All too often, concepts — usually very flawed concepts — go undisputed. For example, we assume that a longer life has an inherent value, or that more university-goers is automatically a good thing. Some of these obsessions are automatic, borne of the natural human condition, but others are impressed upon us by politicians who manipulate the media and the news cycles.
All of them, however, have one thing in common — the rather foolish idea that more equals better.
Whenever there is a story on the BBC, Fox, or CNN about the length of life, for example, you’ll often see the reporting being incredibly biased towards the idea that a larger number is inherently a good thing. In a story broadcast on the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News about life expectancy growth falling, all of the reporting was fearful about what terrible things might happen as a result of the fall: quite typical of the media. At no point did the report suggest that slower growth in life expectancy helps to prevent ageing populations and the high costs associated, or any point counter to the general theme of the feature.
What was really interesting about the segment, though, was the interviews done with members of the public. They too spoke about their concerns about a decreasing life expectancy, but without citing why they were so concerned — which was also a theme of the whole segment. It was this that really struck me, as I began to think: Why is it that we just assume that a higher life expectancy is better? Why do we think that more = better?
And the answer is, as it always is, a nuanced mixture: of the media and society, combined with biology.
Our genes give us the instinct that more of something is better, largely because evolution isn’t quick enough to recognise that survival is no longer a day-to-day focus. Therefore, our automatic biases are still towards more food, more water, more children and so on. We are set up to believe that more = better.
However, the media always has a part to play in constructing our biases — and what it does in this case is to completely screen us from the other side of the argument. The combination of the media and genetics makes believing that “more = better” almost inevitable — and it can only be avoided if you think critically. Of course, we don’t always think that a higher number is better, but this is only when something is so obviously bad to us, such as death.
And this bias has serious consequences: governments passing legislation that panders to the idea of “more = better” when there are far better policy proposals. For example, legislation inevitably tends more so to the idea that a longer life has inherent value, when perhaps investing in better social care standards and palliative treatment would make people’s lives better than a longer life.
Indeed, there are consequences in most policy areas — including universities. Many people believe that fewer uni attendees would increase the prestige of a degree, and as such give it some of its value back. They also argue that there are too many students who waste three years at poor-quality universities (often the old polytechnics) and that getting a job would be far better for these students. However, this point of view is ignored because people assume that more people going to uni is a sign of success.
Unless we can look past this very natural obsession with larger numbers, with wanting more, policy will continue to suffer. If we can’t move past this simplistic bias soon, then it will become more impressed upon society, as it is, to an extent, self-perpetuating.