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Factfulness Book Summary – By Hans Rosling

Summary Table of Contents

Podcast Review

What you will learn from reading Factfulness:

– How to update your perception of the world.

– The ability to understand statistics that are presented to you, by the media, friends, etc.

– The types of instincts that we have which inhibit us when understanding information. 

Factfulness Book Summary:

I can’t stress enough how important I think it is to read this book!! (You can tell I’m serious if I’ve put two exclamation marks).

Hans Rosling perfectly sums up how we look at the world and how we are so easily lead astray by our instinctual minds.

Instead of thinking about a problem logically we end up reacting impulsively and therefore jumping to conclusions. It doesn’t make it any easier when we consider that media platforms such as the news and social media tend to exacerbated the problem by presenting stories in such a way to hijack our instinctual minds.

His 10 instincts are incredibly easy to follow and are accompanied with great examples from throughout his career. 

Things aren’t always as bas as they seem, however without the ability to see the bigger picture it is very hard to see things for what they really are. Luckily Hans Rosling wrote this book and luckily we summarised it for you. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did… P.S. savour the mind blowing moments, they’re so definitely worth it.


People constantly and intuitively refer to an outdated worldview when thinking, guessing, or learning about the world. So, if your worldview is wrong, then you will systematically make wrong guesses.

Peoples brains systematically misinterpret the state of the world.

Our brains often jump to swift conclusions without much thinking, which, evolutionary speaking, used to help us to avoid immediate dangers.

Our quick-thinking brains and cravings for drama, our dramatic instincts are causing misconceptions and an overdramatic worldview


The Gap Instinct

It’s not the numbers that are interesting, it’s what the numbers tell us.

Only 9% of the world lives in low income countries.

Combining middle- and high-income countries make up 91% of humanity.

The world is split into four Income Levels:

  • Level 1 
  • Level 2
  • Level 3
  • Level 4

Often it takes several generations for a family to move from level 1 to level 4

So why is the misconception of a gap between the rich and the poor so hard to change? Because human beings have a strong dramatic instinct towards binary thinking, a basic urge to divide things into two distinct groups

When we compare two averages, we risk misleading ourselves even more by focusing on the gap between those two single numbers and missing the overlapping spreads, the overlapping ranges of numbers, that make up each average. That is, we see gaps that are not really there.

In most cases there is no clear separation of two groups, even if it seems like that from the averages. Averages disguise spreads.

We are naturally drawn to extreme examples, and they are easy to recall

Break down statistics into the 4 income levels

When you live on level 4, everyone on level 1,2 & 3 can look equally poor, and the word poor can lose any specific meaning. Even a person on level 4 can appear poor: maybe the paint on their walls is peeling, or maybe they are driving a used car

It is natural to miss the distinctions between the people with cars, the people with motorbikes and bicycles, the people with sandals, and the people with no shoes at all.

  • Beware comparisons of averages: If you could check the spreads you would probably find they overlap. There is probably no gap at all.
  • Beware comparisons of extremes: In all groups, of countries of people, there are some at the top and some at the bottom. The difference is sometimes extremely unfair. But even then, the majority is usually somewhat in between, right where the gap is supposed to be (hump graph).
  • The view from level 4: Picture yourself at the top of a building (level 4). It’s easy to merger level 1,2 &3 because looking down is all just one.


The Negative Instinct

Level 1 is where all of humanity started, its where the majority lived until 1966.

Beyond living memory for some reason, we avoid reminding ourselves and our children about the miseries and brutalities of the past.

Our surveillance of suffering has improved tremendously. This improved reporting is itself a sign of human progress, but it creates the impression of the exact opposite.

The news constantly alerts us to bad events in the present. The doom-laden feeling this creates in us is then intensified by our inability to remember the past; our historical knowledge is rosy and pink.

What are people really thinking when they say the world is getting worse? They’re not thinking, they’re feeling.

Things can be both bad and better. The overall situation is getting better but there are bad moments.

Constantly expect bad news.

Reporting about suffering is better than it has ever been before

  • Better and Bad: practice distinguishing between a level (bad) and a direction of change (better). Convince yourself that things can be both better and bad.
  • Good news is not news: Good news is almost never reported. So, news is almost always bad. When you see bad news, ask whether equally positive news would have reached you.
  • Gradual improvement is not news: When a trend is gradually improving, with periodic dips, you are more likely to notice the dips then the overall improvement.
  • More news does not equal more suffering: More bad news is sometimes due to better surveillance of suffering not a world getting worse.
  • Beware of rosy parts: People often glorify their early experiences, and nations often glorify their histories.


The Straight-Line Instinct 

The dramatic drop in babies per woman is expected to continue, as long as more people keep escaping extreme poverty, and more women get educated.

Back in the 1800 when population was at a flat level, there was a balance, it wasn’t because humans lived in balance with nature. Humans died in balance with nature.

