The Big Idea: Humans are at risk for a number of cognitive biases that hamper our ability to think analytically and exhibit good judgement.
It is the overdramatic worldview that draws people to the most dramatic and negative answers to my fact questions. The overdramatic worldview is so difficult to shift because it comes from the very way our brains work.
Our quick-thinking brains and cravings for drama — our dramatic instincts — are causing misconceptions and an overdramatic worldview.
Factfulness, like a healthy diet and regular exercise, can and should become part of your daily life. Start to practice it, and you will be able to replace your overdramatic worldview with a worldview based on facts.
CHAPTER ONE THE GAP INSTINCT
Do you know why I’m obsessed with the numbers for the child mortality rate? It’s not only that I care about children. This measure takes the temperature of a whole society.
You won’t find any countries where child mortality has increased. Because the world in general is getting better.
Most of us are stuck with a completely outdated idea about the rest of the world.
Today, most people are in the middle. There is no gap between the West and the rest, between developed and developing, between rich and poor.
To summarize: low-income countries are much more developed than most people think. And vastly fewer people live in them. The idea of a divided world with a majority stuck in misery and deprivation is an illusion.
Factfulness is recognizing when a story talks about a gap, and remembering that this paints a picture of two separate groups, with a gap in between. The reality is often not polarized at all. Usually the majority is right there in the middle, where the gap is supposed to be.
Beware comparisons of averages.
Beware comparisons of extremes.
CHAPTER TWO THE NEGATIVITY INSTINCT
I never trust data 100 percent, and you never should either. There is always some uncertainty.
And look at the last 20 years. Extreme poverty dropped faster than ever in world history.
There’s a dip in the global life expectancy curve in 1960 because 15 to 40 million people — nobody knows the exact number — starved to death that year in China, in what was probably the world’s largest ever man – made famine.
People are consistently more negative than the data says they should be.
There are three things going on here: the misremembering of the past; selective reporting by journalists and activists; and the feeling that as long as things are bad it’s heartless to say they are getting better.
Now girls have almost caught up: 90 percent of girls of primary school age attend school. For boys, the figure is 92 percent. There’s almost no difference.
Remember that the media and activists rely on drama to grab your attention. Remember that negative stories are more dramatic than neutral or positive ones.
Factfulness is recognizing when we get negative news, and remembering that information about bad events is much more likely to reach us.
To control the negativity instinct, expect bad news.
Good news is almost never reported. So news is almost always bad.
More bad news is sometimes due to better surveillance of suffering, not a worsening world.
Beware of rosy pasts.
CHAPTER THREE 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, and as access to contraceptives and sexual education keeps increasing.
The new balance is nice: the typical parents have two children, and neither of them dies.
The only proven method for curbing population growth is to eradicate extreme poverty and give people better lives, including education and contraceptives. Across the world, parents then have chosen for themselves to have fewer children.
The best way of controlling the instinct to always see straight lines — whether in relation to population growth or in other situations — is simply to remember that curves naturally come in lots of different shapes.
Factfulness is recognizing the assumption that a line will just continue straight, and remembering that such lines are rare in reality.
Don’t assume straight lines.
CHAPTER FOUR THE FEAR INSTINCT
Critical thinking is always difficult, but it’s almost impossible when we are scared.
The media can’t waste time on stories that won’t pass our attention filters.
The media cannot resist tapping into our fear instinct.
The world has never been less violent and more safe.
330,000 child deaths from diarrhea.
Today, conflicts and fatalities from conflicts are at a record low.
March 11, 2011. Fukushima. Not one person has yet been reported as having died from radiation. It wasn’t radioactivity, but the fear of radioactivity, that killed them.
We have been left with a level of public fear of chemical contamination that almost resembles paranoia. It is called chemophobia.
In a devastating example of critical thinking gone bad, highly educated, deeply caring parents avoid vaccinations.
DDT is harmful but I have been unable to find numbers showing that it has directly killed anyone either. DDT should be used with great caution, but there are pros and cons.
Improvements in regulations have been driven not by death rates but by fear, and in some cases — Fukushima, DDT — small but scary chemical contaminations receive more news coverage than more harmful but less dramatic environmental deteriorations, such as the dying seabed and the urgent matter of overfishing.
