Most people have grossly inaccurate views of the world we live in. When we’re asked simple questions about global trends, we systematically get the answers wrong and see the world to be much worse than it really is. Hans Rosling presents 10 dramatic instincts that distort our perceptions, as well as detailed facts and statistics about the real state of our world today. In this free Factfulness summary, you’ll learn the 10 key mental filters and how to recognize/manage them to develop a fact-based worldview, to avoid unnecessary stress and improve our ability to make sound decisions.
Factfulness: An Overview
Over the years, Rosling has been presenting questions about global trends (e.g. poverty, health, environment) to thousands of people worldwide. He discovered that people generally believe that the world is getting worse, when facts and data show that the world is getting better. For example, in the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has almost halved. Yet, only 7% of the people surveyed got that right; the majority believed that the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has remained the same, or has almost doubled.
Most of us don’t see the world as it is, because we sift the inputs through a mental filter that favors dramatic information. Thus, we tend to have an exaggerated and overly-negative view of the world, which creates unnecessary fear and stress. When we’re operating on the wrong facts, we can’t develop sound solutions or make good decisions.
We’ll now give a synopsis of the 10 dramatic instincts and zoom in on the first instinct in more detail. For a detailed overview of all 10 instincts, check out our full 15-page Factfulness summary.
The 10 Dramatic Instincts
1. THE GAP INSTINCT
We tend to divide things into 2 distinct groups and imagine a gap between them, e.g. good vs bad, rich vs poor. This is one of most damaging instincts as it creates an imagined chasm that leads to all sorts of mis-perceptions.
In particular, most of us still mentally divide the world into 2 parts: developing non-Western countries vs developed Western countries. This notion is at least 20-30 years outdated. Rosling presents various statistics to explain where/how our estimations go wrong, and shows that it’s much more meaningful to look at the world with 4 levels of income:
In a nutshell, the majority of people today (5 out of 7 billion) live on Levels 2-3 and have some degree of choice and buying power. While people living in extreme poverty (Level 1) still suffer from high child mortality rates, malnutrition and terrible living conditions, they are now the minority, not majority of the world population. In the complete version of our Factfulness summary, we elaborate more on each of the 4 levels and how countries move up the levels over generations.
When we split the world into 2 distinct groups with a big gap in between, it suggests conflict between the groups. In reality, things usually fall on a spectrum—there’re no distinct lines between groups, and most groups share a lot in common. Specifically, there are 3 types of “gap stories” that trigger our gap instinct:
Averages help to simplify information, but draw our attention to the gap between 2 sets of numbers. For example, when you compare the average incomes between 2 groups (see the left diagram below), it creates the perception that there’s a clear separation between the groups, when in reality the areas of overlap may be greater than the differences (see the right diagram below).
We tend to remember extreme examples (e.g. the richest vs poorest people) as these are more dramatic. However, such extremes are usually the minority and do not reflect the majority which are in the middle.
View from above
When you’re living on Level 4, your perceptions of the other levels are filtered through the mass media (which tends to focus on the extreme and the dramatic). From the top of a tall building, the objects on the ground level look deceptively small. Likewise, our Level 4 perception of lives on Levels 1-3 are usually distorted.
To control your Gap Instinct, realize that that in reality, there’s usually no gap, extremes are the minority, and the majority are in the middle were the gap is supposed to be.
• Be mindful of the 3 types of gap stories which you may hear or tell yourself.
• When you hear a story of 2 distinct groups with a gap between then, examine the spread of data and you’re likely to find 2 overlapping groups with no real gap.
OTHER DRAMATIC INSTINCTS
Here’s a graphical summary of the 10 Dramatic Instincts and how to control them. Our full 15-page Factfulness summary covers the details on the remaining dramatic instincts:
The 10 Dramatic Instincts in a nutshell
• The Gap Instinct: We tend to divide things into 2 distinct groups and imagine a gap between them.
• The Negativity Instinct: We tend to instinctively notice the bad more than the good.
• The Straight Line Instinct: When we see a line going up steadily, we tend to assume the line will continue to go up in the foreseeable future.
• The Fear Instinct: We tend to perceive the world to be scarier than it really is.
• The Size Instinct: We tend to see things out of proportion, over-estimating (a) the importance of a single event/person that’s visible to us, and (b) the scale of an issue based on a standalone number.
• The Generalization Instinct: We tend to wrongly assume that everything or everyone in a category is similar.
• The Destiny Instinct: We tend to assume that (a) the destinies of people, cultures, countries etc. are predetermined by certain factors, and (b) such factors are fixed and unchanging, i.e. their destinies are fixed.
• The Single Perspective Instinct: We tend to focus on single causes or solutions, which are easier to grasp and make our problems seem easier to solve.
• The Blame Instinct: When something goes wrong, we instinctively blame it on someone or something.
• The Urgency Instinct: We tend to rush into a problem or opportunity for fear that there’s no time and we may be too late.
Getting the Most from “Factfulness“
Our dramatic instincts exist for a reason and everyone has them. The key is to manage these instincts, so we can think factfully and find better solutions based on a real understanding of the world. For more details, examples and tips for all 10 instincts, do get our our full book summary bundle which includes an infographic, a 15-page text summary, and a 24-minute audio summary.
The book is packed with data and charts about the state of the world and our 10 dramatic instincts. Rosling also shared many of his personal experiences, as well as specific data about 5 global risks which he personally believes are worthy of concern: Global pandemic, global financial collapse, World War III; climate change, and extreme poverty (which still affects 800mil people today). To look at how factfulness can be applied to our daily lives, including education and business, you can purchase the book here or visit gapminder.org for more details and resources.
About the Author of Factfulness
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things are Better Than You Think is written by Hans Rosling: a Swedish physician, academic, statistician, and public speaker. He was the Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institute and was the co-founder and chairman of the Gapminder Foundation, which developed the Trendalyzer software system. He has spoken globally about the use of data to explore development issues.
This book was authored with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund, who were also the co-founders of Gapminder.
“The idea of a divided world with a majority stuck in misery and deprivation is an illusion. A complete misconception. Simply wrong.”
“Here’s the paradox: 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.”
“Societies and cultures are not like rocks, unchanging and unchangeable. They move.”
“No single measure of a good society can drive every other aspect of its development. It’s not either/or. It’s both and it’s case-by-case.”
“Beware of simple ideas and simple solutions. History is full of visionaries who used simple utopian visions to justify terrible actions.”
“If you really want to change the world you have to understand it.”
“Challenge the idea that today’s culture must also have been yesterday’s, and will also be tomorrow’s.”
“The loss of hope is probably the most devastating consequence of the negativity instinct and the ignorance it causes.”
Learn how to manage your mental filters, develop a fact-based worldview and make better decisions!