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Why Don’t People Believe in Abundance?

The simple answer is because we’re hard-wired not to notice. The first thing to know is that the brain filters reality with great prejudice. Every moment of every day we are flooded with information—way too much for our neuronal circuits to handle. So choices are made and processing shortcuts are utilized. Because the first order of business for any organism is survival, the brain privileges information that appears to threaten us. We always notice the bad news, but the good news struggles to get through.

Moreover, we also utilize processing shortcuts known as heuristics. Most of the time these work. Sometimes they fail. When this happens, heuristics become “cognitive biases.” These biases come in all flavors, but lately scientists have found a few patterns. One is our “the psychological immune system.” This is a set of biases that keep us ridiculously cocksure. We overestimate our own attractiveness, intelligence, work-ethic, chances for success, chances of avoiding a negative outcome, impact on external events, impact on other people, and even the superiority of our own peer group (known as the Lake Woebegone Effect after Garrison Keeler’s fictional happyland). But there’s a flipside: while we seriously overestimate ourselves, we significantly underestimate the world at large.

Human beings are designed to be local optimists and global pessimists and this is a big problem for abundance. By necessity, any organism struggling for survival is a control fiend. And we are significantly more optimistic about things we believe we can control. If I ask you what you can do to get a better grade in math—you can imagine studying harder, partying less, maybe hiring a tutor. You have control here. Thus your psychological immune system makes you feel over-confident. But if I ask what you can do to solve world hunger, all you can imagine is hordes of starving children. There’s no sense of control, no overconfidence, and those starving children instead become your anchor—and crowd out all other possibilities.

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