Everything You Need To Know About Declinism Bias
Helen Lee Bouygues
May 1, 2023
We’ve all heard the old timers talk about how life was “back in my day.” It’s usually followed by fond recollections or a commentary about how much better life used to be. This kind of rosy recollection – that the past is somehow better than the present or the future – encapsulates the thinking behind “declinism bias.”
What Is Declinism Bias?
Declinism bias is a cognitive bias where individuals view the past more favorably than the future, or they believe that society, culture, or civilization is in decline. The term was coined by the German historian Oswald Spengler in his book “The Decline of the West.” The book speculated that the decline of every civilization is inevitable, and people who exhibit the Declinism Bias today have a similar sense of pessimism about society’s ability to progress.
Declinism bias is present in politics, economics, and cultural trends. It can often be fueled by media coverage of adverse events, economic downturns, or other social issues. It can be further exacerbated by confirmation bias, in which people look for information that reinforces their beliefs, and ignore evidence to the contrary.
Many believe that declinism bias is spurred by our 24-hour news cycle culture. As news and social media platforms bombard individuals with a steady stream of bad news, viewers may develop strong feelings and emotions about the direction society is heading, and become less willing to engage with those with different points of view.
Psychological Causes of Declinism Bias
Declinism bias often works in tandem with many other types of cognitive biases. Together, they could contribute to a convincing perception that society is in a bad state or that it is no longer progressing in a positive way. These biases include:
- Rosy Retrospection is a type of cognitive bias that causes individuals to remember past events as more positive than they might have been. For example, individuals may reminisce about happier and more fulfilling moments of their childhoods rather than negative moments.
- Negativity Bias is the opposite of rosy retrospection. It is when an individual spends more time dwelling on a negative experience versus a positive experience. Compared to rosy introspection, however, this bias tends to focus on the here and now.
- Confirmation Bias refers to when someone only seeks information that confirms their pre-existing opinions or ideas. If you believe society is declining, you might actively seek and absorb information that confirms this belief, even if this information is inflammatory or a conspiracy theory.
Effects of Declinism Bias
Declinism bias often poses harmful effects on people’s mental health, emotional well-being, and ability to make critically sound decisions. That, in turn, can translate into a negative impact on local, regional, and national levels. The most common effects of declinism bias are:
- Pessimism: With declinism bias, individuals can develop feelings of despair, depression, and hopelessness about their personal lives and the world in general. Over time, they may feel that there is little hope for progress or improvement.
- Apathy: The more overwhelmed individuals feel, the more likely they may think that things are getting worse. They are also more likely to become apathetic and refrain from resolving their internal feelings or shared issues in their communities or society.
- Resistance to change: Some may eventually believe that any degree or level of change lacks meaning. They may even resist or discourage positive changes in their lives, which would most likely reinforce the pessimistic worldview.
- Polarization: Individuals may become more indulged in their own beliefs and resistant to collaboration or compromise. That can lead to an increased sense of conflict and divisiveness in society. Polarization is also a common consequence when declinism bias is used as a political strategy – an all-too-common occurrence.
Declinism Bias and Politics
It is a common strategy to use declinism for political gains and advantage. Many politicians play on the idea that only they can help their voters restore their fallen nation to its glory and prominence. The strategy is effective, but it takes advantage of voters’ negative feelings towards the current society and sentimentality for the past. It is also a strategy that often leads to a polarized and divisive view of society.
The most recent example of this concept is Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, which ran on the slogan, “Make America Great Again.” The overriding message was that America was in a state of ruin, but if elected, Donald Trump could fix the situation.
Declinism Bias and Critical Thinking
Declinism bias is often difficult to combat, particularly when individuals find themselves in a self-reinforcing cycle of negative news and information. It is, therefore, essential to practice the three key components of critical thinking:
- Question Assumptions – Why do you believe our society is in decline? What evidence do you have to support this belief? What evidence is against it?
- Seek Out Varying Perspectives – A strong critical thinker should have the ability to examine counterarguments and consider opposing viewpoints. Seek out diverse groups of people who are likely to share an opposing viewpoint and engage in healthy debates.
- Recognize Your Bias – We are not immune to biases. The key is to recognize and understand how they affect our thoughts, opinions, and decision-making.
Following this roadmap of critical thinking is key to addressing declinism bias and to mitigating its effects. With a critical examination of the current state of affairs, we will be able to respond to personal and social issues with greater objectivity, empathy, and openness to change. Most importantly, critical thinking will help us reduce polarization. That is key for us to bring together groups with different ideologies and beliefs, and find the space for collective efforts that we need, more than ever before.
Helen Lee Bouygues is the president of the Reboot Foundation