It seems like we are living through crisis after crisis, making us yearn for a return to “normal times”. But our perception of our collective woes is wildly distorted by an idealization of the past and the incessant media coverage of negative news from around the world. There was never a “normal time”, and today we are more equipped to tackle the crises we face than ever before, argues Stathis Kalyvas.
Spiraling inflation. War in Europe. Energy crisis. A global food crisis. Nuclear threats. Climate crisis. And to top it all, Donald Trump announcing his candidacy for 2024. It looks like we are living in an endless succession of crises. It is proclaimed everywhere that crisis is the new normal. Doom and gloom dominate. But is this really the case? And how would we know?
To get a better sense about whether we are unusually more exposed to crises than ever, we would need to measure both the number and the size of the various crises and come up with a metric of crisis intensity over time. But this is close to impossible because our sense of crises is to a large extent shaped by perceptions and interpretations. Crises are typically understood to be a bend in the “normal” flow of events that heralds a decisive and negative change. According to that perspective, the flow of events is “normal” until interrupted by something “abnormal,” that is a crisis. Put differently, our understanding of what constitutes a crisis hinges on our understanding of “normal.” Despite being middle-aged, I never, ever recall anyone telling me that we live in normal times.
This is not to say that there aren’t events that meaningfully qualify as unusual and sudden shifts with significant downside potential—crisis is a real thing. However, to assess their frequency and significance, we need to keep in mind a number of things. Let’s begin with frequency: are crises more frequent now than in the past? Even though measuring the frequency of crises is probably impossible, there are good reasons to think that, on average, there are probably more events perceived as crises now than in the recent past. Let’s pick 1980 as an example.
It turns out that the world’s population has doubled since 1980. More people living on earth equals more interactions, and it stands to reason that a small fraction of those interactions naturally produces crises. The other factor to consider is that those interactions receive incomparably more news coverage than even before. Our ability to communicate has vastly expanded since 1980, meaning that events that would be either ignored or never reported outside a narrow local setting in the past can now command vast amounts of global attention. Although we tend to bypass most news and downgrade them to the level of noise, out exposure to them does leave cognitive traces and contributes to our sense of doom.
Here then, in a nutshell, are the three key reasons underlying our perception that we are living in a permanent state of crisis: more people, more news, and more bad news
Add to this the fact that news is biased toward negativity, and you have, I believe, a good explanation for why we feel surrounded by crises. There is more: David Leonhardt recently argued that the negative bias in news reflects a relatively recent shift that can be dated to the late 1960s: “In the modern era of journalism — dating roughly to the Vietnam War and Watergate — we tend to equate impact with asking tough questions and exposing problems. There are some good reasons for that. We are inundated by politicians, business executives, movie stars and others trying to portray themselves in the best light. Our job is to cut through the self-promotion and find the truth. If we don’t tell you the bad news, you may never hear it.” Here then, in a nutshell, are the three key reasons underlying our perception that we are living in a permanent state of crisis: more people, more news, and more bad news.
There is an additional reason, however, which applies particularly to politics: the idealization of the past. Political crises are particularly subject to benchmark misinterpretation. There are two reasons for this. The first one is related to our well-known tendency to idealize the past, a well-studied dimension of individual memory known as fading affect bias. Perhaps one of the most egregious examples is the feeling that democracy is receding across the world. Driven by a few high-profile cases, primarily the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency and its miserable conclusion on Capitol Hill, this feeling has acquired epidemic proportions. But consider two facts: first, despite differences of definition and measurement and despite yearly fluctuations, the share of democracies in the world remains well above the fifty percent mark. Back in 1980, it was below thirty percent. One can quibble about the quality of institutions, but there is no question that this constitutes a remarkable and positive change over time that turns the use of the term crisis to describe current trends into a problematic tendency. But even when we look at the moving target that is the quality of institutions, it is easy to see that earlier democracies often failed some crucial tests: to provide just two examples, there were severe limitations to voting rights before the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the United States, while the transition between the French Fourth and Fifth Republics in 1958 was the result of a military coup.
But what if the crises we are facing now are growing more severe? Yet, more crises does not necessarily mean more difficult or deeper crises. Crises likely follow a power law distribution, like wars and natural disasters: they are characterized by very large counts of very small values and very small counts of very high values. Experiencing more crises, in other words, does not imply that we are also experiencing more existential, once-in-a-lifetime type of crises. Indeed, we are likely overestimating the depth of most crises.
Population growth and economic development are accompanied by scientific development which translates into an improved ability to solve crises
We might be doing so, first, because of the bad news bias. Consider COVID-19 coverage. A recent study shows that while we did a good job telling people why Covid cases were rising in some places and how the vaccines were imperfect, we did much less of a good job explaining why cases were falling elsewhere or how the vaccines saved lives. In short, although we are constantly being fed the news of crises erupting all the time around us, we hear much less (if anything) about these crises being addressed or even solved. I have a personal experience when it comes to this issue. When my country, Greece, went through a dire financial crisis between 2010 and 2015, it was frequently showcased in the front pages and the nightly news broadcasts of global media, literary in apocalyptic terms. That was the right thing to do then, given the very significant implications that a crisis in the Eurozone held for the global economy, even if the content of this coverage was frequently hyperbolic. Yet, these days are now over. The Greek economy has been experiencing healthy rates of growth in 2021 and 2022, but who would know it? This is not the type of news that receives a lot of attention, if any at all.
The same is true about the populist trend which appears to be receding. “The election of 2022 marked the moment when America began to put performative populism behind us,” writes David Brooks. If this trend is consolidated, I bet that it will receive much less coverage. Yet another reason we might be overestimating the depth of the crises we are facing might well be related to our improved capacity to address them. Population growth and economic development are accompanied by scientific development which translates into an improved ability to solve crises. COVID-19 is a striking example in this respect. This was a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, yet we were able to deal with it in an unprecedentedly effective way and, therefore, minimize its damage.
All this does not mean, of course, that we should stop worrying about things going badly. Indeed, worrying about problems mobilizes resources and contributes to solutions. This does mean, however, that we should be much more self-conscious about the biases that shape our perceptions—and in turn, this should help us triage our attention and direct it where it is most needed.