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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Miller on cognitive behavioral therapy

To cheer people up tell them things are OK

Update: see below for a contribution from Steve Budiansky, the Liberal Curmudgeon.

My friend Geoffrey Miller, the brilliant author ofThe Mating Mind and Spent, was kind enough to send me some comments on The Rational Optimist. I asked him if I could post them here as a guest blog. Below I have added some comments of my own on why people are pessimistic about civilisation.

Here is what he has to say:

I wanted to mention two brief points that you might find amusing and/or relevant.

First, the society's collective pessimism about the human future shares many of the classic 'thought distortions' that accompany clinical depression, and it might be managed better by a cultural version of 'cognitive behavioral therapy' (CBT). Depressed people have various mental habits such as catastrophizing (imaging the worst in every situation), all-or-none thinking, fortune-telling (over-estimating their ability to predict the future), mind-reading (imagining one can attribute beliefs and desires to others more accurately than one can), etc. These thought distortions reinforce the downward spiral of individual depression, often leading to paralysis, hopelessness, and suicide. The same thought distortions appear repeatedly in doom-prophets and civilization-skeptics.

CBT is a set of techniques that encourage depressed individuals to challenge their own depressogenic thought patterns and to shift into more optimistic (and realistic) habits of thought. CBT has a particularly scientific flavor, since it challenges the depressed to ask themselves continually -- what is the evidence for this view? Are there more realistic alternative perspectives? Who can I ask for a second opinion? What evidence would disprove my assumption? CBT is basically just the scientific method applied to one's own emotional states.

It's striking that of all the psychotherapies that have ever been developed, CBT is the only one with substantial evidence of clinical efficacy; indeed, it's similar in effectiveness to good anti-depressant drugs such as Prozac, Wellbutrin, or Effexor. So, I look upon 'The rational optimist' as a sort of collective CBT for the chattering classes (and, I hope, for many others too).

Second, I think there's a motivational challenge that we face in the early 21st century in imagining medium-term and long-term futures that are genuinely prosperous and exciting. Science fiction novels and films have played a crucial role in helping people envision what kinds of futures will be worth living. Yet most recent SF films have been markedly catastrophic (e.g. 2012, I, Robot, Avatar, The Matrix, The Road). I think it's important for rational optimists to be able to point to some plausible and visualizable futures that seem fun, safe, prosperous, and humane, just to get the juices of ambition flowing.

In my experience, the 'Culture' novels of Scottish SF author Iain M. Banks come closest to this ideal. If you haven't encountered them yet, I'd recommend them, especially his most recent one 'Surface Detail'. Sometimes he veers off into anti-capitalist rhetoric a bit, but the general tenor of his far-future imagined human culture is one of mass prosperity, peace, tolerance, and civility. (The only other notable exception to the future-is-horrible theme in SF is the Star Trek series, which is why it's always attracted tech-enthusiast engineers, but been roundly mocked by culturally-pretentious pessimist/intellectuals.)

Also I've been thinking that certain computer games have been crucial in cultivating an appreciation for the joys of cumulative technical and economic progress, in at least some people. Specifically, the 'Civilization' games by Sid Meiers. These have been played by tens of millions of fans, but are almost never mentioned in 'serious' discussions of how to educate the public about gains from trade specifically, or appreciating and improving our civilization generally.

The Civ games are superficially just another turn-based strategy game, but they really function as a vivid interactive tutorial on how civilizations develop, how populations grow, how technology accumulates, how historical and geographical contingencies work, how superior trade is to warfare in promoting prosperity, etc. A lot of wisdom about history, economics, demographics, geography, etc. is built into these games, and players absorb that wisdom quickly and painlessly just through playing them. So Civ's designer Sid Meiers is arguably one of the great unacknowledged educators of the modern world.   I also suspect that people who have spent at least 40 hours playing Civ will show a higher appreciation of modern life and more rational optimism about the human future.

I'd recommend 'Civ 4' if you haven't seen any of them (the more recent 'Civ 5' was a badly designed exception to an otherwise excellent series).


This is what I replied to Geoffrey:

The question of why are people so pessimistic is by far the commonest that I am asked. I should have addressed it in the book, but my answers are weak and confused:

1. Blame the media (but this is proximate rather than ultimate, how rather than why).

2. Evolutionary-psychology: excess caution paid off (and had few drawbacks) in the dangerous past.

3. Nostalgia gilds the past (but why? It just begs the question).

4. (suggested by somebody to me last week) Because the past was certain and we know it had a happy ending, since we are here, whereas the future is uncertain. This is like Richard Dawkins's point that most animals die young, yet none of your ancestors died young. Most of us will have sticky ends, but none of us who are here have had sticky ends yet...

5. Almost the opposite, suggested today by Anna Blundy, a journalist who interviewed me: we know we are going to die and we narcissistically wish the world to end at the same time.

I quite like that last one.

Steve Budiansky had this reaction:

I think there's another explanation. We all have learned from experience to be skeptical of optimism: all children are full of naive enthusiasms; it is part of the (genuine) wisdom gained by often crushing experience that things are not always as joyful as we thought they would be once we attain them, that toys are not as advertised and break, that the people selling things do not have our best interests at heart, that the pony involves a lot of work and does not in fact love us, that exciting careers involve petty politics and drudgery.

This knowledge doesn't necessarily lead to pessimism but it does make I think all sentient and self-aware people wary about optimism to some extent, and rightly suspicious to a degree about people who are telling them that everything will be wonderful since in truth such people (e.g., salesmen and politicians) all too often are trying to sell us a bill of goods and hide the price that will have to be paid later. I don't think this is narcissism or wanting the world to die with us; I think it is protecting ourselves against dashed hopes on the basis of the often brutal experience of having hopes dashed.

Nostalgia is an interesting part of this and I don't think it actually is begging the question to invoke that as an explanation. Things that seem especially appealing quite often lose their shine once the novelty wears off due to familiarity and so things always look better in memory than they in time become, because in many ways they were better (or at least our experience of them was better). In one of Trollope's novels he captures this very well with a passage on the way men become jaded through accumulated experience; when you're young each new restaurant seems exciting but the initial enthusiasm almost always fades; then when you get old enough that you've had this experience the nth time you conclude that all restaurants are going downhill, that nothing is as good as it used to be. Disillusionment is simply by virtue of experience a part of life; Leonard Woolf said ideally one would manage things so that one's death exactly coincides with the moment one reaches the final point of total disillusionment. (That's almost exactly the opposite in cause and effect of the notion that we want the world to die with us, but then Leonard Woolf was an amazing man.)

I think most of what you are criticizing in your book is actually not pessimism per se but excessive suspicion or wariness of optimism, which is different. I think the "rational" part of your title is in fact exactly perfectly attuned in addressing this -- you are not so much making the case against pessimism as for the idea that it is possible to be optimistic about some important things in the world, without being a dupe.