Categories: Mathematics, Psychology
Author: Hans Rosling
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Published: 4/3/2018
When asked simple questions about global trends—what percentage of the world’s population live in poverty; why the world’s population is increasing; how many girls finish school—we systematically get the answers wrong. So wrong that a chimpanzee choosing answers at random will consistently outguess teachers, journalists, Nobel laureates, and investment bankers.

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think

Key Insights

Hans Rosling worked his whole life to reveal global truths. Throughout his upbringing, he was taught to believe that the world was going downhill.

But after studying the world and interviewing its people, he discovered that most think that the state of the world is much direr than it actually is.

Furthermore, he discovered that the belief was based on one single problem we have as humans and that is our overpowering cynical perspectives.

Rosling believed that humans have a hard time forgetting their long-thought cynical beliefs than accepting new information that combats it.

“Forming your worldview by relying on the media would be like forming your view about me by looking only at a picture of my foot.”- Hans Rosling

And because of that, in his book, “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World - and Why Things Are Better Than You Think,” Rosling proposes that a fact-based outlook on life is the solution to the problems we are facing.

Key Points

  • The Gap Instinct

From the beginning of time, jumping to conclusions has been a survival tactic. You can think of it as a “better safe than sorry” method.

Even today, you can see this behavior in social interactions like gossip between friends or coworkers.

As we continue to evolve, and science tries to prove things through fact to us, we continue to rely on this old habit of assumption.

And because of this, we are using information and data to scare ourselves, rather than to heal or understand.

The gap instinct is a voice inside our heads that separates the world and all of its information into black and white, male and female, good and bad, etc. without ever looking at the gray spots or the in-betweens.

One of the biggest examples of this in our society is rich versus poor.

75% of people actually fall into the middle-class according to their income.

So, the idea of developing nations being poor is not as true as we like to think.

Low-income countries and areas are in existence. But they only make up 9% of the world.

That means that a total of 91% are middle-class or higher.

Rosling encourages looking at income status in levels:

  • Level 1 - People living in extreme poverty making less than $1 a day.
  • Level 2 - People making between $2-$8 a day.
  • Level 3 - People making between $9-$32 a day.
  • Level 4 - People making $32 or more a day.

Most people live somewhere between level 2 and 3. Level 4 would be people who are extremely wealthy.

In order to eliminate our gap instinct we need to:

  • Stop Comparing Averages
  • Stop Comparing Extremes
  • Stop Idolizing Level 4

A lot of us cannot even understand level 1 poverty. And that’s because we aren’t living it. That is why we create our own dramatic image of it, just like we do with level 4.

If we looked at it with a “factfulness” approach, we would start to understand the gray areas of wealth.

  • The Negativity Instinct

Rosling spent time traveling and interviewing people around the world. What he discovered was that 50% of the people he talked to believed that the world was going downhill.

“Every group of people I ask thinks the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless—in short, more dramatic—than it really is.”- Hans Rosling

A big reason for this is because we tend to focus on the negatives rather than the positives such as technological advancements.

Even though extreme poverty is at an all-time low at 9%, we still hold onto the images of starving unclean children with prominent ribcages.

But we must remember that even though we focus on the bad, that doesn’t mean that the good isn’t there. We just aren’t recognizing it!

Free press gives us more horrible news than we have ever had. We are flooded with horrific images and stories on a daily basis. Because of this, we develop a view of how things should be instead of understanding the facts of the situation.

This form of thinking is not so much thinking but rather feeling. It is emotion-based, not fact-based.

The truth is the world isn’t terrible. And in order to understand that, this is the method we must take:

  • See the world as both bad and better. Not just one or the other.
  • Understand bad news happens, but when it does ask yourself if any good can come of it.
  • Don’t ignore historical facts and data.
  • Don’t focus on the temporary slumps, see the overall picture.

Things may look bad at certain points in time, but they will get better.

  • The Straight Line Instinct

We tend to think that data about the world moves in straight lines on a chart showing both growth and decline.

A good example of this is the population chart which allows us to think that we will be so overpopulated one day that there won’t be enough space for people to live and breathe. That is because all we see is the line going up on the chart.

However, that thought-process and pattern don’t make much sense.

“Cultures, nations, religions, and people are not rocks. They are in constant transformation.”- Hans Rosling

Think of a person’s growth chart. At the beginning children spike growing a couple of inches or more a year. However, when they reach a certain age they start to plateau.

We can also look at history for some input into the straight line instinct. In regards to overpopulation, there was a spike of births near the time of WWII. It was a natural response to the trauma and human loss that was being endured at that difficult time.

Nowadays, most families have an average of two children. Some families may have more and some may have none at all.

Curves are a better way to accurately depict what is happening in the world, rather than focusing on the standardized straight line we are accustomed to.

Curves can take different shapes during different times, so it more accurately showcases the highs, lows, and variations of dips in life.

