Factfulness

I’ve been meaning to read Hans Rosling’s Factfulness ever since Bill Gates gave it his highest recommendation back in 2018 – and it did not disappoint. In fact, not only is it one of the most enlightening books about the state of the world I’ve ever read, it is one of those works that deserves to be referenced repeatedly due to its wide applicability to daily life. I believe it should made required reading for all world leaders (especially those with power in government). It makes you a better consumer of news media and builds long-term wisdom to better rationalize everything you learn.

At its core, the book breaks down ten innate human instincts that get in the way of building a fact-based worldview. In this way, it’s similar to a list of cognitive biases or a precursor to mental models – but much more digestible and readily applicable to quell any knee-jerk reactions you may have to dramatic incoming data. I wanted to put together a quick summary as a reference for myself, as well as anyone else who may just want a recapitulated version.

Gap Instinct

What it isThe tendency to over-simplify a diverse range into two distinct groups/dichotomies/polarizations
Example“developed” versus “developing” world
How to control itLook for the majority, which is usually in the middle of the extremes

Negativity Instinct

What it isStressing out and building a generally negative outlook on the world
ExampleThinking that there is more crime happening than ever before, when in fact the opposite is true
How to control itExpect bad news to reach you more easily, and realize that things can be simultaneously bad but getting better in the long-run

Straight Line Instinct

What it isThinking that all graphs continue in straight line trajectories
ExampleThe belief that the world’s population will never stop increasing, when in fact it will plateau
How to control itRemember that curves come in many shapes, including S-bends, humps, doubling lines, etc.

Fear Instinct

What it isThe tendency for scary things to grab our attention, making us systematically overestimate risks
ExampleTerrorism leading to stockpiling of guns, even though it’s extremely rare in Level 4 countries
How to control itCalculate the real risk: danger × exposure

Size Instinct

What it isHumans often getting things out of proportion
ExampleThinking 4.2M infants dying this year is tragic, while 14.4M died in 1950
How to control itDon’t be immediately impressed or shocked when shown a single “lonely number” – compare it or divide it (per capita) with some other relevant number

Generalization Instinct

What it isAutomatically categorizing things into groups and generalizing assumptions from one group to another
ExampleAssuming that elevators all have the same safety mechanisms everywhere in the world
How to control itQuestion your categorization: look for differences within groups, similarities across groups, and even differences across groups

Destiny Instinct

What it isBelieving that people, countries, religions, or cultures appear to be constant and unchanging
ExampleAssuming people in Africa are destined to be in poverty forever because of “who they are”
How to control itRemember that change can be gradual, and a small change every year can add up to massive change over decades

Single Perspective Instinct

What it isOverly simplifying solutions, using a hammer as if all the world’s problems were nails
ExampleBelieving that one style of governance (democracy, communism) can be the single solution to all societal problems
How to control itGet a toolbox, not a hammer: test ideas and be humble about the limits of your expertise

Blame Instinct

What it isDesire to find a simple, clear explanation for something bad and going to lengths to create narratives for it
ExampleAssuming pharmaceutical companies are inherently evil, while we could also theoretically blame the elderly and their need for retirement funds which invest in them
How to control itResist scapegoating and spend your energy understanding the multiple interacting causes or system that created the situation

Urgency Instinct

What it isThe desire to act immediately, even though the situation is rarely that urgent
ExampleClimate activists invoking fear and urgency (exaggerating the role of climate change in wars & migration) have ended up risking the credibility and reputation of climate science
How to control itTake small steps and be wary of drastic action, asking what the side effects may be

The accompanying website also has a quick visual guide to these concepts as well.

Obviously the book goes into much more detail about each of these and shares some particularly engaging stories to illustrate these points, including how the author himself has succumbed to these instincts himself in the past! For these highly memorable anecdotes alone, the book is worth a full read.

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