Life gets busy. Has Factfulness been gathering dust on your bookshelf? Instead, pick up some of the key ideas now.
Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, and Anna Rosling Rönnlund’s Perspective
Hans Rosling was a Swedish physician, academic, and public speaker. Alongside Anna, Hans founded the Gapminder Foundation and developed the Trendalyzer software system. Hans advocated for data analysis as a way of exploring development issues.
Ola Rosling is Hans Rosling’s son. Ola specializes in statistics and is known for his work with Gapminder on changing the global quality of life. He is currently the chairman, director, and co-founder of the Gapminder Foundation.
Anna Rosling Rönnlund is a Swedish designer who developed Trendalyzer alongside the other two authors of this book. She is currently the vice president for design and usability at Tendalyzer. Plus, she is the founder of Dollar Street. Dollar Street is a website that helps people visualize different streets of homes. This website helps people better understand how different cultures and incomes live around the world.
Factfulness is a posthumous book by statistician and physician Hans Rosling. This book is co-written with his son, Ola Rosling, and his daughter-in-law, Anna Rosling Rönnlund. The premise of the book is that most humans are wrong about the state of the world. We all exaggerate the negatives in the world. We believe the world is poorer, less healthy, and more dangerous than the statistics suggest. Instead of dividing the world into developed/developing, Hans suggests we should have four income brackets. Plus, he outlines ten instincts that prevent the human race from progressing. This book became an international bestseller and was recommended by Bill Gates as one of his five best books of 2018.
“Think about the world. War, violence, natural disasters, man-made disasters, corruption. Things are bad, and it feels like they are getting worse, right? The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer; and the number of poor just keeps increasing; and we will soon run out of resources unless we do something drastic. At least that’s the picture that most Westerners see in the media and carry around in their heads. I call it the overdramatic worldview. It’s stressful and misleading. In fact, the vast majority of the world’s population lives somewhere in the middle of the income scale. Perhaps they are not what we think of as middle class, but they are not living in extreme poverty. Their girls go to school, their children get vaccinated, they live in two-child families, and they want to go abroad on holiday, not as refugees. Step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving. Not on every single measure every single year, but as a rule. Though the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress. This is the fact-based worldview.”– Hans Rosling
What Is Factfulness?
Factfulness is the stress-reducing habit of only carrying opinions for which you have strongly supported facts. It is a set of tools that will help you process information.
The Gap Instinct
“Eighty-five percent of mankind is 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.”– Hans Rosling
The gap instinct relates to how we tend to divide subjects into two groups. We exaggerate the gap between these two groups by giving them labels like good vs. evil and rich vs. poor. The most prominent example of the gap instinct is how we identify countries as either developed or developing. These are labels introduced in the 1960s. This type of instinct is an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality.
The reality of the developed and developing labeling is that most people live in the middle now. There is no clear gap between developed and developing countries. Therefore, it is better to place them into four income levels. Level 1 would include the most extreme poverty, and level 4 would include the most developed.
“Low-income countries are much more developed than most people think. And vastly fewer people live in them. The idea of a divided world with a majority stuck in misery and deprivation is an illusion. A complete misconception. Simply wrong.”– Hans Rosling
To adopt a Factfulness approach, we must accept that most of our firsthand experiences are from level 4. Then, our secondhand experiences of other levels are based on our mass media. The mass media will always report on extraordinary events. Hence, our view of other levels will never be reality.
The authors outline three warning signs that trigger your gap instinct:
- If you compare averages, you will produce gaps. However, there is often significant overlap in wealth between countries
- If you compare extremes, you are not showing the majority of people in a country
- If you are living in level 4, then everyone appears much poorer than you
To control the Gap Instinct, we should look for the majority.
The Negativity Instinct
“Does saying “things are improving” imply that everything is fine, and we should all relax and not worry? No, not at all. Is it helpful to have to choose between bad and improving? Definitely not. It’s both. It’s both bad and better. Better, and bad, at the same time. That is how we must think about the current state of the world.”– Hans Rosling
Secondly, as humans, we naturally focus more on the bad than the good. Hence, we also believe the world is getting worse. This is not the case. Instead, we misremember the past. Plus, journalists selectively report negative stories. Finally, we tend to respond with feelings instead of facts. This focus on feelings means we feel uncomfortable saying the world is getting better. We feel uncomfortable because bad things are still happening.
We need to overcome this negative instinct by accepting that bad things happen but that the world can and is still improving. We must not let negative stories that seek to grab our attention warp the world’s reality. Plus, we must not look back at the past as if it was perfect. Many bad things happened in the past, and we should consider how things have improved. The authors provide 16 examples of bad things that have decreased over time:
- Legal Slavery
- Oil Spills
- Expensive Solar Panels
- HIV Infections
- Children Dying
- Battle Deaths
- Death Penalty
- Leaded Gasoline
- Plane Crash Deaths
- Child Labor
- Deaths from Disaster
- Nuclear Arms
- Smoke Particles
- Ozone Depletion
Plus, they also provide 16 examples of positive things that have become more common over time:
- New Movies
- Protected Nature
- Women’s Right to Vote
- New Music
- Child Cancer Survival
- Girls in School
- Monitored Species
- Electricity Coverage
- Mobile Phones
- Water from Protected Sources
The reason we struggle to see the world as improving is that matters are often only improving gradually. Hence, we often do not hear about these improvements. To control the negativity instinct, you should expect bad news.