Terrorism is one of the exceptions to the global trends discussed in chapter 2 on negativity. It is getting worse.
No matter how much I love Wikipedia, we still need serious researchers to maintain reliable data sets.
Since 2001, no terrorist has managed to kill a single individual by hijacking a commercial airline.
On US soil, 3,172 people died from terrorism over the last 20 years — an average of 159 a year. During those same years, alcohol contributed to the death of 1.4 million people in the United States — an average of 69,000 a year.
In the United States, the risk that your loved one will be killed by a drunk person is nearly 50 times higher than the risk he or she will be killed by a terrorist.
One week after September 11, 2001, according to Gallup, 51 percent of the US public felt worried that a family member would become a victim of terrorism. Fourteen years later, the figure was the same: 51 percent.
Fear can be useful, but only if it is directed at the right things. The fear instinct is a terrible guide for understanding the world.
Natural disasters ( 0.1 percent of all deaths ), plane crashes ( 0.001 percent ), murders ( 0.7 percent ), nuclear leaks ( 0 percent ), and terrorism ( 0.05 percent ). None of them kills more than 1 percent of the people who die each year, and still they get enormous media attention.
Factfulness is recognizing when frightening things get our attention, and remembering that these are not necessarily the most risky.
To control the fear instinct, calculate the risks.
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.
Risk = danger × exposure.
Make as few decisions as possible until the panic has subsided.
CHAPTER FIVE THE SIZE INSTINCT
Organizing, supporting, and supervising basic community – based health care that could treat diarrhea, pneumonia, and malaria before they became life – threatening would save many more lives than putting drips on terminally ill children in the hospital.
Paying too much attention to the individual visible victim rather than to the numbers can lead us to spend all our resources on a fraction of the problem, and therefore save many fewer lives.
The size instinct directs our limited attention and resources toward those individual instances or identifiable victims, those concrete things right in front of our eyes.
But almost all the increased child survival is achieved through preventive measures outside hospitals by local nurses, midwives, and well-educated parents.
So if you are investing money to improve health on Level 1 or 2, you should put it into primary schools, nurse education, and vaccinations. Big impressive-looking hospitals can wait.
The wars with China had lasted, on and off, for 2,000 years. The French occupation had lasted 200 years. The “Resistance War Against America” took only 20 years. The sizes of the monuments put things in perfect proportion. It was only by comparing them that I could understand the relative insignificance of “the Vietnam War” to the people who now live in Vietnam.
In Sweden, a fatal bear attack is a once-in-a-century event. Meanwhile, a woman is killed by her partner every 30 days.
The news coverage for TB was at a rate of 0.1 article per death. Each swine flu death received 82,000 times more attention than each equally tragic death from TB.
By 2100 the new PIN code of the world will be 1-1-4-5. More than 80 percent of the world’s population will live in Africa and Asia.
By 2040, 60 percent of Level 4 consumers will live outside the West.
Whether measuring HIV, GDP, mobile phone sales, internet users, or CO2 emissions, a per capita measurement — i.e., a rate per person — will almost always be more meaningful.
Factfulness is recognizing when a lonely number seems impressive
Always look for comparisons. Ideally, divide by something.
80 / 20. 20% is likely more important than the 80% put together.
Look for rates per person when comparing between countries or regions.
CHAPTER SIX THE GENERALIZATION INSTINCT
Everyone automatically categorizes and generalizes all the time.
Misleading generalizations and stereotypes act as a kind of shorthand for the media, providing quick and easy ways to communicate.
The gap instinct divides the world into “us” and “them,” and the generalization instinct makes “us” think of “them” as all the same.
Almost everyone in the world is becoming a consumer. If you suffer from the misconception that most of the world is still too poor to buy anything at all, you risk missing out on the biggest economic opportunity in world history
The challenge is to realize which of our simple categories are misleading — like “developed” and “developing” countries — and replace them with better categories.
One of the best ways to do this is to travel.
Africa is a huge continent of 54 countries and 1 billion people. In Africa we find people living at every level of development.
It makes no sense to talk about “African countries” and “Africa’s problems.”
Be cautious about generalizing from Level 4 experiences to the rest of the world. Especially if it leads you to the conclusion that other people are idiots.
Sweeping generalizations can easily hide behind good intentions.
