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Note: These are notes I’ve highlighted in the book, that I can go back to for re-reading. This is not a complete summary of the book.
Ten instincts distort our perspective of the world and prevent us from seeing how it actually is.
Think about the world. War, violence, natural disasters, man-made disasters, corruption. Things are bad, and it feels like they are getting worse, right? The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer; and the number of poor just keeps increasing; and we will soon run out of resources unless we do something drastic. At least that’s the picture that most Westerners see in the media and carry around in their heads. I call it the overdramatic worldview. It’s stressful and misleading.
Step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving. Not on every single measure every single year, but as a rule. Though the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress. This is the fact-based worldview.
I want people, when they realize they have been wrong about the world, to feel not embarrassment, but that childlike sense of wonder, inspiration, and curiosity that I remember from the circus, and that I still get every time I discover I have been wrong:
Chapter One: The Gap Instinct
I’m talking about that irresistible temptation we have to divide all kinds of things into two distinct and often conflicting groups, with an imagined gap—a huge chasm of injustice—in between.
The complete world makeover I’ve just shown is not unique to family size and child survival rates. The change looks very similar for pretty much any aspect of human lives. Graphs showing levels of income, or tourism, or democracy, or access to education, health care, or electricity would all tell the same story: that the world used to be divided into two but isn’t any longer.
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
Just 200 years ago, 85 percent of the world population was still on Level 1, in extreme poverty.
Human beings have a strong dramatic instinct toward binary thinking, a basic urge to divide things into two distinct groups, with nothing but an empty gap in between. We love to dichotomize. Good versus bad. Heroes versus villains. Dividing the world into two distinct sides is simple and intuitive, and also dramatic because it implies conflict.
To control the gap instinct, look for the majority.
- 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 or 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 somewhere in between, right where the gap is supposed to be.
- The view from up here. Remember, looking down from above distorts the view. Everything else looks equally short, but it’s not.
Chapter Two: The Negativity Instinct
This chapter is about the negativity instinct: our tendency to notice the bad more than the good
The curve you see above shows how the extreme poverty rate has been falling since 1800. And look at the last 20 years. Extreme poverty dropped faster than ever in world history.
Back in 1800, when Swedes starved to death and British children worked in coal mines, life expectancy was roughly 30 years everywhere in the world. Among all babies who were ever born, roughly half died during their childhood. Most of the other half died between the ages of 50 and 70. So the average was around 30. It doesn’t mean most people lived to be 30. It’s just an average, and with averages we must always remember that there’s a spread.
Let’s start with 16 terrible things that are on their way out, or have even already disappeared. And then, let’s look at 16 wonderful things that have gotten better.
Negativity instinct: 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.
As a possibilist, I see all this progress, and it fills me with conviction and hope that further progress is possible. This is not optimistic. It is having a clear and reasonable idea about how things are. It is having a worldview that is constructive and useful
To control the negativity instinct, expect bad 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 than the overall improvement.
- More news does not equal more suffering. More bad news is sometimes due to better surveillance of suffering, not a worsening world.
- Beware of rosy pasts. People often glorify their early experiences, and nations often glorify their histories.
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 only proven method for curbing population growth is to eradicate extreme poverty and give people better lives, including education and contraceptives.
Many aspects of the world are best represented by curves shaped like an S, or a slide, or a hump, and not by a straight line.
Straight Lines in this chart, money and health go hand in hand.
We can also find straight lines when we compare income levels with education, marriage age, and spending on recreation. More income goes hand in hand with longer average schooling, with women marrying later, and with a greater share of income going toward recreation.
S-Bends: When we compare income with basic necessities like primary-level education or vaccination, we see S-shaped curves. They are low and flat at Level 1, then they rise quickly through Level 2, because above Level 1, countries can afford primary education and vaccination (the most cost-effective health intervention there is) for just about the entire population
Slides, Humps: Dental health, for example, gets worse as people move from Level 1 to Level 2, then improves again on Level 4. This is because people start to eat sweets as soon as they can afford them, but their governments canno
Doubling Lines: As people’s incomes increase, the distance they travel each year keeps doubling. So does the share of their income that they spend on transport. On Level 4, transport is behind one-third of all CO 2 emissions—which also double with income.
Chapter Four: The Fear Instinct
Recognizing when frightening things get our attention, and remembering that these are not necessarily the most risky. Our natural fears of violence, captivity, and contamination make us systematically overestimate these risks.
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
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
Chapter Five: The Size Instinct
In the deepest poverty you should never do anything perfectly. If you do you are stealing resources from where they can be better used.”
It is not doctors and hospital beds that save children’s lives in countries on Levels 1 and 2. Beds and doctors are easy to count and politicians love to inaugurate buildings. But almost all the increased child survival is achieved through preventive measures outside hospitals by local nurses, midwives, and well-educated parents. Especially mothers: the data shows that half the increase in child survival in the world happens because the mothers can read and write. More children now survive because they don’t get ill in the first place. Trained midwives assist their mothers during pregnancy and delivery. Nurses immunize them. They have enough food, their parents keep them warm and clean, people around them wash their hands, and their mothers can read the instructions on that jar of pills. 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.
