and life in general? It's an easy choice when framed like this.

Making the choice is easy on paper, but following through is difficult because we essentially need to fight gravity. If words were enough, there’d be no obese people and no one would smoke. And no one would be pessimistic.

For your and the world’s sake, please fight gravity. Recognize when you're sinking down the quicksand and prevent it. Yes, you may see truckloads of evidence every single day for why the world is going to hell, so much so that there should be no reason to doubt it. But doubt you must, even if your brain is certain; your brain wasn’t made for a world of infinite information. Following your instinct in modern problems such as this may do you a disservice. (Related post)

Do a sense check every now and then to see where you're at. Based on what my group of friends or family discusses, which dot am I going towards? Based on where I spend my time online, what belief am I likely to adopt? If I observe my thoughts as I interact with my surroundings, what do they tell about my worldview?

Remember to view the box in third person every once in a while. Remind yourself that it all could be differently, that you could just as well believe the green side. It’s a matter of choice.

(And yes, this same method of thinking applies to any complex topic. Should you have a child or not, given so much talk of overpopulation and the climate crisis? Depends which dot you choose. You can find infinite evidence for both sides, so choose what serves you better.)

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