The Straight Line Instinct
As humans, we often wrongly assume incidents in the world should move in a straight, linear direction. We expect that improvement in the world must mean constant improvement with no dips. However, multiple factors impact the trend.
The best way for us to control this error-filled instinct is to remember that curves can come in all shapes and sizes. We must also accept that straight lines are far less common than we think. If you have two points and connect them, you’ll have a straight line. However, add any third point that is not perfectly in-line with these points, and you have a curve.
The issue with this misconception is that it assumes that things are a certain way. It also assumes that drastic action is required to change an upward or downward trend. Instead, if we look at the data as a curve, we can see dips in an upward trend. We can learn from these dips and view them as opportunities to learn.
To control the Straight Line instinct, you must remember that curves come in different shapes.
The Fear Instinct
“Critical thinking is always difficult, but it’s almost impossible when we are scared. There’s no room for facts when our minds are occupied by fear.”– Hans Rosling
Fear was and is hugely important for our survival. However, fear is not useful when considering data. When we are afraid, we have a warped view of the world. Specifically, we tend to generate worst-case scenarios when provided with data. Evolutionarily we had to respond to all threats with a ‘worst-case scenario’ approach. This approach to fear helped us survive as a species but now makes us overestimate problems. However, this approach is unhelpful when we are attempting to utilize critical thinking.
The media’s portrayal of events encourages this fearful way of thinking. The news will broadcast the dangers of the world. However, the reality is that bad things still happen. That said, the outcomes of these bad things are far less severe than they used to be. This is not reported. Far fewer people are killed today than in the past. Natural disasters are not less common, but fewer people die of them as we are better equipped. The events that strike the most fear into us are some of the least common events: plane crashes, murders, nuclear leaks, and terrorism. These events account for less than 1% of deaths per year. In 2016, 40 million commercial passenger flights landed. Ten of these ended in fatal accidents. However, those ten are the ones journalists will report.
To control the fear instinct, calculate the risks.
“The image of a dangerous world has never been broadcast more effectively than it is now, while the world has never been less violent and more safe.”– Hans Rosling
The Size Instinct
“The two aspects of the size instinct, together with the negativity instinct, make us systematically underestimate the progress that has been made in the world.”– Hans Rosling
We tend to overestimate the importance of single events or people. The authors provide an example of how people often attribute improvements in child mortality to improvements in doctors and hospitals. We view fewer children dying as doctors saving more lives. However, the data would suggest that almost all the increases in child survival rates are attributable to preventative measures outside the hospital.
As humans, we like to make a narrative out of individual data points. The media preys on this instinct and will make a single event or fact sound more critical than it is. To overcome the size instinct, it is essential to provide the event or fact with context. You can produce context by comparing this event to other examples.
Additionally, if we are provided with a large number, we will often attribute more importance to it. This is because we struggle to understand large numbers. Therefore, to make the number more meaningful, you should always divide the total by another number. For example, you can divide by the total population; the new number will now apply to a person.
To control the Size Instinct, get things in proportion and search for comparisons.
“To avoid getting things out of proportion you need only two magic tools: comparing and dividing.”– Hans Rosling
The Generalization Instinct
“[The generalization instinct] can make us mistakenly group together things, or people, or countries that are actually very different. It can make us assume everything or everyone in one category is similar. And, maybe most unfortunate of all, it can make us jump to conclusions about a whole category based on a few, or even just one, unusual example.”– Hans Rosling
People automatically generalize individual data points. We use stereotypes as a way to structure our thoughts, and they are generally very useful. However, this instinct can also warp our view of the world.
Firstly, our instinct to generalize can lead to us mistakenly grouping items that are very different—for example, linking two countries together.
Secondly, this instinct can make us believe that everybody within one category is the same or very similar. This, coupled with making us jump to conclusions about an entire category based on one example, underpins issues like racial prejudice.
The best way for you to beat this instinct is to experience new places and people. If you travel to new countries and visit their real homes, you will understand we are all unique. Anna’s Dollar Street website points out this idea. People with the same earnings will have different cultures and different family dynamics.
To control the Generalization Instinct, you should question your categories.
The Destiny Instinct
This instinct is related to how we assume people, countries, religions, or cultures are destined to be a certain way. This instinct is based on our understanding of innate characteristics. Basing our understanding of others on these innate characteristics leads to us believing that things can never change.
