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 can be 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 these negative events. One could say: we’ve had black swans on the brain.
However, just because black swans tend to hit us out of the blue doesn’t make them purely chance events. For example, the financial crisis has well documented human causes. It began with cheap credit and lax lending standards that fueled a housing bubble, and the reason we had lax lending standards was because lenders wanted to leverage the free-flowing capital supplied by central banks after the dotcom bubble burst. Investopedia says “it was ultimately human behavior and greed that drove the demand, supply, and investor appetite for these types of loans. Hindsight is always 20/20, and it is now obvious there was a lack of wisdom on the part of many.”
Food for thought: what if our preoccupation with black swans has, paradoxically, increased the odds of them occurring? This seems plausible, especially when taking into account the “butterfly effect,” a related phenomenon. The butterfly effect is the idea that, in complex systems with dense interconnections, a small and seemingly insignificant event can trigger large-scale change somewhere else in the system (such as: a butterfly flaps its wings in the Mekong Delta and a storm ravages half of Europe). If thought precedes action, shouldn’t billions of butterfly brains flapping negative thoughts make fertile ground for black swan events?
If so, the same should be true for positive thinking–which is where the “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.
But let’s not fall into the “surprise events = chance events” trap. We are not powerless. We are not helpless. Working together, we have agency. And with enough dedicated breeders, we can have our blue bird world.