The bad old days

In almost every development metric, the world has gotten better in the past few decades.

Fewer children die today before the age of 5 than they did at any time in the past (4% compared to about 40% in 1900).

The world’s life expectancy stands at 70 years now, as opposed to around 30 years in 1900.

The average price of solar panels has gone down from $66/Wp in 1976 to $0.6/Wp today.  

If our present has gotten better, the inevitable corollary is that our past was a lot worse. And yet, when you ask people about life in the 1950s and the 60s, they invariably romanticize the past. It reflects in our language – we talk about the ‘good old days’ but nobody talks about the ‘bad old days’.

We owe this paradox to a fundamental feature of our memories – that they are selective. Our brains are designed to remember the happy moments and erase out the bad ones. We tend to remember peak moments, while disregarding more mundane ones. This tendency also reflects in our language, when we talk about memorable and forgettable events.

Selective memory is a feature of our brain and not a bug, because they keep us happy and help us cope with tragedies in the past by making nasty memories gradually disappear. But this tendency ends up distorting our world-view in the present, and leaves us feeling bereft of hope precisely when we should feel pride in our collective achievements.

Our memories work like rear view mirrors. They aren’t perfect, but they are indispensable tools for navigating the present. Nevertheless, all our flashbacks must also come with a warning scrawled under them: Objects in your memory are rosier than they appear.

Inspiration and source for all those stats: Factfulness – Hans Rosling

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