Why We Forget That Most People Are Good

It seems everyone thinks the world is full of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad people.

And sure, while you’ll find your share of jerkholes everywhere you go, I think a lot of this way, way overblown. People are mostly good, even if we all have the capacity to be shitty to one another sometimes.

But I think there are a few things about modern society that make us especially prone to think that we’re all surrounded by assholes all the time.

Let me explain.

One Bad Apple Spoils the Whole Barrel

I imagine if you measured it, you’d find that the more time people spend online, the more cynical they become. People who are online all day, every day, likely believe humanity is one giant festering shitpool, while people who actually, you know, go outside and do things probably think most people are A-OK.

I think one of the reasons for this is that the internet is so broad and massive—and anonymous—that it’s hard to get a real sense of who you’re dealing with.

It feels like everywhere you go, there’s some trolling comment or dumb Facebook argument or infuriating email waiting for you. You get this warped sense that the entire planet is filled with whiny, entitled idiots drooling onto their keyboards.

Part of this is due to the negativity bias. We experience negative comments as more impactful/important than positive comments. Research shows that we give anywhere from three to five times the weight to negative comments as we do positive comments. Thus, any troll immediately gets a disproportionate amount of attention and influence in whatever they say. That’s why even if you get fifty compliments on your new profile picture but one person makes fun of your ears, you get pissed and want to take the whole thing down.

But another reason we are more cynical online comes down to the old saying, “One bad apple spoils the whole barrel.”

Data scientists at Stanford recently found that 74% of the conflicts on Reddit were instigated by only 1% of the users. And worse than that, the researchers found that most of these online conflicts were not fought by those who started them. They were fought by the innocent bystanders that got sucked into them.

This dynamic isn’t new with the internet. It plays out in the real world as well.

Research finds that 1% of people are convicted of 63% of the violent crimes, and 3% of doctors are responsible for roughly half of medical malpractice cases.

Similarly, it’s suspected that only a small minority of men commit the majority of sexual assaults and a new paper suggests that between 5% and 20% of people account for most overt acts of racism.

If you consider that only a small minority of people are assholes, and assholes stand out in our minds more than they should due to the negativity bias, then it follows that these assholes exert a vastly disproportionate influence on our social experiences and, therefore, on our general perception of humanity.

None of this should be particularly surprising. Most people are good. It’s just the bad ones you hear about all the time. This is true and has likely always been true.

What has changed is our level of exposure.

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    The Exposure Effect

    Let’s say, for the sake of argument, 1 out of every 100 people is a raging asshole capable of ruining your day and causing you to lose faith in humanity.

    Twenty or thirty years ago, you would only be exposed to ten or twenty people each day, so you would go days without being exposed to a raging piece of shit. Hell, you might even get lucky and spend an entire week without having to confront the utter awfulness of another human being.

    Now think, how many people are you exposed to on a daily basis on the internet? On social media? Via 24-hour news?

    Easily hundreds. And if you’re like me and waste half your waking hours on this digital mess, then you are likely exposed to thousands of people and viewpoints and behaviors every single day.

    Now, suddenly, you’re repeatedly and constantly exposed to the awfulness of humans multiple times per day, if not dozens.

    This awfulness has an outsized reach and mental/emotional effect. It generates conflict online that then sucks in well-meaning people and causes them to say abominable things they wouldn’t otherwise say.

    Soon, there is a false sense that hatred is omnipresent, incompetence is universal, bigotry is the rule, and compassion the exception.

    Yet, in reality, nothing fundamental about human society has changed. Only our awareness of each other has.

    Never Forget: Most People Are Good

    This is why I have shouted from the rooftops for years now that the number one rule of the internet is: manage your exposure.

    This is why step one of my Attention Diet is to block and unfollow anybody and everybody who is toxic online. This is why I have written tens of thousands of words urging people to read/watch less news.

    By cutting out that 1% you save yourself from 74% of the bullshit. Toxic people have such an outsized influence on our perceptions of the world, something as simple as blocking or unfollowing 5-10% of the people you used to follow, and checking the news once a week instead of once a day, can be completely transformational for your day-to-day experience and general mood.

    And once you do this, you start to remember something you have long forgotten: most people are good. You simply don’t hear from them very often.

    I refer to this as “The Silent Majority” and I bring it up in many, many conversations these days.

    Whether it’s about news, politics, online business, scientific research or pop culture, there is often a “silent majority” of decent, relatively intelligent, well-meaning people lurking, waiting, feeling just as exasperated and freaked out as you are.

    And if we continue to forget that we are here, eventually we won’t be.