Why the World Always Seems to be Getting Worse

“It’s the end of the House System at Caltech,” many Caltech alumni proclaimed upon hearing the administration unveil its plans for the newly constructed Bechtel House yesterday evening. The first major addition to Caltech housing in over 20 years, Bechtel will allow every undergraduate who wants to live on campus to do so. No longer will upperclassmen be subjected to the same harrowing process of roompick lotteries, uncertain whether they’ll be able to stay in their beloved House or move off-campus.

If you’ve spent any time dealing with the Caltech administration, though, you know there has to be a catch somewhere. Fortunately, the admins didn’t decide to go with one of their original plans, to make the new dorm all-freshman housing. Instead, they decided to make it a more free-for-all living arrangement, where clusters of friends can join and create their own culture without the social pressure of being another House (or two).

Working through the consequences, then, the procedure of matching freshmen to houses, currently a weeklong process known as Rotation and occurring right after students arrive at school, would inevitably have to be reformed. The main source of the drama lies in their solution: Houses will no longer have the ability to rank prefrosh; placement will instead only depend on the preferences of the incoming prefrosh (that’s Caltech lingo for matriculating freshmen).

There are unfortunately also serious concerns with the way this decision was reached that call into question the integrity of the administration. Sadly, this is not the first time they’ve acted unilaterally and in bad faith, despite giving all pretenses of working with student committees. Since they hold all of the power, it also won’t be the last.

That said, I’ve also been struck by the reaction of my fellow alumni to the content of the changes themselves. As one of my Caltech friends messaged me, “Sam, the world is ending. It’s all over. Run for the hills!” (emphasis his, punctuation mine) And yet, I’m also not surprised: This is exactly the same way that the Caltech Alumni Facebook group has reacted to, well, pretty much everything.

College is a microcosm for life, and the lessons that we learn from that experience often naturally translate into the world at large. For instance, graduating is loosely analogous to dying, as you say goodbye to a world that had once been all-encompassing and step into a new life that is largely unknown.

In the same way, I don’t need to grow old to feel some of the same conservative tendencies towards my alma mater. I remember when they were considering reducing the physics and math core requirements — no longer would every Caltech student have to pass a quantum mechanics class to graduate. I remember resisting that change, justified not by what biologists and computer scientists actually need to know, but by the same sorts of reasoning that I’d quickly criticize in the broader culture: “Well, I made it through that, so everyone after me should have to, too!” or “It’s part of the tradition and aura of Caltech! You have to preserve it!”

I’m proud to be a millennial, but when generations like ours are getting their names, they almost invariably come from older generations complaining about them. As Adam Conover (of Adam Ruins Everything) explains in the provocatively titled lecture, “Millennials Don’t Exist!”, the practice of talking about generations is just old people talking smack about young people:

As Adam describes, many of these perceptions of the younger generations as narcissistic or entitled come from a simple fact: People change as they age, becoming less narcissistic. So older people are going to naturally see the younger generation as narcissists, even when they’re no more narcissistic than the older people were at the same age.

I even have some personal evidence to back this perception up. Three years ago, we were polling MIT students in the hallways for fun in the lead-up to the first Veritas Forum I coordinated. The topic was career, success and purpose, and one of the questions we asked was giving people the choice to rank seven different potential priorities for them: Romance, Fun, Virtue/Character, Family, Recognition, Impact/Cause, and Friendship. We had each word/pair printed out with a picture on a piece of cardstock for them to put in order for us.

We took pictures of each submission and compiled the results: Family >> Friendship > Virtue/Character >> Impact/Cause ~ Fun >> Romance >> Recognition. While it might not be surprising to see romance so low, at a place as talented and driven as MIT, the impact, cause and recognition it sometimes seems that everyone chases is just nowhere near as important to us as our friends and families. (Of course, stated values and actual values are not necessarily identical, but at least we can say that we don’t think of ourselves as narcissists.)

Adam shares some additional research showing that Millennials are no more narcissistic as Boomers or Gen X’ers were at the same age, and in fact most of the big differences have to do with our diversity and the economic environment in which we’re coming of age.

The world has gotten much less violent by a variety of metrics in the last few centuries. which Steven Pinker thoroughly chronicled in his 2012 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. And yet, our current President of the United States was elected, in part, on his vivid description of “American carnage” that he alone could fix. How could that message catch fire at a time when it objectively flies in the face of facts?

Let’s set aside aspects of Trump’s demagoguery and media making us more and more aware of the continuing problems in the world. There’s also a simple cognitive bias at work here called rosy retrospection. When researchers asked groups of travelers about their vacations, their recollections were more positive after some distance than they were immediately following the trip. We view events in the past more positively than events in the present.

It’s not hard to see how this leads to a yearning for the “good old days,” a desire to “Make America Great Again.” It also leads alumni to wish that our schools could simply remain as they were when we were students, forgetting or minimizing all of the negative aspects of our time there.

The same concerns arise when it comes to new technology. As Adam Conover cites in the video above, Douglas Adams has said,

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

On a related note, I’m reminded of this brilliant (albeit super long) compilation of quotes by XKCD on “the pace of modern life” from over a century ago:

‘Unfortunately, the notion of marriage which prevails … at the present time … regards the institution as simply a convenient arrangement or formal contract … This disregard of the sanctity of marriage and contempt for its restrictions is one of the most alarming tendencies of the present age.’ –John Harvey Kellogg, Ladies’ guide in health and disease (1883)

You’ll recognize that these are all of the same types of things people complain about today. Now, this in of itself doesn’t prove anything; the world could simply be getting more and more hurried or busy and we only notice it from the perspective of our own personal previous experiences.

But these observations are never really about the simple facts, but about the implications for the quality of life. The inherent assumption is that sending more frequent and briefer letters, or eating meals more and more quickly, would make life more unhappy, and therefore that we should resist such trends.

And yet, those concerns about the quality of life have not really borne themselves out. As Yuval Levin observed in his 2016 book The Fractured Republic (see my review/summary here),

If you had told an American in 1955 that the rate of out-of-wedlock births in our country would rise from 4 percent to more than 40 percent over the subsequent six decades and asked him to describe the resulting America, he probably would have painted a nightmarish spectacle that would bear little resemblance to our relatively thriving society. This is an inherent problem with arguments by jeremiad: they tend to assume that alarming trends will prove unsustainable and lead to cataclysms. When those outcomes do not materialize, the Jeremiahs look unreasonable, and their arguments for an uplifting moral order come to be seen as thinly veiled justifications for repression.

Liberals and conservatives both incline to such alarmist arguments in different realms in our time: The Left tends to talk about economic trends, and especially inequality, in ways that suggest the sky could fall on our society any minute. The Right surveys the culture and finds the seeds of moral apocalypse. But human beings are resilient and adaptable; we adjust to difficulties and grow accustomed to problems. Projections that suggest we won’t are rarely plausible.

Levin goes on to say that this means that both sides need to discuss their concerns in incrementalist rather than apocalyptic terms. But the same argument also makes the case that maybe we don’t need to be as concerned about the trends we decry.

It’s easy to lazily interpret these observations to mean that nothing really matters and the world will always continue as it has in the past. But that’s not my point; instead, I simply advise caution. Don’t look down on people younger than you simply for character traits that are common among younger people and which they will, on the whole, eventually grow out of. And don’t assume that every change will be a change for the worse, even if the bare facts of the situation seem pretty bad. Humans are fairly resilient, and will be able to respond appropriately to the new circumstances that they face.

In short, make yourself aware of cognitive biases resulting from the natural progression of human development and our own tendency to recollect the past more positively than we experienced it, and adjust accordingly.


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