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It’s not all bad news: A biblical strategy for fighting negativity bias

Mark Legg is a staff writer for Denison Forum. He graduated from Dallas Baptist University with a degree in philosophy and biblical studies. He eventually wants to pursue his PhD and become a professor in philosophy.

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If you had to give humanity a grade for how we’re doing as a whole, what grade would you give?  

From social media and the news cycle, I normally have the impression that humanity is about to enter into extinction pretty much every week, so I’d say D+ at best.  

You might be surprised to know that deaths from natural disasters have decreased 99 percent since the 1920s, world hunger has plummeted in the past century, and interstate wars have decreased in recent decades. 

In Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know, Ronald Bailey and Marian Tupy highlight research indicating something we rarely hear about in today’s world: good news.  

Centuries of good news

As a prominent example, they underline a trend they call the “great enrichment.” This trend shows that the world’s economy over the past millennium (since 1 AD) looks like a hockey stick if placed onto a graph: the curve of economic growth is almost entirely flat until the nineteenth century, and then it spikes up at a shockingly steep rate.  

They conclude, “Since 1820, the size of the world’s economy has grown more than a hundredfold. Over the past 200 years, the world population grew somewhat less than eightfold.” Though they admit it is difficult to measure economic growth over time, these estimates help show that the world has grown massively within the trend of increasing market freedoms and technological growth.  

Their point in highlighting certain positive facts is not to hide the ways we need to improve. Instead, they simply point out that perspective (often centuries long) reveals humanity’s astounding economic progress and the increase in our global quality of life.  

In their introduction, the authors argue that to form good public policy and take hold of rational opinions, we must counteract the tendency to focus on bad news by taking broader perspectives into account. They point out that intelligent people tend to consume news more frequently to stay informed, but most of the news is bad, so even informed people generally have a skewed view leading to an overly pessimistic outlook. They write, “News is bad news; steady progress is not news.”  

So why does the media often seem to portray the world as on the brink of collapse?

Why do we seem to love bad news? 

What is negativity bias?  

There is strong empirical evidence that suggests humans are wired to focus and learn from negative information. Researchers have conducted numerous studies that demonstrate our counterintuitive draw to “negative” facts or bad news.  

For instance, negative information seems to command more attention, potential loss appears to affect our decision-making more, and we seem to favor bad impressions of people when we meet them. There also seem to be more emotional categories in language for negative responses. Leo Tolstoy perhaps best expressed this: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  

The tendency toward negativity has specific implications for the media and the news cycle. Steve Yount wrote an excellent article unpacking the distrust of American people against the media and how to detect media bias. Due to the nature of the news, one general bias includes its proclivity toward negativity.  

You’re not going to read a breaking news story about how some suburban family carried on with a pleasant Saturday grill out, how a middle-sized city in Illinois just finished an on-ramp whose construction had really frustrated the residents, or even that global literacy rates have exploded from around 10 percent to 90 percent over the past two hundred years.  

I should note that these biases are not pointless or always wrong in and of themselves. Our instincts that tend toward fear can save our lives. Gavin de Becker, an acclaimed security specialist, wrote The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protects Us From Violence to argue through case studies and his experience that we should listen to those small pulls of instinctual fear.  

All things considered, however, negativity bias can grow into an unhealthy, all-consuming cynicism. I’ve been on the brink of this myself many times before.  

Preventing pessimism with hope and action

Many today are looking at the news and concluding that we ought to be fundamentally pessimistic about our present and future. Others see the trends that Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know highlights and lauds humankind for our collective progress. 

First, let’s address the point of pessimism. 

On a practical level, expressing gratitude increases happiness. Rather than being bogged down in pessimism amidst all the bad news, choose to hold fast to Christ as your joy and take note of the good things he’s given you. Discern your news intake and take time to hear positive stories. If you’re feeling the weight of bad news, take a look at Minni Elkins’ article about Nightbirde’s inspiring journey.  

The Bible at once says to see the brokenness around us and mourn, while also for us to alleviate suffering and take care of the oppressed, poor, orphans, and widows. We feed the hungry out of obedience and from a loving heart, and we present Jesus alongside these good works (John 6:26–27). As Christians, we express gratitude and joy, and we also express mourning and take action. As Christians, we ought to be realists while choosing joy and hope.  

For example, I was recently driving from College Station to Dallas, Texas, when my air conditioner suddenly stopped blowing cold air. Driving in Texas weather without AC could have led to my incessant complaining or my thankfulness for AC when I have it. I have tried to choose the latter. This issue is an incredibly minor suffering, and certainly no persecution for being a Christian. But, for me, it is building the habit of thankfulness in the small things that help me remain content in him in life.  

Allow me to quote 1 Peter 1:6–9 at length: “In this [inheritance in heaven] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”  

We can see the evil and brokenness around us without being crushed by pessimism because of what Jesus has in store for us.  

As believers, we should act toward the genuine betterment of people’s lives.  

Reframing humanism with the gospel 

Second, let’s address humanism. 

If we don’t take the gospel into account along with humanity’s progress, we will fall into the trap of humanism. Humanism is the conviction that humanity’s problems will ultimately be solved by our collective progress in science, art, and politics, affirming human dignity without the aid of God or religion.  

Humanists may point to someone like Bill Gates as an overwhelming force for human prosperity. There is no doubt that is the case. As believers, we know that Jesus fed the hungry and that God’s heart breaks for the poor, and Jesus holds this as paramount (Matthew 25:34-40). Gates’ philanthropy has helped bring millions of people toward living with less suffering. His all-time giving to charity has topped $40 billion. In that way, he reflects God’s heart for the impoverished and needy.  

As believers, we should celebrate the genuine betterment of people’s lives.   

However, sin’s brokenness is still evident in his life. The obvious example of this is in his recent divorce from Melinda Gates, his wife of twenty-seven years. Though Bill Gates has loosely claimed to believe in God and attends a Catholic church, he does not claim to have a personal relationship with Jesus. The gospel needs to be present to transform people’s lives and redeem them from their sins; good works and fighting poverty cannot replace Jesus’ work on the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18; John 3:16). 

As believers, our lives should be marked by our unique, eternal perspective. 

In addition to zooming out to the past two thousand years and seeing humanity’s progress, and rather than being dragged down by constant negativity in the present, we ought to remember our perspective of eternity. We have the unique mandate to be concerned with the here and now and with our future hope in Christ.  

Whether we face good news or bad news, we must keep the ultimate good news, the gospel, our focus.