We need to know that something is bad before we can address the issues causing it, but we are hard-wired to internalize bad news preferentially. That means that the faster we learn about bad things, the faster we fix them and make the world better, but the more convinced we become that the world is a bad place. That’s “The Sunlight Fallacy.”

The Sunlight Fallacy is really just a mash-up of two simple ideas:

  1. Our brains are wired for bad news, our information systems are getting better at surfacing bad news, so we feel worse about the world than is warranted. This has been discussed ad infinitum by people like Our World in Data, Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, Hans Rosling, and others.

  2. Humans are naturally co-operative and social. When faced with bad news, we’re often empathetic to the plight of others and desire to help them. Our help is imperfect, and our ability to help is likely finite, but for most of history, we’ve been nowhere near that finite level.

Let’s look at the key trends in human nature and society that drive this.

  • We are wired to pay attention to bad things. Evolutionarily, this was an incredible advantage — assuming the worst helped you survive. This is part of human nature and very hard to unlearn.
  • *We hear more bad things. *We have many more sources of news today, we’ve democratized authorship dramatically over the last 30 years with social media and the internet. Over the last 60 years, TV has done the same thing. Over the last few hundred years, we’ve seen the same trend in printed and radio news. This trend, democratization of the ability to author, extends at least as far back as the printing press, and it means that a lot more people are able to share their ideas. #MeToo was blocked in the days of gated news, but no news editor can kill a story on Twitter.
  • *News skews negative. *Because we are wired to engage more with negative news, there is an incentive for authors to write more negative news. It’s age-old wisdom in the news business: “if it bleeds, it leads.” With more authors, there’s more competition for attention. So this incentive becomes even more powerful. An attitude of skepticism and outrage almost always benefits writers (and leads to them shining a light on bad things, at least some of the time).
  • Our attitudes about things are shaped by the information we have. We are more likely to hear bad news (recency bias) and we’re more likely to remember bad news (availability bias). So when we think about something, the less we know about it, the more likely it is we’ll only know negative things about it.

Those four things explain why we’re overly pessimistic about the state of the world, but they aren’t unique to our time. They are part of the human condition. They also aren’t inherently bad — humans are social creatures, we don’t just get depressed by bad news, we also get inspired to help.

Our collective response to bad news seems to be some depression and some desire to help. That desire to help is channeled, with varying levels of efficiency, into work and aid towards improvement. The less effectively we think we can help, the more depressed we feel. But, people are instinctually co-operative, assuming they aren’t personally fearful or depressively apathetic.

The Sunlight Fallacy suggests a risk and a strong course of action. Shining a light on bad news is good for society until it causes mass fear or apathy in the audience. We should continue to shine the light on bad news while trying to limit the emotional burn-out it can cause.

Here are some ways to limit emotional burn-out:

  1. *Make the world better. *When we find something amazing, it re-invigorates us. Invent things that improve lives. Find ways to inspire joy and excitement. Empower people to do new things. Help people form more positive connections.

  2. Remind people that the world is getting better. Especially on the things where positive change has been long, slow, and steady (and therefore not very newsworthy). Pinker, Rosling, TED, Our World in Data, and others are all saints for the work they’re doing to re-enforce optimism.

  3. Talk about bad things, often and compellingly, but highlight the good work being done and more efficiently direct support to the things that are working. Empower readers and encourage action and agency. Climate Change has done this fairly well, Effective Altruism has explored an interesting model that seems beneficial (if niche), and lots of movements have had a mixed performance on this front.

  4. *Don’t talk about fraud. *There are plenty of real challenges that capture our attention, don’t give air to the lies that suck up attention. This is hard work and no one will be 100%, but we all can get better.

  5. Spread the idea of The Sunlight Fallacy. Give people a framework to understand why feeling bad about something may not be a good signal that the thing is actually getting worse.

When we fail to limit emotional burn-out, we get counter-productive blowback. The rise of cynicism, nativism, populism, etc. all stem from this feeling. The sunlight is an unstoppable force, it will shine on the bad things at an ever-increasing rate. The only question is how much sunlight gets channeled into melting bad things, and how much gets channeled into melting us.

*Author’s note: *There’s one big way to help that I’m still stuck on. I’m not sure why we’ve historically recovered from periods of great cynicism. In the US, we’ve done so at least twice, but understanding why this happened would help us navigate the times we find ourselves in now (and likely will find ourselves in again). Perhaps someone smarter than me can volunteer ideas here.

Further Reading:

  • https://ourworldindata.org/optimism-pessimism – This is the best overview of how the world is getting better, how we fail to recognize that, and how an understanding of positive change makes us more optimistic (and therefore more resilient).

  • http://www.danielgilbert.com/LEVARI2018COMPLETE.pdf – This suggests a risk in trusting The Sunlight Fallacy to be a complete framework. It may suggest why it feels like we can never “win” on big challenges and many of the issues around “relative comparison” that’s at the heart of research in human perception around Sunlight Fallacy type problems. It may also help explore some of the over pivots perceived in things like cancel culture, political correctness, etc.