Factfulness is recognizing when a category is being used in an explanation, and remembering that categories can be misleading.
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.
Look for differences across groups.
Beware of “the majority.” The majority just means more than half. Ask whether it means 51 percent, 99 percent, or something in between.
Beware of vivid examples. Vivid images are easier to recall but they might be the exception rather than the rule.
CHAPTER SEVEN THE DESTINY INSTINCT
He was having a hard time making his clients understand that the most profitable investments were no longer to be found in European capitals boasting medieval castles and cobbled streets, but in the emerging markets of Asia and Africa.
I said that the best places to invest right now were probably those African countries that had just seen decades of rapid improvements in education and child survival.
The destiny instinct is the idea that innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, countries, religions, or cultures. It’s the idea that things are as they are for ineluctable, inescapable reasons: they have always been this way and will never change.
Societies and cultures are not like rocks, unchanging and unchangeable. They move.
Five large African countries — Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, and Egypt — have life expectancies above the world average of 72 years. They are where Sweden was in 1970.
Thirty-five years ago, India was where Mozambique is today. It is fully possible that within 30 years Mozambique will transform itself, as India has done, into a country on Level 2 and a reliable trade partner. Mozambique has a long, beautiful coast on the Indian Ocean, the future center of global trade.
The same destiny instinct also seems to make us take continuing Western progress for granted,
Iran — home in the 1990s to the biggest condom factory in the world, and boasting a compulsory pre-marriage sex education course for both brides and grooms — has a highly educated population with excellent access to an advanced public health-care system.
Exaggerated claims that people from this religion or that religion have bigger families are one example of how people tend to claim that certain values or behaviors are culture-specific, unchanging and unchangeable. It’s just not true. Values change all the time.
Swedish culture changed.
Even changes that seem small and slow add up over time.
The annual increase was absolutely tiny, almost imperceptible. Today a stunning 15 percent of the Earth’s surface is protected, and the number is still climbing.
To control the destiny instinct, stay open to new data and be prepared to keep freshening up your knowledge.
If you are tempted to claim that values are unchanging, try comparing your own with those of your parents, or your grandparents.
Many Swedes think of the United States as having very conservative values. But look at how quickly attitudes to homosexuality have changed.
Some Americans think of Sweden as a socialist country, but values can change. A few decades ago Sweden carried out what might be the most drastic deregulation ever of a public school system
Factfulness is recognizing that many things (including people, countries, religions, and cultures) appear to be constant just because the change is happening slowly, and remembering that even small, slow changes gradually add up to big changes.
Slow change is still change.
Keep track of gradual improvements.
Update your knowledge. Some knowledge goes out of date quickly.
If you want to be reminded of how values have changed, think about your grandparents’ values and how they differ from yours.
Challenge the idea that today’s culture must also have been yesterday’s, and will also be tomorrow’s.
CHAPTER EIGHT THE SINGLE PERSPECTIVE INSTINCT
I have found two main reasons why people often focus on a single perspective when it comes to understanding the world. The obvious one is political ideology, and I will come to that later in this chapter. The other is professional.
When you have valuable expertise, you like to see it put to use. Sometimes an expert will look around for ways in which their hard-won knowledge and skills can be applicable beyond where it’s actually useful.
Though we absolutely need numbers to understand the world, we should be highly skeptical about conclusions derived purely from number crunching.
Medical professionals can become very single-minded about medicine, or even a particular kind of medicine.
Big Pharma companies have been dropping. Most of them are fixated on developing a new, revolutionary, life-prolonging medicine.
Experts in maternal mortality who understand the point about hammers and nails can see that the most valuable intervention for saving the lives of the poorest mothers is not training more local nurses to perform C-sections, or better treatment of severe bleeding or infections, but the availability of transport to the local hospital.
Similarly, educators know that it is often the availability of electricity rather than more textbooks or even more teachers in the classroom that has the most impact on learning.
But ideologues can become just as fixated as experts and activists on their one idea or one solution, with even more harmful outcomes.
And if I were to choose where to live, I would choose based not on ideology but on what a country delivers to its people.
The United States spends more per capita on health care than any other country in the world, but 39 countries have longer life expectancies.
