Factfulness: Gaining a Better (and More Hopeful) Perspective of Today's World
The world today can seem a scary place. Many Americans share concerns about major current events and perhaps even a general concern that circumstances are growing worse in numerous ways, stability declining, and dangers rising everywhere. In 2019, a step back to look at what’s happening is daunting - from dozens of mass shootings to economic uncertainty, volatile foreign powers, cyber-threats, questionable privacy, rapidly evolving technologies, cultural dissent, and more, a sense of being scared and overwhelmed seems reasonable. But are things as bad as they seem? Swedish statistician Hans Rosling and his son Ola Rosling in their 2018 book, Factfulness, take a step back from the fray to analyze trends and data to see whether our lives are getting worse or better, and show that in the grand scheme perhaps things are better and more hopeful than mass-media-fueled majority majority of everyday people might realize.
Factfulness is about understanding how our instincts program us to exaggerate situations and distort our perception of reality in ways that further exacerbate problems and how we react to them. In his book, Rosling outlines ten of these fundamental instincts and how to combat them to cultivate shift towards a perception based in fact that will ultimately alter the way we think, feel, and behave as a result.
Here’s a summary of some key insights and lessons for building a more “factful” perspective:
(Scroll to the end for a link to the book)
Factfulness Book Summary
10 Instincts That Distort Our Perspective
1. The Gap Instinct
Summary: The tendency to divide things into distinct and often opposing groups and imagine/project some sort of gap between them (e.g. us and them).
More than 85% of the modern world falls into what we would call in the past, the “developed” world, with most of the remaining 15% in between “developed” and “developing.” As few as 13 countries (6% of the world’s population) qualify as “developing” countries.
In addition to this, low-income countries are significantly more developed than most people think, with vastly fewer people still living in them. This means the perception of a massively divided world in which the majority remains relatively impoverished and deprived is a misconception.
The world has grown too complex to be understood in simple categories like developed versus developing, with most countries living neither as high-income or low-income but simply a middle-income majority.
The media by nature and design drastically tends to emphasize the exceptional over the ordinary
The world is better understood by imagining data distributions on a bell-curve rather than as a series of opposing polarities - the majority (and accurate perception) usually exists in the middle, not as warring opposites. Polarizing our view of the world can foster an “us versus them” mentality that spills into our actions and imagines a separation “them” and “us” that in fact, does not truly exist.
2. The Negativity Instinct
Summary: The tendency to notice/emphasize the negatives over positives (or in evolutionary terms, threats versus opportunities - e.g. believing that things are getting worse when they may actually be getting better).
People’s attention naturally gravitates towards negatives over positives. Evolutionists would argue that this prioritization is a biological protective mechanism to help us recognize danger. However, this instinct can also bias us towards a more negative perception of many things than is actually true.
Mass-media can often fuel negative perception since it rewards and emphasizes that which will garner the most attention, which is more frequently negative than positive. Good news and gradual improvement don’t make for great topics, and often negative perception is owed more to surveillance of suffering than a worsening world.
As Rosling writes, “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.”
Recognize that the media machine feeding us news prioritizes negativity by nature, but that doesn’t mean the nature of things is negative. Like with the first instinct above, the truth is most often found somewhere in the middle.
3. The Straight Line Instinct
Summary: The tendency to believe that things will continue as they have before.
We know that things change (often permanently) over time, yet we so often fallaciously believe that one aspect or another of life will remain constant.
Democracy is one of the central ideas of the 21st century and is often hailed in the West as the ultimate ideal for any political system, yet some of the fastest growing countries in the world are not democratic. What could this imply for the future of society? Another modern example is that we often seem to believe that the earth’s population is somewhat static and stable, but data reveals that the world’s population is actively growing and there is little indication of that slowing. This raises questions about how to manage natural resources and the potential implications for future generations.
Acknowledge that many things will change over time and pay attention to data that may protect you from falsely believing that some aspect of your life will continue as it has before.
4. The Fear Instinct
Summary: The tendency to pay more attention to “frightening” things.
Much like our instinct to gravitate towards negativity (see The Negativity Instinct above) and our brain’s programming to identify threats, we tend to notice things that scare us. However, this same protective instinct often leads us to exaggerate our negative perceptions, and fear left unchecked can cloud our judgement and decision-making.
The world can seem scarier and more dangerous because what you see and hear is selected, either by your own internal filters or information outlets like the news and media for the very fact that it is scary.
While reports of disasters and problems can foster an image of a daunting and dangerous world, and despite the universally growing population of people, natural disasters, plane crashes, murders, nuclear leaks, terrorism and others of the scariest threats make up less than 1% of causes of death.
In fact, natural disasters kill 75% less people than they did 100 years ago simply because less of the world lives in circumstances where the harm is of higher magnitude.
