A group of researches from Harvard released the results of their study that shows when we look at problems we’re trying to solve, the smaller the problem gets, the bigger we make it.
The research was led by led by TED-Famous Dan Gilbert and his longtime collaborator Timothy Wilson who have become somewhat gurus on studying how we predict how we might feel in the future, known as affective forecasting.
If you don’t have time to read up on it, we are pretty horrible at predicting how happy our life will be in the future. We underestimate our ability to adapt to “negative” life changes, and we stupidly think winning the lottery will make all life’s problems go away.
In this latest study, they highlight that we are also really bad at knowing when a problem, isn’t a problem anymore.
“When problems become rare, we count more things as problems. Our studies suggest that when the world gets better, we become harsher critics of it, and this can cause us to mistakenly conclude that it hasn’t actually gotten better at all. Progress, it seems, tends to mask itself.” says Gilbert.
And this isn’t just a problem that impacts really big “global” problems. It can even change the way we look at blue dots.
“We had volunteers look at thousands of dots on a computer screen one at a time and decide if each was or was not blue,” Gilbert said. “When we lowered the prevalence of blue dots, and what we found was that our participants began to classify as blue dots they had previously classified as purple.”
In another study, they had people look at people’s faces. They asked people to identify threatening and non-threatening ones. At the start there were lots of threatening faces. Later on, they reduced the number of threatening ones, but people started to identify faces that were nuetral as “threatening”.
This phenomenon is called “Prevalence induced concept change” and Gilbert says that even when he tried to tell participants to be aware of it, and pay them to avoid it, they couldn’t.
“Our studies show that people judge each new instance of a concept in the context of the previous instances,” Gilbert said. “So as we reduce the prevalence of a problem, such as discrimination for example, we judge each new behavior in the improved context that we have created.”
While this has far-reaching implications, it could be the key reason why activists in any field so often “don’t know when to quit”.
This perseverance is critical for any “activist” – to continue to struggle against any level of injustice, discrimination, or when it comes to Climate Change, to continue to push for measures such as 100% renewable energy and ever-increasing Climate finance.
However, it also reveals why friends and family of activists might often ask “when are you ever going to be happy?”.
According to “prevalence induced concept change” the answer might be, never.
Take Rotary’s push to “End Polio” or the incredible, ongoing efforts by activists in Costa Rica to ensure that the country ends fossil fuels for good. On both of these issues, many outsiders would consider the problem within the broader, original context, and see the issues as “basically fixed”.
But for activists on the inside, every small rise in Polio (at the moment largely due to insurgency in Nigeria) or slight hesitation to end transport-sector emissions in Costa Rica is met with an incredible sense of critical urgency that most others probably consider “weird”.
Currently Gilbert and Wilson don’t think that being “aware” of this phenomenon will help fix it, and argue that “Anyone whose job involves reducing the prevalence of something should know that it isn’t always easy to tell when their work is done.”
I guess the best we can do for now is empathise with our activist friends. If you have the feeling that their “fight is over”, you might want to avoid the impending argument, pass them a drink and congratulate them on how much they have done so far.