Your words are doing something. Do you know what that something is?

Humans are pattern-matching machines. As a species, it is our superpower. To summarize the core of my own epistemic philosophy, here is a brief list of the activities in the core main-loop of a human being:

  1. stuff happens to us
  2. we look for patterns in the stuff
  3. we weave those patterns into narratives
  4. we turn the narratives into models of the world
  5. we predict what will happen based on those models
  6. we do stuff based on those predictions
  7. based on the stuff we did, more stuff happens to us; return to step 1

While this ability lets humans do lots of great stuff, like math and physics and agriculture and so on, we can just as easily build bad stories and bad models. We can easily trick ourselves into thinking that our predictive abilities are more powerful than they are.

The existence of magic-seeming levels of prediction in fields like chemistry and physics and statistics, in addition to the practical usefulness of rough estimates and heuristics in daily life, itself easily creates a misleading pattern. “I see all these patterns and make all these predictions and I’m right a lot of the time, so if I just kind of wing it and predict some more stuff, I’ll also be right about that stuff.”

This leaves us very vulnerable to things like mean world syndrome. Mean world syndrome itself is specifically about danger, but I believe it is a manifestation of an even broader phenomenon which I would term “the apophenia of despair”.

Confirmation bias is an inherent part of human cognition, but the internet has turbocharged it. Humans have immediate access to more information than we ever had in the past. In order to cope with that information, we have also built ways to filter that information. Even disregarding things like algorithmic engagement maximization and social media filter bubbles, the simple fact that when you search for things, you are a lot more likely to find the thing that you’re searching for than to find arguments refuting it, can provide a very strong sense that you’re right about whatever you’re researching.

All of this is to say: if you decide that something in the world is getting worse, you can very easily convince yourself that it is getting much, much worse, very rapidly. Especially because there are things which are, unambiguously, getting worse.

However, Pollyanna-ism is just the same phenomenon in reverse and I don’t want to engage in that. The ice sheets really are melting, globally, fascism really is on the rise. I am not here to deny reality or to cherry pick a bunch of statistics to lull people into complacency.

I believe that while dwelling on a negative reality is bad, I also believe that in the face of constant denial, it is sometimes necessary to simply emphasize those realities, however unpleasant they may be. Distinguishing between unhelpful rumination on negativity and repetition of an unfortunate but important truth to correct popular perception is subjective and subtle, but the difference is nevertheless important.

As our ability to acquire information about things getting worse has grown, our ability to affect those things has not. Knowledge is not power; power is power, and most of us don’t have a lot of it, so we need to be strategic in the way that we deploy our limited political capital and personal energy.

Overexposure to negative news can cause symptoms of depression; depressed people have reduced executive function and find it harder to do stuff. One of the most effective interventions against this general feeling of malaise? Hope.. Not “hope” in the sense of wishing. As this article in the American Psychological Association’s “Monitor on Psychology” puts it:

“We often use the word ‘hope’ in place of wishing, like you hope it rains today or you hope someone’s well,” said Chan Hellman, PhD, a professor of psychology and founding director of the Hope Research Center at the University of Oklahoma. “But wishing is passive toward a goal, and hope is about taking action toward it.”

Here, finally, I can get around to my point.

If you have an audience, and you have some negative thoughts about some social trend, talking about it in a way which is vague and non-actionable is potentially quite harmful. If you are doing this, you are engaged in the political project of robbing a large number of people of hope. You are saying that the best should have less conviction, while the worst will surely remain just as full of passionate intensity.

I do not mean to say that it is unacceptable to ever publicly share thoughts of sadness, or even hopelessness. If everyone in public is forced to always put on a plastic smile and pretend that everything is going to be okay if we have grit and determination, then we have an Instagram culture of fake highlight reels where anyone having their own struggles with hopelessness will just feel even worse in their isolation. I certainly posted my way through my fair share of pretty bleak mental health issues during the worst of the pandemic.

But we should recognize that while sadness is a feeling, hopelessness is a problem, a bad reaction to that feeling, one that needs to be addressed if we are going to collectively dig ourselves out of the problem that creates the sadness in the first place. We may not be able to conjure hope all the time, but we should always be trying.

When we try to address these feelings, as I said earlier, Pollyanna-ism doesn’t help. The antidote to hopelessness is not optimism, but curiosity. If you have a strong thought like “people these days just don’t care about other people1”, yelling “YES THEY DO” at yourself (or worse, your audience) is unlikely to make much of a change, and certainly not likely to be convincing to an audience. Instead, you could ask yourself some questions, and use them for a jumping-off point for some research:

  1. Why do I think this — is the problem in my perception, or in the world?
  2. If there is a problem in my perception, is this a common misperception? If it’s common, what is leading to it being common? If it’s unique to me, what sort of work do I need to do to correct it?
  3. If the problem is real, what are its causes? Is there anything that I, or my audience, could do to address those causes?

The answers to these questions also inform step 6 of the process I outlined above: the doing stuff part of the process.

At some level, all communication is persuasive communication. Everything you say that another person might hear, everything you say that a person might hear, is part of a sprachspiel where you are attempting to achieve something. There is always an implied call to action; even “do nothing, accept the status quo” is itself an action. My call to action right now is to ask you to never make your call to action “you should feel bad, and you should feel bad about feeling bad”. When you communicate in public, your words have power.

Use that power for good.


Thank you to my patrons who are supporting my writing on this blog. If you like what you’ve read here and you’d like to read more of it, or you’d like to support my various open-source endeavors, you can support my work as a sponsor! Special thanks also to Cassandra Granade, who provided some editorial feedback on this post; any errors, of course, remain my own.

  1. I should also note that vague sentiments of this form, “things used to be better, now they’re getting worse”, are at their core a reactionary yearning for a prelapsarian past, which is both not a good look and also often wrong in a very common way. Complaining about how “people” are getting worse is a very short journey away from complaining about kids these days, which has a long and embarrassing history of being comprehensively incorrect in every era.