Human Development

Are we inherently pessimistic?

3 min read
edzai zvobwo

Things always seem worse than they are. Hot days feel hotter than they really are. Cold days are colder than what the thermometer says. Is it normal to err in our judgement in this way? Are we naturally pessimistic?

I am not a psychologist and will not pretend to be one.

In my interactions with fellow human beings, I have noticed that people tend to exaggerate their plight and this got me thinking. What could be the reason behind these almost inevitable lies?

The pessimism bias is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate the likelihood that bad things will happen to them. This bias distorts people’s thought process and can be detrimental to your emotional wellbeing, which is why it’s strongly associated with various mental health issues, and most notably with depression.

When someone projects things as worse than they are, I believe that it is self-preservation mechanism that ensures that we are prepared for the worst-case scenario. It is also setting the bar very low to avoid disappointment. As I said, I am no psychologist, just a guy trying to make sense of the world.

Recently I attended the Goalkeepers event in Johannesburg, courtesy of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and something stood out for me.
We were asked six questions with regards to the state of the world and most of us failed dismally. I got one out six. The most frustrating thing about this quiz was that these questions were so simple that a Grade 4 learner should have been able to answer them with ease.

Our responses, in line with our built-in pessimism, pointed out that the world was getting worse every day. It is not a coincidence that all the 200+ people in the room performed dismally but it is in tandem with the information we are bombarded with on a daily basis on the news, social media and other channels. If one is watching the news they would think that doomsday is nigh, negative news makes the headlines whilst positive news gets a mention in passing.

In as much as instinct plus news fed to us is negative, we have to take it upon ourselves to think critically and excavate the truth, the real truth, not alternative facts. The only instrument we can turn to is data.
Data can help us understand the state of the world and how it is changing using empirical evidence. We cannot let our raw human instincts of pessimism or even optimism mislead us into forming warped worldviews. Data can guide us to make informed decisions for the sake of our progress as a species.

We cannot leave our fate to chance when we have the capacity to measure progress. Technology has brought us to a point where we can confidently measure and analyze the data in a fast, economical and accurate manner.
With respect to human development, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) give us a framework to align our activities so that it is measurable and can be effectively evaluated. For monitoring and evaluation of SDG-aligned activities, it is necessary to develop instruments for data collection, analysis and interpretation.

Fortunately, we don’t have to recreate the wheel because The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through their flagship initiative called Goalkeepers have already built an analytics engine which culminates into an annual Goalkeepers Report. We can all piggybank on this initiative to drive measurement of our own activities.
You can read the report on

Leave a Reply