  • The Fear Instinct

Fear tricks are mind to see things inaccurately.

“There’s no room for facts when our minds are occupied by fear.”- Hans Rosling

For example, when a hurricane hits a poor country we immediately think of all the poor children suffering and the initial tragedy that has occurred. But, we often fail to see how those children and benefiting from foreign aid and the value of the lessons of preparedness they are learning from the natural disaster.

Deaths from natural disasters have actually decreased since the 1930s because people have come to expect them and prepare for them.

Here are some statistics:

  • Natural disasters account for 0.1% of all deaths.
  • Plan crashes account for 0.001% of all deaths.
  • Murders account for 0.7% of all deaths.
  • Terrorism accounts for 0.05% of all deaths.
  • Nuclear leaks account for 0% of all deaths.

To combat our fear instinct, we need to:

  • Understand fear versus actual danger.
  • Understand your exposure to actual danger.
  • Breathe before making important decisions to ward off panic and impulsive decisions.

In 2016, approximately 4.2 million babies died. This sounds like an absolutely horrible fact. But, we must look at the big picture. In 1950, this number was 14.4 million. Now, we can begin to see that the problem is being solved and things are getting better!

“The world cannot be understood without numbers. But the world cannot be understood with numbers alone.”- Hans Rosling

To understand the world’s problems more, we must:

  • Think about context when thinking about statistics.
  • Apply the 80/20 rule by finding the largest numbers on the list and then getting rid of the rest. Don’t look at the lows.
  • Separate the data into small groups, rather than one big group.


  • The Generalization Instinct

During Rosling’s travels, he encountered a group of medical students who passed judgment on the unpainted walls of a hospital in Uganda. They used a generalized stereotype that the people were too poor to paint the wall.

However, they came to find out that the walls were not painted as a way to deter wealthy patients from wasting their time with high-demands while they were trying to help more impoverished families.

Assumptions like these lead us to think that we are masters in whatever topic we are judging. These are often called blanket assumptions. And these assumptions stop us from thinking about the variations within communities.

In order to eliminate blanket assumptions in your life, here are some tips:

  • Travel the world.
  • Find variations within groups.
  • Beware of the word “majority.”
  • Also, beware of exceptions.
  • Understand that your reality is not the baseline for others.
  • Don’t generalize communities, groups, teams, etc.
  • You are not an expert. Do not assume everyone else is stupider than you.


  • The Destiny Instinct

During his travels, Rosling gave an investment talk in Nigeria about the different opportunities available. After his talk, a listener came over to him to tell him that Nigeria would never modernize because it was “their culture.”

This listener thought he fully understood the destiny of the country and completely disregarded the possibility of change.

Oftentimes, as humans we blame destiny. But, here are some ways to eliminate that from your mind:

  • Take note of small and gradual improvements.
  • Be up-to-date with your knowledge.
  • Have conversations with older generations to understand how much things have changed.
  • Look for examples of cultural change in your world.


  • The Single Perspective Instinct

We must always search for the weakness in assumptions in order to get to the true facts of the matter.

We cannot think of the world in an all-or-nothing perspective.

For example, we cannot compare the US educational system with that of countries much different than ours, such as Cuba. These two places are vastly different for a number of factors.

To fight this tendency to view things from a single perspective, we must:

  • Look at every idea’s weaknesses to expose the truth.
  • Admit that you don’t know everything and neither do experts in the field.
  • Understand you cannot use one single analytical tool for every situation or idea you encounter.
  • Understand numbers, but also understand that there are people behind those stats.
  • Avoid simple explanations.


  • The Blame Instinct

We often place blame on things because it’s convenient for us. As humans, we like to know that certain factors are responsible for certain situations and ideas. But by doing that, we are missing a lot of the multiple factors that may be accountable for the situation.

For example, a plane crash happens and we blame it on the pilot who had a drink before the flight. Of course, the pilot should be held responsible for his poor choice. However, we also must look at the training the pilot had and the regulations that did or do not stop him from taking a drink.

We oftentimes glorify leaders for being involved in decision-making, even if they were not the lead-thinker in that specific event.

To negate the blame instinct, we must:

  • Understand how we have fallen into scapegoating.
  • Find causes rather than seeking enemies.
  • Find systems rather than seeking heroes.


  • The Urgency Instinct

Most processes happen over a long period of time. That is why the all-or-nothing and the now-or-never approaches to life are dangerous. Life is not usually made up of leaps, rather it is made up of a gradual uphill.

In order to fight the urgency instinct we all have, we must:

  • Move in small steps.
  • Take the time to breathe.
  • Understand that data is principal.
  • Forget the idea of destiny.
  • Be wary of sudden actions.

The Main Take-Away:

Rosling encourages a “factfulness” life approach which includes:

  • Educating children properly by teaching them how to have a comparative perspective, an open mind, and the ability to process the news.
  • Never underestimating reliable data.
  • Never expecting media to change.



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