You can take the person out of the Stone Age, evolutionary psychologists argue, but you can’t take the Stone Age out of the person. In prehistoric times, the ability to survive and pass on one’s genes hinged on the ability to sense and respond to danger. As it happens, we’re also hardwired to think metaphorically. It should come as no surprise, then, that negatively charged metaphors are among the most powerful tools of persuasion known to humankind.
When it comes to negatively charged metaphors, there’s surely no better example than the “Black Swan.” Coined by investment guru Nicholas Nassim Taleb, a black swan is an unforeseen and unpredictable “outlier” event that has far-reaching disruptive effects. Since the 2008 global financial crisis, we’ve been doing our best to duck, dodge, and deal with an endless barrage of negative events. We have black swans on the brain.
Black swans may be unpredictable, but they have definite causes. The financial crisis, for example, began with cheap credit and lax lending standards that fueled a housing bubble. “It was ultimately human behavior and greed that drove the demand, supply, and investor appetite for these types of loans,” according to Investopedia. “Hindsight is always 20/20, and it is now obvious there was a lack of wisdom on the part of many.”
What if our preoccupation with black swans has actually increased the odds of them occurring? This seems plausible given the “butterfly effect,” a related phenomenon. This is the idea that, in complex systems with dense interconnections, a small and seemingly insignificant event can trigger large-scale change elsewhere in the system (such as: a butterfly flaps its wings in the Mekong Delta and a storm ravages half of Europe). Might billions of us flapping negative thoughts be a self-fulfilling prophecy?
If so, the same should be true for positive thoughts–which is where “blue bird” enters the fray. Coined by Ruchir Sharma, a Financial Times contributing editor and chair of Rockefeller International, a blue bird is a rare, unforeseeable event that brings joy. “The next blue bird might be a surprise peace in Ukraine, which instantly lowers energy and food costs. A thaw in the US-China cold war, which boosts global trade. A new digital technology that revives productivity, helping to contain inflation. None of this may seem likely, but then surprise is the essential nature of blue birds,” he says. Not to those who initiate them.