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We need a psychology of progress

Ultimately, progress is powered by people. So if we want to drive progress, we have to understand the machinery of human minds.

Clay Routledge

Zulmaury Saavedra | Unsplash

Today, thanks to scientific discoveries and technological innovations, we live safer, longer, and more comfortable lives than at any time in human history. Nearly all of us would be unwilling to surrender these advancements for ourselves and our loved ones. Yet it is common for people to feel nostalgic for the past. At first glance, our sentimental longing for bygone days appears to be in conflict with our demand for progress. I even suspect most proponents of progress would intuitively assume that nostalgia undermines progress. How can people address the challenges of the present and build a better future if they are longing for the past? 

These progress advocates, however, might be surprised to learn that nostalgia increases inspiration, optimism, creativity, self-confidence, and the motivation to pursue future-oriented goals. And they might not realize how much they themselves turn to nostalgia for inspiration; there is a fair amount of nostalgia within the progress movement for past eras characterized by rapid economic and technological development and a culture of optimism about the future. 

Like most others who use nostalgia as a psychological resource, however, progress enthusiasts don’t want to return to a previous era. They are looking to the past for ideas to help energize progress in the present. For example, people expressing nostalgia for a time before smartphones typically aren’t rejecting technological advances—they don’t want to give up the ability to video chat with a loved one who lives far away. Instead, they are looking for solutions to the problems new technologies have created or exacerbated. Their nostalgia highlights their desire to improve their social lives by using technology more intentionally. 

The counterintuitive motivational functions of nostalgia that behavioral scientists are now discovering is one illustration of why we should incorporate psychological science into efforts to better understand and promote human progress. In 2019, entrepreneur Patrick Collison and economist Tyler Cowen proposed a new field of study—“Progress Studies”—dedicated to understanding and accelerating progress. In their Atlantic article on the topic, they defined progress as “the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries.” Collison and Cowen correctly acknowledged the importance of psychology and related applied disciplines in developing an understanding of both individual and organizational contributions to progress. But for the most part, I believe psychology is being neglected within the broader progress movement.

Progress is powered by people.

Most advocates of progress focus on physical science and the related medical, technological, economic, and public policy factors that appear to most proximally support or undermine progress. Ultimately though, progress is powered by people. Thus, to find out what makes people progress-oriented, as well as what makes them retreat from progress, we have to investigate what makes people tick. We have to understand the machinery of human minds. 

The cognitive complexity that renders humans capable of rational thinking and scientific analysis is a big part of the story, but it isn’t all of it. Even the more emotional characteristics that tend to be treated as antagonistic to rational and evidence-based decision-making likely play a key role in advancing progress. Consider, for instance, a cancer researcher who was personally touched by the loss of a loved one and is now driven by that experience to develop new treatments with the hope of sparing countless others from similar pain. 

Many scientists, engineers, artists, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists have personal and emotionally rich stories that inspire them to make a positive difference. How many of the scientific, technological, and social advancements that have improved the world benefited from individuals willing to look beyond the available data, to reject the rational consensus, to take a leap of faith? In many cases, passionate emotions might be the fuel for the rational vehicles that drive progress.

A psychology of progress would help us better examine how self-regulation and motivation impact progress. Humans are creatures of habit and can be very resistant to change. And when life feels uncertain or unsafe, people are especially cautious and skeptical of new ideas. But humans are also naturally curious, creative, explorative, and adventurous. We constantly strive to make our lives a little better. In other words, humans can be thought of as being motivated by both defense and growth needs. We want to protect and preserve the features of our lives that make us feel secure, but we also want to pursue possibilities that have the potential to enhance our lives and the lives of others. Appreciating these self-regulatory and motivational tendencies and the variables that influence them may prove critical to advancing progress.

Beyond identifying individual-level cognitive, emotional, and motivational variables that influence progress, a psychology of progress would help us better understand social and cultural drivers of societal advancements. For instance, I suspect knowledge of past progress and optimism about the future play vital roles in cultivating and sustaining a culture of positive change. Levels of social trust and other indicators of social health may also be important. Theory and research on intergroup and cultural psychology could prove very useful in efforts to encourage the kinds of collaborative and competitive activities that improve the world.

A psychology of progress would not only help us discover how psychological and social variables influence progress, but also how changes brought by progress influence psychological health and motivation. Over the last several centuries, advancements have made people’s lives easier, safer, and freer. Yet, a number of trends suggest that in the nations that have benefited most from these advancements, such as the United States, people are becoming less, not more, psychologically healthy. For example, a study of Americans between 2008 and 2018 found a dramatic increase in anxiety, especially among adults aged 18 to 25. This trend was observed across racial, ethnic, gender, and income groups. More recently, a national survey conducted in August 2022 found around one-third of American adults (half of adults under the age of 30) report feeling anxious all or most of the time. Progress-driven societal change that increases mental distress may ironically undermine future progress by increasing defense and decreasing growth motivational tendencies. For example, studies suggest that, the more people experience anxiety, the less likely they are to engage in entrepreneurial activities. 

Such trends are concerning, but better understanding them will help us solve the problems that technological and societal changes can create or exacerbate, which ultimately advances progress. Recognizing unintended consequences, admitting and striving to fix mistakes, and moving forward with hope in the face of fear, uncertainty, and tragedy are critical psychological components of progress.

If we want to accelerate progress, then, we need to focus more on human psychology. Behind every discovery, innovation, and policy that makes the world better are human beings with human needs, personalities, beliefs, emotions, and goals.

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Clay Routledge is Vice President of Research and Director of the Human Flourishing Lab at the Archbridge Institute.