Book Summary: Factfulness by Hans Rosling

A book summary of the key ideas from Factfulness: 10 Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling.

Book Summary: The Key Ideas

#1: The Four Levels of Income: Our continued division of the world into “developed” and “developing” countries ignores the convergence in data we have seen over the last few decades. The real picture calls for a worldview based on four income levels.

#2: Our Ten Overdramatic Instincts: We systematically overestimate how bad things are and underestimate how much they have improved. Rosling believes this is driven by 10 innate “overdramatic instincts”, from the way in which fear, urgency and negativity rule over our worldviews, to our tendency to generalise and seek single causes and solutions.

Book Notes: The Key Ideas in Detail

Premise of the Book

Hans Rosling was a Swedish physician and academic with a passion for using data to explore global development issues. Factfulness was posthumously published and co-authored by his son, Ola Rosling, and daughter-in-law, Anna Rosling Rönnlund.

The book focuses on the idea that we systematically overestimate how bad the world is on many of the most important metrics, such as poverty, violence and income. Rosling believes this overdramatic worldview is mainly the result of 10 innate “overdramatic instincts”.

Factfulness is an attempted antidote to these instincts, demonstrating how our approach to facts and data can counter these innate biases.

Key Idea #1: The Four Levels of Income

Rosling has surveyed thousands of people from a wide range of professions and nationalities, finding that we systematically underestimate how developed low-income countries are.

The problem, he suggests, is that we tend to hold a view of a divide between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries that made more sense a few decades ago. Now, however, this divided view simply doesn’t reflect the huge convergence in data we have seen since as a result of improving conditions across the world.

As Rosling puts it: “The world used to be divided in two but isn’t any longer. Today, most people are in the middle.”

Rosling suggests a more relevant worldview should instead see the world in four income levels.

  • Level 1: $1 per day
  • Level 2: $2-$8 per day
  • Level 3: $8-$32 per day
  • Level 4: $32+ per day

Moving from one to another isn’t easy. As Rosling notes, often it takes several generations for a family to move through the levels from Level 1 to Level 4. But just 200 years ago, 85% of people were on Level 1.

The idea of the four levels of income shapes many of the discussion points that follow in the book.

Key Idea #2: The Ten Overdramatic Instincts

Instinct 1: The Gap Instinct

Definition: The gap instinct is our tendency to divide things into two distinct and often conflicting groups, missing the gap between.

Example: We tend to divide countries into ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ countries, but the data shows this view is no longer fit for purpose on measures of income, education, healthcare, and so on.

How to control it:

  • Be careful when comparing averages and extremes
  • Be cautious of the view from the top: From Level 4, Level 1, 2 and 3 are all “poor”, but there is a considerable difference in the impact on someone’s life between Level 1 and Level 3.
  • Look for the majority.

Instinct 2: The Negativity Instinct

Definition: The negativity instinct is our tendency to notice the bad more than the good.

Example: The majority of people think the world is getting worse, but the reality is very different. The proportion of people living in extreme poverty has almost halved in the last 20 years. We’ve also seen tremendous progress on life expectancies. No country in the world now has a life expectancy below 50.

How to control it:

  • Accept things can be better and bad at the same time: There are huge problems in the world, but this shouldn’t smokescreen the fact we have made rapid progress.
  • Expect bad news: The media rarely report the positive side.
  • Don’t censor or rewrite the past: We have a tendency to misremember the past, which dampens the progress that has been made.

Instinct 3: The Straight-Line Instinct

Definition: The straight-line instinct is our tendency to assume linear trends in data will continue in a straight line.

Example(s): We the rate of growth in the world population will continue, not realising that there are 2 billion children today and the UN forecasts there will be 2 billion children in 2100. We therefore need to understand how the number of children decreases as we move up the income levels.

How to Control It:

  • Recognise curves come in a variety of shapes and sizes – e.g. doubling

Instinct 4: The Fear Instinct

“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.”

Definition: The fear instinct is our tendency to overestimate risks due to our natural fears of factors such as violence, captivity and contamination.

Example: Rosling runs through a range of areas in which risks have drastically reduced, such as the number of deaths from natural disasters, flight safety and contamination.