Risks should be calculated, not avoided. There is no way to eliminate risk without negating opportunity. In the same way, if we let our fear steer us we will miss many positive due to miscalculating situations.
Unbalanced, fear can lead to panic, and panic only increases risk. Don’t allow fear or scary things to overwhelm your perspective, and recognize if you are afraid and factor that into your calculations of how you act.
5. The Size Instinct
Summary: The tendency to perceive things out of proportion (especially when isolated numbers seem impressive).
We tend to misperceive scale and volume often when we base too much of our conclusions on small sample sizes and solitary bits of data. Fragmented evidence can easily lead to an inaccurate sense of proportion, which can in turn produce misdiagnoses of problems and misallocated resources and solutions.
One small data-bite/example: Polls have shown that most people estimate about 20% of basic needs met, but the correct number is actually closer to 80-90%
Numbers, while they seem straightforward and factual, can be woven to tell many stories. It’s critical to examine data in context and use numbers like pieces of a puzzle to form a complete picture.
There are two critical tools for properly contextualizing your perception: Comparing and Dividing. Compare your data and numbers with different numbers, data, and sources to gain a more accurate approximation. Dividing allows you to examine rates and ratios, and rates are often more meaningful, especially when comparing groups of different size or scale.
6. The Generalization Instinct
Summary: The tendency to generalize by categories.
Generalizing makes us susceptible to missing details and differences. Similar to the Gap Instinct, we tend to divide things into binary groups to more easily understand them, but this can also easily blind us to diversity inside and between individual groups. This is also how stereotypes are developed.
Beware of simple and exaggerated generalizations - A majority can be 51% or 99% - Be especially aware of using examples to illustrate entire groups.
Cultivate a habit of questioning your categories and noticing differences that can provide data for a new and refined understanding of things and groups.
7. The Destiny Instinct
Summary: The tendency to believe that (much like the Straight Line Instinct) that seemingly innate and past characteristics determine the “destiny” of people, things, groups, institutions, or cultures and that they will remain the same.
Small changes compound with time and trajectory. A closer look across history at changes in almost any area will show that things change radically and often given enough time.
Change at the micro-level of an individual can seem apparent, but change in groups often takes more time. It is easy to fail to fail to recognize change around us when it’s slow, but valuable to remember that small change adds up to significant difference over time.
If things seem like they’re not changing fast enough, the same rules from the Size Instinct apply: Comparing and divide
Talk to Grandpa - Simply asking about what things were like only two generations ago will surprise you with how much change is felt.
Update your knowledge - Some information changes more quickly than others. Technologies, countries, societies, cultures, and religion are constantly changing and it’s important to refresh your perspective with new knowledge.
8. The Single Perspective
Summary: The tendency to prefer simple explanations and solutions and miss differing perspectives, angles and complexities.
“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.”
“Give a child a hammer and they’ll see nails everywhere.” - The best way to avoid blind-spots and construct a factful perspective is with a toolbox, not a hammer. Our thinking should be tested from the outside by different perspectives, frameworks, and data. No one can be expected to develop a “complete” perspective alone.
Experts are often only experts in their field and tend to overestimate the problems for which they’re the solution.
Numbers, but not only numbers - “The world cannot be understood without numbers, and it cannot be understood by numbers alone.
History is filled with people who used their visions [perspective] to justify and execute terrible actions.
Factfulness involves recognizing that we cannot develop the best perspective without accounting for others. Our ideas should be tested and refined but different angles, data, and opinions.
9. The Blame Instinct
Summary: The tendency to seek simple and clear reasons for why a bad thing occurs.
People tend to look for guilty parties to blame for problems, but problems and they’re causes are often more complex than we want to realize. People are often more preoccupied with rationalizing someone’s fault and pointing fingers than truly analyzing the problem and developing a real solution.
Rosling writes, “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.”
Look for causes, not villains - When things go amiss, it’s almost always symptomatic of more complex issues than any one individual. Recognize that bad things occur always, and that your energy is best directed towards solving the deeper, intricate and interacting reasons underneath the surface.
Look for systems, not heroes - When something consistently works well, it is often because there is a system supporting and facilitating individuals more than any one person’s heroics. Ask just how much influence the individual can or might have had given the systems that support the outcome.
10. The Urgency Instinct
Summary: The tendency to take immediate actions in response to perceived danger or threats, and in doing so, amplify our other instincts.
Taking immediate action in the face of oncoming physical danger is a helpful instinct that has enabled us to survive. Yet, the problems and threats of the modern world are most often slower and more complex than an attacking lion or angry enemy. As such, abstract problems require more complex solutions, and reacting with too much urgency and force can lead to bad decisions and outcomes.
Urgency can be helpful, but it can also amplify all of our other biases, instincts, and reactions and lead us to make mistakes in panic. When urgency clouds your thinking, take a deep breath, examine the data, think analytically, and beware of predictions that fail to account for uncertainty and complexity.