Book Summary: “Factfulness: Why Things are Better Than You Think” by Hans Rosling

Title: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things are Better Than You Think
Author: Hans Rosling
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 5 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

Rosling shows how startlingly ignorant people living in Western nations are of the progress experienced in the developing world. He also identifies 10 psychological instincts that cause this ignorance, and how to overcome them.

If you would like to learn more about how and why things are better today than in the past, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

My Comments

This is a gem of a book. Rosling presents data in a very simple and compelling way. He also does an excellent job explaining why people ignore the data, and how you can learn to process information in a more effective way.

I highly recommend this book.

Key Take-aways

  • There has been amazing progress throughout the developing world.
  • Westerners are completely ignorant of these changes. What they assume is impossible has already happened.
  • This is partly due to a lack of information, but more importantly, caused by 10 deeply-held psychological instincts that few of us are aware of.
  • It is possible, though not easy, to overcome these psychological instincts.

Important Quotes from Book

“In 2005 we founded the Gapminder Foundation, with a mission to fight devastating ignorance with a fact-based worldview.”

[The author lists 13 basic questions about the world and asks the reader to answer them. He has also asked these questions to world-renowned development experts]

“Climate change apart though, it is the same story of massive ignorance (by which I do not mean stupidity, or anything intentional, but simply the lack of correct knowledge) for all twelve of the other questions. In 2017 we asked nearly 12,000 people in 14 countries to answer our questions. They scored on average just two correct answers out of the first 12. No one got full marks, and just one person (in Sweden) got 11 out of 12. A stunning 15 percent scored zero.”

“These are highly educated people who take an interest in the world. But most of them—a stunning majority of them—get most of the answers wrong. Some of these groups even score worse than the general public; some of the most appalling results came from a group of Nobel laureates and medical researchers. It is not a question of intelligence. Everyone seems to get the world devastatingly wrong.

Not only devastatingly wrong, but systematically wrong. By which I mean that these test results are not random. They are worse than random: they are worse than the results I would get if the people answering my questions had no knowledge at all.”

“How is it even possible that the majority of people score worse than chimpanzees? Worse than random!”

“I will have proven to them that many of the changes they think will never happen have already happened.”

The Gap Instinct:

“I’m talking about that irresistible temptation we have to divide all kinds of things into two distinct and often conflicting groups, with an imagined gap—a huge chasm of injustice—in between. It is about how the gap instinct creates a picture in people’s heads of a world split into two kinds of countries or two kinds of people: rich versus poor.”

The world has completely changed… Eighty-five percent of mankind are already inside the box that used to be named “developed world.” The remaining 15 percent are mostly in between the two boxes. Only 13 countries, representing 6 percent of the world population, are still inside the “developing” box.”

“poor developing countries” no longer exist as a distinct group. There is no gap. Today, most people, 75 percent, live in middle-income countries.”

“Human history started with everyone on Level 1. For more than 100,000 years nobody made it up the levels and most children didn’t survive to become parents. Just 200 years ago, 85 percent of the world population was still on Level 1, in extreme poverty.

Today the vast majority of people are spread out in the middle, across Levels 2 and 3, with the same range of standards of living as people had in Western Europe and North America in the 1950s. And this has been the case for many years.”

“But there was extreme poverty in Sweden 90 years ago too. And when I was young, just 50 years ago, China, India, and South Korea were all way behind where sub-Saharan Africa is today in most ways”

“Only in a few countries, with exceptionally destructive leaders and conflicts, has social and economic development been halted. Everywhere else, even with the most incapable presidents imaginable, there has been progress. It must make one ask if the leaders are that important. And the answer, probably, is no. It’s the people, the many, who build a society.”

“To control the gap instinct, look for the majority.

  • Beware comparisons of averages.”
  • “Beware comparisons of extremes.”

The Negativity Instinct:

“This chapter is about the negativity instinct: our tendency to notice the bad more than the good. This instinct is behind the second mega misconception.

“Things are getting worse” is the statement about the world that I hear more than any other.”

“To control the negativity instinct, expect bad news.

• Better and bad. Practice distinguishing between a level (e.g., bad) and a direction of change (e.g., better). Convince yourself that things can be both better and bad.