The destiny instinct also makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. We used to live in surroundings that would not change much; the only changes were seasonal ones. Therefore, associating a group with destiny was one of the few ways to unite a group. However, societies are no longer like this. We have ever-changing environments and many circumstances we can connect over.
Additionally, we must remember that change is often slow. Things may appear destined, but that is merely because we struggle to notice small changes. Societies and cultures are in constant movement. Therefore, try to keep track of gradual improvements. If you struggle to understand how things change over time, try to look at your parents’ or grandparents’ views. You will most likely see a tremendous difference, and this is due to small gradual changes.
To control the Destiny Instinct, stay open to new data and remember that slow change is still change.
The Single Perspective Instinct
“Being always in favor of or always against any particular idea makes you blind to information that doesn’t fit your perspective. This is usually a bad approach if you like to understand reality. Instead, constantly test your favorite ideas for weaknesses. Be humble about the extent of your expertise. Be curious about new information that doesn’t fit, and information from other fields. And rather than talking only to people who agree with you, or collecting examples that fit your ideas, see people who contradict you, disagree with you, and put forward different ideas as a great resource for understanding the world.”– Hans Rosling
Instead of adopting or considering multiple perspectives, we are always focused on single causes or solutions. Focusing on single causes makes us feel like our problems are easier to solve. However, this leads to a misunderstanding of the world. We will get a more accurate understanding of problems if we consider multiple perspectives and weigh up which has the most validity.
To overcome the single perspective instinct, you should always be testing ideas to see where they fall short. You should not reject new information that doesn’t fit your current viewpoint. Instead, be curious about this new information and identify if your ideas should change based on this new information. On top of this, you should actively seek out people who have different viewpoints than you. Having these people in your life will hugely improve your understanding of the world.
Finally, the authors encourage you to sometimes look beyond numbers. Data does have its limits, and real-life proof of concepts can be necessary when searching for solutions. The world is complex, and our problems and solutions should reflect that.
To control the Single Perspective Instinct, you should get a toolbox rather than just a hammer. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
The Blame Instinct
“The blame instinct makes us exaggerate the importance of individuals or of particular groups. This instinct to find a guilty party derails our ability to develop a true, fact-based understanding of the world: it steals our focus as we obsess about someone to blame, then blocks our learning because once we have decided who to [blame] we stop looking for explanations elsewhere. This undermines our ability to solve the problem or prevent it from happening again because we are stuck with over simplistic finger-pointing, which distracts us from the more complex truth and prevents us from focusing our energy in the right places.”– Hans Rosling
The blame instinct is our instinct to find a clear reason for why something bad has happened. We tend to attribute bad things happening to bad individuals or intentions. This is another example of humans trying to find patterns. We try to find a reason for why something has happened. The blame instinct is our way of dealing with the unpredictable, confusing, and frightening nature of the world.
One of the most significant issues with our blame instinct is that we exaggerate the importance of individuals or groups in adverse events. This blocks us from seeking more viable explanations of or solutions to the problem. In reality, most unpleasant events are a combination of many interacting causes. The authors call this the system. Therefore, we should be looking at systems rather than individual people or groups.
To control the Blame Instinct, you should recognize when a scapegoat is being used and resist using scapegoats yourself. Plus, you should look for causes instead of villains and systems instead of heroes.
The Urgency Instinct
The urgency instinct is the instinct that makes us want to take action as soon as we perceive a danger. The issue with this instinct is it makes us stressed. Stress amplifies our other instincts and blocks us from thinking analytically. Finally, stress makes us take drastic actions that we would never normally consider.
Some problems are urgent, and we should work together to solve them. These are global pandemics, financial collapses, world wars, climate change, and extreme poverty. If the problem does not fall under these categories, then urgency will only cloud your judgments.
One way to deal with the urgency instinct is to give yourself more time and provide yourself with more information. Additionally, be careful when considering predictions.
So, to control the Urgency Instinct, take small steps and insist on getting the data.
“This is data as you have never known it: it is data as therapy. It is understanding as a source of mental peace. Because the world is not as dramatic as it seems. Factfulness, like a healthy diet and regular exercise, can and should become part of your daily life. Start to practice it, and you will be able to replace your overdramatic worldview with a worldview based on facts. You will be able to get the world right without learning it by heart. You will make better decisions, stay alert to real dangers and possibilities, and avoid being constantly stressed about the wrong things.”– Hans Rosling
The authors admit that many bad events still occur. In fact, many of the bad things of the past still exist. That said, these bad things are generally less severe than they used to be. So, there is hope for the future. Despite this, humans tend to place more attention on the bad things because of ten instincts that we must challenge. These instincts are:
- The Gap Instinct
- The Negativity Instinct
- The Straight Line Instinct
- The Fear Instinct
- The Size Instinct
- The Generalization Instinct
- The Destiny Instinct
- The Single Perspective Instinct
- The Blame Instinct
- The Urgency Instinct
Comment below and let others know what you have learned or if you have any other thoughts.
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