How to control it:

  • Calculate the risks: Understand the real picture from the data.
  • Minimise decisions when in a state of fear

Instinct 5: The Size Instinct

Definition: The size instinct is our tendency to look at a lonely number (or a single instance or victim) and misjudge its importance.

Example: Rosling uses the example of child deaths in hospital drawing attention away from the issue of systems that kill far more outside of the hospital in the first place.

How to control it:

  • Compare the numbers: We should avoid lonely numbers – especially emotionally-charged ones – and instead look at the broader context.
  • Use the 80/20 rule: Divide and understand where 80% of the total comes from.
  • Divide: Put figures into context by using rates, e.g. per capita.

Instinct 6: The Generalisation Instinct

Definition: The generalisation instinct is our tendency to generalise groups of individuals and countries, even if there are significant differences between them.

Example: Those in the Level 4 income group tend to generalise those in groups below as worse off than they really are.

How to control it:

  • Travel: Experience other cultures and countries different to your own.
  • Find better categories: Think of how life really differs on Levels 1, 2, 3 and 4.
  • Question your categories: Look for differences and exceptions in groups and beware of generalising from one group to another.

Instinct 7: The Destiny Instinct

Definition: The destiny instinct is our tendency to assume innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, countries, religions and cultures.

Example: The perception that Africa is not capable of far-reaching economic progress is not based on the facts of the last four decades.

How to control it:

  • Recognise that slow change isn’t the same as no change
  • Stay open to new data and be prepared to refresh knowledge
  • Compare your values to your parents and your grandparents.

Instinct 8: The Single Perspective Instinct

“A single perspective can limit your imagination.”

Definition: The single perspective instinct is our tendency to prefer single causes and single solutions.

Example: Political ideologues can get fixated on one form of economic system, but a one-size-fits-all approach to our economic and political systems is rarely the most effective.

How to control it:

  • Test your ideas for weaknesses
  • Recognise the limits of your expertise
  • Avoid the trap of exaggerated to benefit your cause
  • Beware of simple ideas and solutions

Instinct 9: The Blame Instinct

Definition: The blame instinct is our need to find a clear and simple reason for why something bad has happened.

Example: The media is constantly looking for a single scapegoat for negative stories, but often these negative stories are the result of much more complex underlying systems.

How to control it:

  • Resist the temptation to find a scapegoat
  • Focus instead on the underlying systems

Instinct 10: The Urgency Instinct

“The overdramatic worldview in people’s heads creates a constant sense of crisis and stress.”

Definition: The urgency instinct is our need to take immediate action in face of perceived danger.

Example: Rosling uses the example of worst-case climate change and epidemiological data being used to create a sense of urgency, but ultimately such exaggerations undermine the cause.

How to control it:

  • Take a breath
  • Insist on seeing the data
  • Beware of fortune tellers
  • Be wary of drastic action

Related Reading:

On urgency and understating the future: The Curse of Hyperbolic Discounting – And How to Flip It

The psychology of fear: Emotional Contagion: How Fear and Panic Spread

On overestimating our knowledge: The Dunning-Kruger Effect: It’s Your Confidence, Stupid

View from the Blog:

While Factfulness neatly bundles our misconceptions about the world into 10 main causes – our overdramatic instincts – it also provides a fast-paced and data-rich tour through some of the key measuring sticks for global development. That is where this book really separates itself from the pack.

Rosling tackles some of our most notable systematic misunderstandings of the world, from the issue of global population growth to extreme poverty. The conclusion, in almost all cases, is that we grossly underestimate the rate of progress and overestimate the risks.

The result of this analysis is brilliantly readable and highly informative. You will not finish the book and immediately rid yourself of your tendencies to generalise, divide and act urgently, but you will come away from it with two things. First, a newfound knowledge of some areas of global development, armed with information to challenge misconceptions about human progress. And second, some useful tools and ideas to challenge innate cognitive biases and move towards more fact-based decision making.

We would do well to make Factfulness required reading for children and adults across all walks of life – but particularly for those making decisions that affect our lives the most.

Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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