  • 1800 – extreme poverty – families having a lot of children because survival rate was low.
  • 1900’s – moving out of extreme poverty – families still having a lot of children but survival rate is higher, so population increases.
  • 2000’s – level 3/4 – families have less children, more educated, they know their children will survive – population flattens out.

Parents in extreme poverty need many children for children labour but also to have extra children in case some of them die.

The only proven method for curbing population growth is to eradicate extreme poverty and give people better lives.

Some things get worse when they leave form level 1 to level 2 but end up getting better towards end of level 3/4. E.g. Dental health gets worse when people leave from level 1 to level 2 because people start eating sweets a soon as they can afford them, but their governments cannot afford to prioritise public education about tooth decay until level 3.

Any two connected points look like a straight line but when we have three points we can distinguish between a straight line and start of what may be a doubling line.

  • Don’t assume straight lines: Many trends do not follow straight lines but are S-bends, slides, humps, or doubling lines. 


The Fear Instinct 

There’s no room for fact when our minds are occupied by fear.

Imagine that we have a shield, or attention filter, most information doesn’t get through, but the holes do allow through information that appeals to our dramatic instincts. So, we end up paying attention to information that fits our dramatic instincts and ignoring information that does not. Here are some topics that easily get through our filters; earthquakes, war, refugees, disease, fire, floods, shark attacks, terror attacks. If we are not extremely careful, we can come to believe that the unusual is usual, that this is what the world looks like.

In fact, the biggest stories are often those that trigger more than one type of fear.

Without world peace you can forget about all other global progress.

Paying too much attention to what is frightening rather than what is dangerous – that is, paying too much attention to fear – creates tragic drainage of energy in the wrong direction.

  • The scary world: fear vs reality. The world seems scarier than it is because what you hear about it has been selected – by your own attention filter or by the media – precisely because it is scary
  • Risk = Danger x Exposure. The risk something poses to you depends not on how scared it makes you feel, but on a combination of two things. How dangerous it is? And how much you are exposed to it?
  • Get calm before you carry on. When you are afraid, you see the world differently. Make as few decisions as possible until the panic has subsided.


The Size Instinct

The world cannot be understood without numbers. And it cannot be understood with numbers alone.

It is pretty much a journalist’s professional duty to make any given event, fact or number sound more important than it is.

Never believe that one number on its own can be meaningful. If you are offered one number, always ask for at least one more. Something to compare it with.

We tend to assume that all items on a list are equally important, but usually just a few of them are more important than all the others put together

Today the people living in rich countries around the North Atlantic, who represent 11% of the world population, make up 60% of the level 4 consumer market.

By 2040, 60% of level 4 consumers will live outside the West. The western domination of the world economy will soon be over.

When you see one number falling it is sometimes actually because some other background number is falling.

When we compare rates, rather than amounts, the most recent number can suddenly seem astonishingly low.

Such terrifying things really happen “here,” in this safe place where we live. But out there, they seem to happen every day. Remember, though, “out there” is the sum of a million places, while you live in just one place. Of course, more bad things happen out there: out there is much bigger than here.

  • Compare. Big numbers always look big. Single numbers on their own are misleading and should make you suspicious. Always look for comparisons. Ideally, divide by something.
  • 80/20. Have you been given a long list? Look for the few largest items and deal with those first. They are quite likely more important than all the others put together.
  • Divide. Amounts and rates can tell very different stories. Rates are more meaningful.


The Generalisation Instinct

The number of people on level 3 will increase from 2 billion to 4 billion between now and 2040. Almost everyone in the world is becoming a consumer.

Generalising from what is normal in your home environment can be useless or even dangerous.

The majority means more than half. It could mean 51% or 99%. If possible, ask for a percentage.

Be cautious about generalising from level 4 experiences to the rest of the world

  • Look for differences within groups. Especially when the groups are large, look for ways to split them into smaller, more precise categories.
  • Look for similarities across groups. If you find striking similarities between different groups, consider whether your categories are relevant.
  • Beware of vivid examples. Vivid images are easier to recall but they might be the exception rather than the rule.
  • Assume people are not idiots. When something looks strange, be curious and humble, and think, in what ways is this a smart solution.


The Destiny Instinct 

The destiny instinct Is the idea that innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, countries religions, or cultures.

The same destiny instinct also seems to make us take continuing Western progress for granted, with the West’s current economic stagnation portrayed as a temporary accident from which it will soon recover.

The Western consumer market was just a teaser for what is coming next.

To control the destiny instinct, don’t confuse slow change with no change. Don’t dismiss an annualised change – even an annual change of only 1% – because it seems too small and slow.

  • Keep track of gradual improvements. A small change every year can translate to a huge change over decades.
  • Update your knowledge. Some knowledge goes out of date quickly. Technology, countries, societies, cultures, and religions are constantly changing. 
  • Collect examples of cultural change. Challenge the idea that today’s culture must also have been yesterdays and will also be tomorrows.


The Single Perspective Instinct

We find simple ideas very attractive. We enjoy that moment of insight, we enjoy feeling we really understand or know something.

