What's the problem of the problems

Last night, the bedroom window was open and it took a while to fall asleep. Outside the wind was blowing, gently, but just enough to carry the sound of the motorway two kilometers away to the bed. A slight rustling, nothing more - and still it was annoying, damn it. Immediately after moving to the suburbs, things were different, even with the window open and the highway roaring, as if absolute, oppressive silence crept into the last crack of the room.

The contrast to the nocturnal background noise in the inner city bedroom was abundant. There, the members of the boys' flat had regularly shouted around in the back building while they were playing Playstation, the neighbor liked to make loud calls at the open window, hordes of celebrations roared in the street, or the rumble of the tram reached the bed. The noise was normal and not worth the trouble - but after only a few weeks in the quiet suburb, the gentle background noise of a distant street was already scratching your nerves.

"When problems become less frequent, we automatically consider more circumstances as problematic."

And with that, to the state of the world: A banal everyday observation like the one from the bedroom can help to analyze the growing feeling that things are rapidly going downhill and that the conditions have deteriorated dramatically. Everywhere racists, sexists, everywhere refugees, do-gooders, everywhere environmental destruction, pollution, everywhere poverty, infirmity, overload, stress, burn-out. But the apocalyptic inventory is deceptive. We have made so much progress in many areas that worries, anger and anger are now sparked by problems that were previously virtually below the threshold of perception. Unfortunately, the level of indignation and indignation does not change, the foam at the mouth remains the same.

This peculiarity of perception creates the impression that humanity is incapable of solving problems and that everything is going for the worse. Psychologists working with David Levari and Daniel Gilbert from Harvard University have just published them Science published a study which impressively demonstrates the power of this perceptual error.

The experiments show that when a problem is solved, people reflexively expand its definition. "When problems become less frequent," says Gilbert, "we automatically consider more circumstances as problematic." The results suggested that we look more and more critically at the state of the world, the more it develops for the better. "It seems like progress is hiding itself," says Gilbert.

The researchers examined this increased sensitivity by setting their test subjects an abstract task. The test subjects were asked to identify and count blue dots on a display. The color of the blobs changed from clearly purple in gradual gradations to clearly blue, a simple task. As soon as the psychologists reduced the number of blue dots, however, the participants' perception changed - they broadened their definition of "blue" and now also evaluated purple dots as blue. The pattern was also shown under different conditions: it didn't matter whether the number of blue dots was reduced slowly or in one fell swoop. Even when the test subjects were warned that fewer blue dots would appear and they were promised money as a reward for an exact count, this did not change their perception: they now often perceived purple blobs as blue.

The number of newcomers seeking protection is falling, but the anger towards refugees is increasing

Gilbert and his colleagues verified the phenomenon with two more, less abstract experiments. In one, the participants had to identify threatening faces between neutral and friendly. As soon as angry grimaces appeared less often, many suddenly found neutral expressions scary. The same principle was revealed when the test subjects were asked to decide in a simulated commission whether applications for studies were ethically acceptable or not. "As soon as we reduced the number of ethically questionable applications," says Gilbert, "the participants rated even harmless applications as unethical."