• Good news is not news. Good news is almost never reported.

• Gradual improvement is not news. When a trend is gradually improving, with periodic dips, you are more likely to notice the dips than the overall improvement.

• More news does not equal more suffering..

• Beware of rosy pasts. People often glorify their early experiences, and nations often glorify their histories.”

The Straight Line Instinct:

“When looking at a stone flying toward you, you can often predict whether it is going to hit you. You need no numbers, no graphs, no spreadsheets. Your eyes and brain extend the trajectory and you move out of the stone’s way. It’s easy to imagine how this automatic visual forecasting skill helped our ancestors survive.”

“But our straight line intuition is not always a reliable guide in modern life.

When looking at a line graph, for example, it’s nearly impossible not to imagine a straight line that stretches beyond the end of the trend, into the future.”

 “Factfulness is … recognizing the assumption that a line will just continue straight, and remembering that such lines are rare in reality.

To control the straight line instinct, remember that curves come in different shapes.

• Don’t assume straight lines. Many trends do not follow straight lines but are S-bends, slides, humps, or doubling lines. No child ever kept up the rate of growth it achieved in its first six months, and no parents would expect it to.”

The Fear Instinct:

“None of us has enough mental capacity to consume all the information out there. The question is, what part are we processing and how did it get selected? And what part are we ignoring? The kind of information we seem most likely to process is stories: information that sounds dramatic.”

 “Factfulness is … recognizing when frightening things get our attention, and remembering that these are not necessarily the most risky. Our natural fears of violence, captivity, and contamination make us systematically overestimate these risks.

To control the fear instinct, calculate the risks.

• The scary world: fear vs. reality. The world seems scarier than it is because what you hear about it has been selected—by your own attention filter or by the media—precisely because it is scary.

• Risk = danger × exposure. The risk something poses to you depends not on how scared it makes you feel, but on a combination of two things. How dangerous is it? And how much are you exposed to it?

• Get calm before you carry on. When you are afraid, you see the world differently. Make as few decisions as possible until the panic has subsided.”

The Size Instinct:

“You tend to get things out of proportion. I do not mean to sound rude. Getting things out of proportion, or misjudging the size of things, is something that we humans do naturally. It is instinctive to look at a lonely number and misjudge its importance”

 “Factfulness is … recognizing when a lonely number seems impressive (small or large), and remembering that you could get the opposite impression if it were compared with or divided by some other relevant number.

To control the size instinct, get things in proportion.

• Compare. Big numbers always look big. Single numbers on their own are misleading and should make you suspicious. Always look for comparisons. Ideally, divide by something.

• 80/20. Have you been given a long list? Look for the few largest items and deal with those first. They are quite likely more important than all the others put together.

• Divide. Amounts and rates can tell very different stories. Rates are more meaningful, especially when comparing between different-sized groups. In particular, look for rates per person when comparing between countries or regions.”

The Generalization Instinct:

 “Wrong generalizations are mind-blockers for all kinds of understanding.”

 “Factfulness is … recognizing when a category is being used in an explanation, and remembering that categories can be misleading. We can’t stop generalization and we shouldn’t even try. What we should try to do is to avoid generalizing incorrectly.

To control the generalization instinct, question your categories.

• Look for differences within groups. Especially when the groups are large, look for ways to split them into smaller, more precise categories.

• Look for similarities across groups. If you find striking similarities between different groups, consider whether your categories are relevant. But also …

• Look for differences across groups. Do not assume that what applies for one group (e.g., you and other people living on Level 4 or unconscious soldiers) applies for another (e.g., people not living on Level 4 or sleeping babies).”

“Beware of “the majority.” The majority just means more than half. Ask whether it means 51 percent, 99 percent, or something in between.

• Beware of vivid examples. Vivid images are easier to recall but they might be the exception rather than the rule.

• Assume people are not idiots. When something looks strange, be curious and humble, and think, In what way is this a smart solution?”

The Destiny Instinct:

“The destiny instinct is the idea that innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, countries, religions, or cultures. It’s the idea that things are as they are for ineluctable, inescapable reasons: they have always been this way and will never change.”

