Factfulness By Hans Rosling – Book Summary

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Factfulness is Swedish physician Hans Rosling’s posthumously published book, co-authored by his son and his daughter-in-law, Ola, and Anna Rosling. His interest in health– in particular developmental issues – is exhibited via his numerous TED Talks and Factfulness.

An international bestseller, Factfulness dwells into the pessimistic nature of humans. Due to several factors, such as cultural, societal, and economical influences, people tend to imagine the world worse than it actually is. Often, these factors bring about a notion about how bad the world ‘really’ is. The book primarily aims at explaining that this mentality of humans is not an act of realism, instead it is of pessimism.

Hans Rosling, before his unfortunate passing, conducted an experiment to confirm his hypothesis. Per his hypothesis of the masking of realism by a notion of pessimism, Rosling’s test subjects responded much like the expectation. They genuinely believed that the world was in a worse condition than it actually is – in terms of the economy, lifestyle, and safety.

The author soon established that the test subjects did not possess these opinions due to experience, rather due to misinformation. As predicted, the information delivered to the test subjects were from a variety of sources. Their sources had procured their information from some other means. This spread of information is further contaminated as it is circulated. This forms the chain of misinformation which is then ingrained into the instincts of the people.

The book contains a list of ten instincts of humans which prevents people from adopting a realistic view of the world. The ten instincts, which we are habituated to, cause us to view the world under a darker light. He refers to these instincts as “the dramatic instincts” and mentions that much like an uncontrolled appetite is unhealthy, an excess of drama intake is also detrimental. The authors suggest shedding these instincts to get a truer picture of the world.

The Dramatic Instincts – Lessons

1. The Gap Instinct

The Gap Instinct of a person compels them to separate things into groups – often conflicting – and then visualizing a gap between them. An ideal representation of this instinct is the division of people into economical (income) groups and segregating countries into the bracket of developed and developing.

The information we generally are served with says that there is a vast difference in the economy and lifestyle of the people living in the countries in the West and those in the East. However, this notion is at least two decades old. The countries in the West were earlier to develop themselves, but the Eastern nations are not lagging in their efforts.

The low-income countries, which are often referred to as poor or underdeveloped countries, have the amenities essential for the survival of a person. The idea of the people living in unhygienic conditions, deprived of food and shelter is only that – an idea. It may not be necessarily true since people do live there and have lived there for generations. If the conditions were inhabitable for a human, none of them would have survived, much less procreate.

The Gap Instinct wants us to view the world in extremities. We tend to assume that a majority of people live a luxurious life and a small percentage are equipped with nothing. Although, the reality is that both ends of the spectrum are scarce and most people exist in the middle bracket of the division. A regular person lives an average life, just like a normal nation is a middle-income country instead of ‘developed’ or ‘underdeveloped’.

2. The Negative Instinct

The Negative Instinct is our naturally selective response to the bad in the world. The news tends to focus on the negatives of the world, and we accept the same. Good news is given a much smaller air-time and the memory of the same can be fleeting.

Rosling takes the instance of a premature baby in an incubator. The baby’s life is certainly hanging in the balance since it was born prematurely and has to complete its development in an artificial environment. However, the condition of the baby can be improving every minute. Its parents, though, will focus on the fact that it is in an incubator instead of the realizing that it is likely to come out stronger than before.

By narrating this instance, Rosling tries to say that the black-and-white view of the world is redundant. Most situations exist in a grey area and the human mind tends to attribute a nature of good or bad to it. The world, however bad it may seem present, has improved since ancient times – in terms of equality, economy, and standards of living. Rosling, via this instinct, expresses that something may be better and bad simultaneously.

To get rid of this instinct, one must take a minute to accurately process the bad news which was just delivered. In that minute, think if the bad news being reported can improve in the future and whether steps are already being taken to recuperate. Often news channels report bad news in elaborate ways, which can impact one’s psyche. If someone feels like they cannot take more of the bad news, they must try to recollect good news they must have brushed off.

3. The Straight-Line Instinct

The Straight-Line Instinct suggests a line going upwards will continue to do so forever. The example was taken by Rosling to explain this is the world population. It is a matter of concern due to the pattern in which it increases. However, Rosling suggests that it may not necessarily keep increasing with the same potential in the future. Hence, the line of the world population may not always rise linearly.

The relatable aspect of this instinct is the need for people to find patterns and expect that the patterns will continue to prevail even in the foreseeable future. But this is rarely the case. Instances can be linearly accelerating, deaccelerating, curved, or simply random. One cannot hold the current pattern as a baseline and make predictions for the future – which will most likely cause unwarranted stress and tension.

4. The Fear Instinct

The Fear Instinct is deeply rooted in the human psyche. This instinct of ours, which does give us the ability to detect an attack and defend ourselves, sometimes also holds us back. It is our tendency to be afraid of an outcome even before the action has been performed. The attention we pay to a chance of a negative outcome restricts us from taking the opportunity.

This applies to every aspect of life. One may let go of challenging tasks because of the fear of failing. One may steer away from having a social life because the world is portrayed to be dangerous – perhaps much more than it is in reality. To forego the negative implications of this instinct, one must accurately estimate the gravity of the ‘dangerous’ situation and ensure that it is a fabrication of their mind. The filter of this instinct makes us want to view the world in a much severe and extreme fashion.  

5. The Size Instinct

Our habit of overestimating others and underestimating ourselves stems from the Size Instinct. We tend to blow situations out of proportion and believe it to be true. With the news reporting, high numbers of crime compel us to overestimate the spread of crime. The same news also lets us underestimate the good in the world.

