The Dewey Decimal Code on this book's spine is "158.1", which is "Self Help". I don't usually get self-help books. Haven't read one on purpose since I was in my twenties, I think.
But this one has back-cover blurbs from P. J. O'Rourke, Steven Pinker, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. That shouts out "Read this!" to me. And one of the authors, John Tierney, is a constant source of good stuff at City Journal. So I checked it out. Good move.
The cover is a little gee-whiz, but the premise of the book is provided by a couple pithy sentences right there on page 11:
To survive, life has to win every day. Death has to win just once.
This is a lesson pounded into our genes by billions of years of evolution. We are hardwired to appreciate its truth. This book goes into the broad implications of that "negativity effect". There's a rough rule of thumb: Homo sap. requires the perception of four "good things" to counterbalance one perceived "bad thing". This can lead to irrational, sometimes self-destructive behavior. Writ large, it can cause organizations to stifle innovation and forego valuable opportunities. Writ very large, it can cause an entire society to become overly risk-averse.
But we can learn better, and the book explores possible pathways in numerous scenarios. Some surprising: for example, there's an entire chapter on how a New York hotel deals with negative Trip Advisor reviews. But (for me) the payoff chapter was the public policy chapter. The authors set forth some assumptions:
- The world will always seem to be in crisis.
- The crisis is never as bad as it sounds.
- The solution could easily make things worse.
Covid, anyone? Unfortunately the book was written before that. The authors tick off the implications: The "Golden Age Fallacy" that posits some past era as ideal, our current age in irrevocable decline; terrorism; vaping; the war on drugs; technophobia. And more.
Of course, people can make money and/or gain political power off the negativity effect. Plenty of examples of that too.