“Factfulness is … recognizing that many things (including people, countries, religions, and cultures) appear to be constant just because the change is happening slowly, and remembering that even small, slow changes gradually add up to big changes.

To control the destiny instinct, remember slow change is still change.

• Keep track of gradual improvements. A small change every year can translate to a huge change over decades.

• Update your knowledge. Some knowledge goes out of date quickly. Technology, countries, societies, cultures, and religions are constantly changing.

• Talk to Grandpa. If you want to be reminded of how values have changed, think about your grandparents’ values and how they differ from yours.

• Collect examples of cultural change. Challenge the idea that today’s culture must also have been yesterday’s, and will also be tomorrow’s.”

The Single Perspective Instinct:

“We find simple ideas very attractive. We enjoy that moment of insight, we enjoy feeling we really understand or know something.”

“I love experts, but they have their limitations. First, and most obviously, experts are experts only within their own field.”

 “Factfulness is … recognizing that a single perspective can limit your imagination, and remembering that it is better to look at problems from many angles to get a more accurate understanding and find practical solutions.

To control the single perspective instinct, get a toolbox, not a hammer.

• Test your ideas. Don’t only collect examples that show how excellent your favorite ideas are. Have people who disagree with you test your ideas and find their weaknesses.

• Limited expertise. Don’t claim expertise beyond your field: be humble about what you don’t know. Be aware too of the limits of the expertise of others.

• Hammers and nails. If you are good with a tool, you may want to use it too often… Remember that no one tool is good for everything… Be open to ideas from other fields.

• Numbers, but not only numbers.

  • “Beware of simple ideas and simple solutions. History is full of visionaries who used simple utopian visions to justify terrible actions. Welcome complexity. Combine ideas. Compromise. Solve problems on a case-by-case basis.”

The Blame Instinct:

“The blame instinct is the instinct to find a clear, simple reason for why something bad has happened. ”

“It seems that it comes very naturally for us to decide that when things go wrong, it must be because of some bad individual with bad intentions. We like to believe that things happen because someone wanted them to, that individuals have power and agency: otherwise, the world feels unpredictable, confusing, and frightening.

The blame instinct makes us exaggerate the importance of individuals or of particular groups.”

“Factfulness is … recognizing when a scapegoat is being used and remembering that blaming an individual often steals the focus from other possible explanations and blocks our ability to prevent similar problems in the future.

To control the blame instinct, resist finding a scapegoat.

• Look for causes, not villains. When something goes wrong don’t look for an individual or a group to blame. Accept that bad things can happen without anyone intending them to. Instead spend your energy on understanding the multiple interacting causes, or system, that created the situation.

• Look for systems, not heroes. When someone claims to have caused something good, ask whether the outcome might have happened anyway, even if that individual had done nothing. Give the system some credit.”

The Urgency Instinct:

“Now or never! Learn Factfulness now! Tomorrow may be too late!”

“You have probably heard something like this before, from a salesperson or an activist. Both use a lot of the same techniques: “Act now, or lose the chance forever.” They are deliberately triggering your urgency instinct. The call to action makes you think less critically, decide more quickly, and act now.

Relax. It’s almost never true. It’s almost never that urgent, and it’s almost never an either/or.

Factfulness is … recognizing when a decision feels urgent and remembering that it rarely is.

To control the urgency instinct, take small steps.

• Take a breath. When your urgency instinct is triggered, your other instincts kick in and your analysis shuts down. Ask for more time and more information. It’s rarely now or never and it’s rarely either/or.

• Insist on the data. If something is urgent and important, it should be measured. Beware of data that is relevant but inaccurate, or accurate but irrelevant. Only relevant and accurate data is useful.

• Beware of fortune-tellers. Any prediction about the future is uncertain. Be wary of predictions that fail to acknowledge that. Insist on a full range of scenarios, never just the best or worst case. Ask how often such predictions have been right before.

• Be wary of drastic action. Ask what the side effects will be. Ask how the idea has been tested. Step-by-step practical improvements, and evaluation of their impact, are less dramatic but usually more effective.”

If you would like to learn more about how and why things are better today than in the past, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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