Critical Thinking: Negative Bias And Lord Of The Flies

Bad things tend to get more attention than good things. Fear and anger are stronger emotions than happiness or being content. The media feed into this by producing mostly negative media headlines, which of course sell more newspapers than happy ones.

Our written history also seems mostly full of awfulness as historians have to put their magnifying glass on the extraordinary and disastrous. Combine this tainted history with our daily diet of non-stop news and we may be forgiven for believing the world is a bad and scary place indeed. We ‘buy’ it. The negativity and fear win. In effect various studies have shown how negative news increases stress levels, anxiety and our state of mind, so why do we keep following the news 24/7 and why do we lean in to our negative bias?

The Dutch Philosopher, Bregman, of the bestselling book ‘Humankind, a hopeful history’, sets out to prove us wrong. He claims humans are fundamentally good, not bad. Bregman mentions a few key influential philosophical trends in (recent) human history, and one is particularly important as it has cemented our view of the evil human nature of children, the 1954 story ‘The Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding. This story about the evil nature of Man, which turned into a 20th century classic and is – still - on the reading lists of most schools, has for a long time convinced us how wicked children must be. Golding even won a Nobel prize for this book in 1983, as the Swedish committee considered his work “an illumination of the human condition in the world today”. Golding, in one stroke, did away with the notion that children were good; he showed the world what they were really like when unsupervised: savages.

But while the novel was proclaimed as the proof of the end of ‘innocence’ it was not until much later that some critical thinking was applied and the actual character of the author was brought into the picture to bring context to his story. A biography of Golding was written after his death by John Carey, Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Oxford, who had been given access to Golding’s private archives, including his 5000-page private journal. This revealed a man who was moody, mean and melancholic and who was – during his time in the Royal Navy during WWII – understandably traumatised by what he had witnessed. Golding wrote in his diaries that I have always understood the Nazis because I am of that sort by nature.”

Golding, who spent most of his life as an English teacher at a boys’ school (apart from his 6 years of service in the Royal Navy), at times divided his class in two gangs and encouraged them to attack one another. These psychological experiments, combined with his wartime experiences, formed the basis of his characters in Lord of the Flies.

This is not to discredit Golding or his work. But, when applying critical thinking, many would have understood that that his negative view of human nature should be seen as part of of his wartime trauma and a strong dislike for his pupils. But, instead, ‘Lord of the Flies’ was allowed to form our opinion of children and their violent behaviour when left to their own devices. The consensus view of most psychologists – still today – would say that Golding’s depiction of human character is an accurate and authentic representation of the complexity of human nature”.

But, as with many things, we need to take the characters in Lord of the Flies and their evilness with more than a pinch of salt and understand Golding’s state of mind when he wrote this. Would it have been wise for someone at the time to question Golding’s view of the world and of children instead of leaning so heavily into his negative bias? If, for example, Golding would have been a happier human being himself and less prone to depression and negativity, the story could have had a different message and a better ending instead of the deflating savagery it conveyed.

But then, negativity and perceived ‘raw realism’ get more attention and invoke more discussion instead of focusing on what is actually good. Fell for it?

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