It is a deep-rooted belief that people’s darkest side comes out when they are subject to catastrophic events, and that they are quick to indulge in bullying and reckless behaviour. However, the reality of the matter is quite the opposite: very often, great displays of solidarity and altruism come out in emergency situations.
In August 2005, there was much talk of a frightening wave of violence that had swept across the city of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This account of events, however, was not a true representation of what really happened in those days. Apart from some episodes of looting, which did actually occur, the courage, spirit of sacrifice, and love demonstrated by the citizens of New Orleans truly shone through. Examples of this were the rescue teams that were formed and the volunteer groups distributing food, clothing and medicine, wherever possible.
Another traumatic event that has gone down in history is that of the September 11th attacks in 2001. Witnesses told of how the majority of people in the Twin Towers at the time went down the stairs in an orderly manner, and gave priority to the firefighters and injured, even though they were aware of being in danger.
Despite this, it is still believed that human beings, in extreme situations, act like savages, and are ready to crush anyone else to save their own skin. It is the so-called "veneer theory of civilisation", according to which the darkest depths of humankind are hidden below a superficial layer of common sense and morality.
This negative view is the result, among other things, is the result of the constant bombardment of news that we are exposed to on a daily basis, that leads us to think that the world is a horrible place, populated by equally horrible people. However, if you actually look at the data, you will find that there has been a general decline in homicides, infant mortality, wars, and poverty in recent decades. Although we cannot deny that there are still many problems that remain, the trend is undoubtedly improving.
The problem lies in the phenomenon that experts call “negativity bias”, which leads us to become more attuned to negative events. In short, we are more aware of evil than we are of good. The media base their incessant activity precisely on this tendency: anything labelled as “good” is also deemed boring and ordinary, so the media gives prominence to the flip side of the coin, which attracts much more attention. As a result, that dark and cynical perspective we have of the world, and on all those who inhabit it, is only further perpetuated.
But there is still hope: if we start to challenge some of the certainties and preconceptions that have been acquired over time, it turns out that there are very few valid reasons for being pessimistic.