Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World - And Why Things Are Better Than You Think
Written By James King
4 min read
Do we assume the world is a worse place than it really is? In the late Hans Rosling’s seminal work, he uses data to make the case that most human beings’ assumptions about the state of the world are outdated, or simply wrong. In fact, chimpanzees are more likely to correctly guess the answers to simple questions about global trends than even the most educated humans.
Summary of main ideas
Factfulness identifies ten ‘instincts’ that most humans have about the world which distort our understanding of reality:
The Gap Instinct: People typically divide the world into two groups: The “developed” world and the “developing” world. Factfulness argues that there are really four levels of income. People in Level 1 survive on $ a day. This goes up to $4 a day for Level 2 and Level 3 is $16 a day. Level 4 starts at $64 a day. Viewed through this lens, the progress of entire populations moving upwards from the very poorest levels is striking.
The Negativity Instinct: Information about bad events is much more likely to reach us and so we should expect bad news. Gradual progress is also happening but that is not news.
The Straight Line Instinct: We assume that things will continue to happen in straight lines. In reality, lines curve. An exaggerated example, the line representing a child’s growth curves and goes flat as they approach adulthood.
The Fear Instinct: How frightened we are about something is not directly related to how dangerous it is. Frightening things get our attention.
The Size Instinct: We often see a large number without the context of other numbers. Comparing or dividing numbers enables us to put things in proportion.
The Generalization Instinct: It is very easy to assume that every member of a group is the same. In reality our understanding of the world is often distorted by failure to see that groups are made up of sometimes very different smaller groups. For example, countries in Asia range from very poor to very rich, so it makes no sense to simply label Asia as poor.
The Destiny Instinct: “The destiny instinct is the idea that innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, countries, religions, or cultures.“ In reality, some things just change very slowly. Rosling suggests talking to your grandparents about their values to see how they differ from yours.
The Single Perspective Instinct: “We find simple ideas very attractive.” In reality, the world is complex so we need to be prepared to consider opinions and ideas that don’t snugly fit into a simple worldview.
The Blame Instinct: It is common to look for a scapegoat when something goes wrong. As a result, we often ignore the real cause of a problem and forget that bad things sometimes just happen without anyone meaning for it to.
The Urgency Instinct: Even if something seems urgent, it rarely is. Acting too quickly reduces our ability to think clearly, leading to unintended consequences.
Information about bad events is much more likely to reach us and so we should expect bad news. Gradual progress is also happening but that is not news.
How this book can help you
Read this book if you want to develop a more nuanced understanding of the world and challenge your existing assumptions (which are probably incorrect!). You might expect a book devoted to telling its readers they are wrong would come across as preachy, but Rosling and his co-authors had a gift for conveying ideas with humility, humour and simple common sense.
Factfulness is also a good starting point for anyone looking to understand the power of using data to explore ideas and share them in a persuasive way.
Some good further reading/watching/listening
Where to get it
About the author
Hans Rosling was a professor of International Health at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and co-founded the Gapminder Foundation along with the co-authors of this book, his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna (see below). Rosling lived and worked for extended spells in Asia and Africa, where he discovered a previously unrecognized paralytic disease that his research team named Konzo. Rosling died in 2017 before the publication of Factfulness.
Ola Rosling is President & Co-Founder of Gapminder Foundation. He spent time at Google following the tech giant’s acquisition of Gapminder’s Trendalyser software in 2007. He returned to Gapminder in 2011, coining the term Factfulness in 2014.
Anna Rosling Rönnlund founded the Gapminder Foundation in 2005 along with Hans and Ola, having previously earned a Master’s Degree in Sociology and a Bachelor’s Degree in Photography. She also spent time at Google following the acquisition of Trendalyser before returning to Gapminder where she is now Vice President and Head of Design & User Experience.
April 3, 2018
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