Instead of comparing themselves with extreme socialist regimes, US citizens should be asking why they cannot achieve the same levels of health, for the same cost, as other capitalist countries that have similar resources.
The communist system in Cuba is an example of the danger of getting hooked on a single perspective: the seemingly reasonable but actually bizarre idea that a central government can solve all its people’s problems.
The health-care system in the United States is also suffering from the single-perspective mind-set: the seemingly reasonable but actually bizarre idea that the market can solve all a nation’s problems.
I strongly believe that liberal democracy is the best way to run a country.
Of the ten countries with the fastest economic growth in 2016, nine of them score low on democracy.
Anyone who claims that democracy is a necessity for economic growth and health improvements will risk getting contradicted by reality.
There is no single indicator through which we can measure the progress of a nation. Reality is just more complicated than that.
Factfulness is recognizing that a single perspective can limit your imagination, and remembering that it is better to look at problems from many angles.
Get a toolbox, not a hammer.
Have people who disagree with you test your ideas and find their weaknesses.
Don’t claim expertise beyond your field: be humble about what you don’t know.
If your favorite idea is a hammer, look for colleagues with screwdrivers, wrenches, and tape measures. Be open to ideas from other fields.
The world cannot be understood without numbers, and it cannot be understood with numbers alone.
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. Solve problems on a case-by-case basis.
CHAPTER NINE THE BLAME INSTINCT
The blame instinct is the instinct to find a clear, simple reason for why something bad has happened.
The blame instinct makes us exaggerate the importance of individuals or of particular groups.
This undermines our ability to solve the problem, or prevent it from happening again.
The blame instinct drives us to attribute more power and influence to individuals than they deserve, for bad or good. Political leaders and CEOs in particular often claim they are more powerful than they are. Eg. Mao’s policy. The pope.
We should look at the systems instead of looking for someone to blame when things go wrong.
The unsung heroes of global development: institutions and technology.
Resist the urge to blame the media for lying to you.
Resist blaming experts for focusing too much on their own interests
And it’s almost always more complicated than that. It’s almost always about multiple interacting causes — a system.
Factfulness is recognizing when a scapegoat is being used.
Resist finding a scapegoat.
Look for causes, not villains.
Look for systems, not heroes.
CHAPTER TEN THE URGENCY INSTINCT
When we are afraid and under time pressure and thinking of worst-case scenarios, we tend to make really stupid decisions.
But now that we have eliminated most immediate dangers and are left with more complex and often more abstract problems, the urgency instinct can also lead us astray when it comes to our understanding the world around us.
Climate change is too important for that. It needs systematic analysis, thought-through decisions, incremental actions, and careful evaluation.
Demographic forecasts are amazingly accurate decades into the future because the systems involved — essentially, births and deaths — are quite simple.
But the future is always uncertain to some degree.
But those who care about climate change should stop scaring people with unlikely scenarios.
Let’s instead use that energy to solve the problem by taking action: action driven not by fear and urgency but by data and coolheaded analysis.
When you are called to action, sometimes the most useful action you can take is to improve the data.
Most concerning is the attempt to attract people to the cause by inventing the term “climate refugees.” My best understanding is that the link between climate change and migration is very, very weak.
Crying wolf too many times puts at risk the credibility and reputation of serious climate scientists and the entire movement.
When a problem seems urgent the first thing to do is not to cry wolf, but to organize the data.
Data was absolutely key. And because it will be key in the future too, when there is another outbreak somewhere, it is crucial to protect its credibility and the credibility of those who produce it.
The five that concern me most are the risks of global pandemic, financial collapse, world war, climate change, and extreme poverty.
Factfulness is recognizing when a decision feels urgent and remembering that it rarely
To control the urgency instinct, take small steps.
Take a breath.
It’s rarely now or never and it’s rarely either/or.
Insist on the data. If something is urgent and important, it should be measured.
Beware of fortune-tellers.
Be wary of drastic action. Ask what the side effects will be. Ask how the idea has been tested.
CHAPTER ELEVEN FACTFULNESS IN PRACTICE
We should be teaching our children the basic up-to-date, fact-based framework — life on the four levels and in the four regions.
Most important of all, we should be teaching our children humility and curiosity.
Understand that the world market of the future will be growing primarily in Asia and Africa, not at home.
Factfulness Rules of Thumb