The world becomes simple. All problems have a single cause – something we must always be completely against. Or all problems have a single solution… the single perspective instinct.

But being always in favour of or always against any particular idea makes you blind to information that doesn’t fit your perspective.

Though we absolutely need numbers to understand the world, we should be highly sceptical about conclusions derived purely from number crunching.

If we applied our single perspective instinct to the example of the US spending more per capita on health than any other country, we would assume they should have the longest life expectancy, however 39 countries are ahead of them.

Most countries that make great economic and social progress are not democracies.

Of the 10 countries with the fastest economic growth in the years 2012-2016, 9 of them score low on democracy.

There is no singe indicator through which we can measure the progress of a nation.

  • Test your ideas. Don’t only collect examples that show how excellent your favourite ideas are. Have people who disagree with you, test your ideas and find their weaknesses.
  • Limited expertise. Don’t claim expertise beyond your field, be humble about what you don’t know. Be aware too of the limits of the expertise of others.
  • Hammers and nail. If you are good with a tool, you may want to use it too often. If you have analysed a problem in depth, you can end up exaggerating the importance of that problem or of the solution. Remember that no one tool is good for everything. If your favourite idea is a hammer, look for colleagues with screwdrivers, wrenches, and tape measures. Be open to new ideas from other fields.
  • Love numbers for what they tell you about real lives.
  • Beware of simple ideas and simple solutions. History is full of visionaries who used simple utopian visions to justify terrible actions. Welcome complexity. Combine ideas. Compromise. 


The Blame Instinct

The Blame instinct makes us exaggerate the importance of individuals or of particular groups. This instinct to find a guilty party derails our ability to develop true, fact based understandings of the word: it steals our focus as we obsess about someone to blame, then blocks our learning because once we have decided who to punch in the face we stop looking for explanations elsewhere.

We tend to look for bad guys to blame, and when we go looking for a pattern, we almost always find one. 

Most of the journalists and filmmakers who inform us about the world are themselves misled.

Finding someone to blame can distract us from looking at the whole system.

The blame instinct drives us to attribute more power and influence on individuals than they deserve, for bad and good. 

It goes both ways, for good and bad. Either blame or reward.

The problem is that when we identify the bad guy, we are done thinking. And it’s almost always more complicated than that. It’s almost always about multiple interacting causes – a system.

  • Look for causes, not villains. When something goes wrong don’t look for individuals or a group to blame. Accept that bad things can happen without anyone intending them to. Instead spend your energy on understanding the multiple interacting causes, or system, that created the situation.
  • Look for systems not heroes. When someone claims to have caused good, ask whether the outcome might have happened anyway, even if that individual had done nothing. Give systems some credit.


The Urgency Instinct

When we are afraid and under time pressure and thinking of the worst case scenario, we tend to make really stupid decisions. Our ability to think analytically can be overwhelmed by an urge to make quick decisions and take immediate action.

They are deliberately triggering your urgency instinct. The call to action makes you think less critically, decide more quickly, and act now.

The urgency instinct makes us want to take immediate action in the face of perceived danger.

But now that we have eliminated most immediate dangers and are left with more complex and often abstract problems, the urgency instinct can also lead us astray when it comes to understanding the world around us.

We do not seem to have a similar instinct to act when faced with risks that are far off in the future.

This attitude toward future risk is a big problem for activists who are working on long timescales. How can they wake us up? How can they galvanise us into action? Very often, it is by convincing us that an uncertain future risk is actually a sure immediate risk.

Exaggeration undermines the credibility of well-founded data

Exaggeration, once discovered makes people tune out altogether 

We should not pick the most dramatic estimates and show a worst-case scenario as if it were certain. People would find out! We should ideally show a mid-forecast, and also a range of alternative possibilities, from best to worst. If we have to round numbers, we should round to our own disadvantage. This protects our reputation and means we never give people reason to stop listening.

Hot headed claims often entrap the very activists who are using them. The activists defend them as a smart strategy to get people engaged and then forget that they are exaggerating and become stressed and unable to focus on realistic solutions.

When you merge real date, with skewed data, it ends up distorting the whole lot, and it ends up being difficult to separate the two.

Data must be used to tell the truth, not to call to action, no matter how noble the intentions.

The five global risks that are of concern are, global pandemics, financial collapse, world war, climate change and extreme poverty.

  • Take a breath. When your urgency instinct is triggered, your other instincts kick in and your analysis shuts down. Ask for more time and more information. It’s rarely now or never and it’s rarely either/ or.
  • Insist on data. If something is urgent and important, it should be measured. Beware of data that is relevant but inaccurate, or accurate but irrelevant. Only relevant and accurate data is useful.
  • Beware of fortune tellers. Any predictions about the future is uncertain. Be wary of predictions that fail to acknowledge that. Insist on a full range of scenarios, never just the best or worst case. Ask how often such predictions have been right before.
  • Be wary of drastic action. Ask what the side effects will be. Ask how the idea has been tested. Step by step practical improvements, and evaluation of their impact, are less dramatic but usually more effective

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