People must understand that everything is not as advanced as one must presume nor as underprivileged as perceived. The two extremities of size are rare in occurrence and most instances lie in the middle. The two tools which can stop us from inaccurately estimating something are comparison and division.

A number by itself can be misleading. Rosling states that a number must never be left alone and must always be accompanied by a suitable unit of a measure. A smaller denomination can be too little for someone and too much for a person possessing another perspective. By comparing the given statistics to related information (in the same units), the measurement of a unit will be accurate.

6. The Generalisation Instinct

The Generalisation Instinct holds the power to impact conclusions in real life. It is our tendency to group various things or people together – which may be extremely different. It is a common mistake and leads to conflicts between people. The people being grouped may get offended about being deemed similar to the others in the group despite being much different. The generalization may speed up our conclusions, but these conclusions may be incorrect.

This instinct is powered by highlighting an unusual example. The unusual example, which occurs rarely, is interpreted as being a widespread norm and works as the representative for a section. To stop generalizing, one needs to pay minute attention to the differences amongst the group. The generalized group will now fragment into smaller sections which will be more accurate.

Consider the relevance of the groups. People tend to generalize before they can wonder if the generalization is even relevant to their life. If it is not, it must be eliminated. If it is relevant, and many people are taking offense to it, similarities must be found between groups to be more correct.

Another way to get rid of this instinct is to start understanding that most people are sensible, and it is unfair to hold a sour apple as a way to judge the entire community. A majority – that is, more than half of the respective population – have a positive outlook and behave normally. The actions of one person do not dictate the characters of the others.

7. The Destiny Instinct

The notion that the destinies of people are predetermined by their culture and the countries they hail from is called the Destiny Instinct. It is a limiting factor to our self and a means of underestimating others. Via the Destiny Instinct, people have restricted to the thought that their future relies entirely on the place they inhabit. It forces people to think that their situation is invincible and inescapable. If someone has been trained to believe that their situation would never improve, they tend to never try.

However, by escaping this ‘inescapable’ situation, one can attain their goals. A person must also accept that change is not rapid. Civilizations were not formed overnight, nor will they fall overnight. Everything took its sweet time to develop and enhance, which is why ‘change’ cannot be seen. But if someone compares the current society to the society in the 1970s, they will observe a significant change. If the current world is compared to the world three years ago, there will be little to no change. This signifies that the evolution of the world is slow-paced and will manifest itself with time.

Since change is detected as a collective unit, we must take small steps to contribute to the upcoming wave of evolution. Gradual improvements in various aspects of our life will make us a better person with time. Being up to date, informed, and knowledgeable ensures that as the times change, so will you. Soon, the deemed ‘inescapable’ situation will not impose our destiny, rather we will.

8. The Single Perspective Instinct

The Single Perspective Instinct gives us a two-dimensional view of the world. Owing to this instinct, we tend to consider things that conform to our likes. We will have a strong bias against opinions that do not match ours and will reject them.

The instinct also limits our ability to imagine since we never wish to escape our comfort zone. The information which seems confusing or contradictory to our view is deemed wrong and overlooked. Having a single perspective hides several aspects of the world from us. Unless we get acquainted with new things, we cannot know whether we like it or not.

A way to shed this instinct is to befriend people with contradictory views. Most friendships are based on similarities, but friendships based on differences can introduce a person to an entire arena of perceptions. When such friendships form, a person must stop looking for evidence proving their views right and must try to comprehend the other perspective. Accepting that their views can be wrong is an important part of improving oneself.

When in groups, this instinct is a limitation to the strength of the ensemble. Groups promote debates and discussions while harboring this notion makes it a dictatorship. This drags the morale as well as the efficiency of the team down.

9. The Blame Instinct

Rosling attributes the existence of this instinct to the tendency of people to find out the reason behind a failure. However, it is also human nature to play the infamous ‘blame game’. To save ourselves from trouble (with our conscience usually), we tend to burden someone else with the blame for the failure.

The urge to find a guilty party is not a lesson we need to imbibe. By blaming someone else, we let go of the opportunity to grow and improve. In the future, if we are faced with a similar situation, we are more likely to commit the same mistake since the first instance was not corrected. Instead of focusing our energy to find someone to take the blame, we must find a way to rectify the situation.

The blame and credit system must be improved. In case of a failure, the mistakes must be realized and not repeated. In case of success, due credit must be given to the deserving individuals. Sometimes, the situation is beyond people and a flaw in the system leading to a failure. In such cases, the finger-pointing must be eliminated, and work must be done on the system.

10. The Urgency Instinct

The Urgency Instinct puts us in a constant state of emergency. The compulsive need for people to treat every situation as critical is evidence of this instinct. In such a situation, all the other instincts are heightened, and a collective mess is generated.

Since most of us are not in imminent danger (as compared to ancient times), we are unable to understand what to categorize as danger and what to not. Due to this confusion, we start treating every situation as an emergency. Since the modern-day problems are much more abstract – due to the oblivion of the conclusion – we cannot accurately determine the gravity of the situation.

This instinct may be more deeply rooted in the human psyche than the others; yet, it is an undesirable trait. To keep these instincts in control, one must accomplish power over their mind. Before our brain switches to the emergency mode and starts to panic, we must calm down and review the situation – this time, looking for answers. Taking dramatic steps during this time is unwise since there is a high probability of guilt when the situation stabilizes.

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