In this case, the large numbers—total emissions per nation—needed to be divided by the population of each country to give meaningful and comparable measures. Whether measuring HIV, GDP, mobile phone sales, internet users, or CO 2 emissions, a per capita measurement—i.e., a rate per person—will almost always be more meaningful.
To control the size instinct, get things in proportion.
- Compare. Big numbers always look big. 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, especially when comparing between different-sized groups.
Chapter Six: The Generalization Instinct
Everyone automatically categorizes and generalizes all the time. Unconsciously. It is not a question of being prejudiced or enlightened. Categories are absolutely necessary for us to function. They give structure to our thoughts. Imagine if we saw every item and every scenario as truly unique—we would not even have a language to describe the world around us.
The gap instinct divides the world into “us” and “them,” and the generalization instinct makes “us” think of “them” as all the same.
I have to explain that people living in extreme poverty have no hospitals at all. A woman living in extreme poverty gives birth on a mud floor, attended by a midwife with no training who has walked barefoot in the dark.
Question Your Categories It will be helpful to you if you always assume your categories are misleading. Here are five powerful ways to keep questioning your favorite categories:
- look for differences within and similarities across groups;
- beware of “the majority”;
- beware of exceptional examples;
- assume you are not “normal”; and
- beware of generalizing from one group to another.
The mental clumsiness of a generalization like this is often difficult to spot. The chain of logic seems correct. When seemingly impregnable logic is combined with good intentions, it becomes nearly impossible to spot the generalization error.
Chapter Seven: The Destiny Instinct
But the link between religion and the number of babies per woman is often overstated. There is, though, a strong link between income and number of babies per woman
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.
Societies and cultures are in constant movement. Even changes that seem small and slow add up over time: 1 percent growth each year seems slow but it adds up to a doubling in 70 years; 2 percent growth each year means doubling in 35 years; 3 percent growth each year means doubling in 24 years
Chapter Eight: 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. And it is easy to take off down a slippery slope, from one attention-grabbing simple idea to a feeling that this idea beautifully explains, or is the beautiful solution for, lots of other things. All problems have a single cause—something we must always be completely against. Or all problems have a single solution—something we must always be for.
Being always in favor of or always against any particular idea makes you blind to information that doesn’t fit your perspective.
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.
Being intelligent—being good with numbers, or being well educated, or even winning a Nobel Prize—is not a shortcut to global factual knowledge. Experts are experts only within their field.
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. So, people with math skills can get fixated on the numbers. Climate activists argue for solar everywhere. And physicians promote medical treatment where prevention would be better.
In my research, I have needed the data to test my hypotheses, but the hypotheses themselves often emerged from talking to, listening to, and observing people. Though we absolutely need numbers to understand the world, we should be highly skeptical about conclusions derived purely from number crunching.
And of course some of the most valued and important aspects of human development cannot be measured in numbers at all. We can estimate suffering from disease using numbers. We can measure improvements in material living conditions using numbers. But the end goal of economic growth is individual freedom and culture, and these values are difficult to capture with numbers. The numbers will never tell the full story of what life on Earth is all about. The world cannot be understood without numbers. But the world cannot be understood with numbers alone.
The world cannot be understood without numbers, nor through numbers alone. A country cannot function without a government, but the government cannot solve every problem
Chapter Nine: The Blame Instinct
It seems that it comes very naturally for us to decide that when things go wrong, it must be because of some bad individual with bad intentions. We like to believe that things happen because someone wanted them to, that individuals have power and agency: otherwise, the world feels unpredictable, confusing, and frightening.
In fact, resist blaming any one individual or group of individuals for anything. Because the problem is that when we identify the bad guy, we are done thinking. It’s almost always about multiple interacting causes—a system. If you really want to change the world, you have to understand how it actually works and forget about punching anyone in the face.
Look for causes, not villains. When something goes wrong don’t look for an individual 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 something good, ask whether the outcome might have happened anyway, even if that individual had done nothing. Give the system some credit
Chapter Ten: The Urgency Instinct
Fear plus urgency make for stupid, drastic decisions with unpredictable side effects. Climate change is too important for that. It needs systematic analysis, thought-through decisions, incremental actions, and careful evaluation.
Exaggeration undermines the credibility of well-founded data: Exaggeration, once discovered, makes people tune out altogether.
Some aspects of the future are easier to predict than others. Weather forecasts are rarely accurate more than a week into the future. Forecasting a country’s economic growth and unemployment rates is also surprisingly difficult. In contrast, demographic forecasts are amazingly accurate decades into the future because the systems involved—essentially, births and deaths—are quite simple. Children are born, grow up, have more children, and then die. Each individual cycle takes roughly 70 years.
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. Data must be used to tell the truth, not to call to action, no matter how noble the intentions.
Urgency is one of the worst distorters of our worldview. We stop thinking, give in to our instincts, and make bad decisions.
The five that concern me most are the risks of global pandemic, financial collapse, world war, climate change, and extreme poverty. Why is it these problems that cause me most concern? Because they are quite likely to happen: the first three have all happened before and the other two are happening now; and because each has the potential to cause mass suffering either directly or indirectly by pausing human progress for many years or decades. If we fail here, nothing else will work.
I have done all I can to establish relations with people in other countries and cultures. It’s not only fun but also necessary to strengthen the global safety net against the terrible human instinct for violent retaliation and the worst evil of all: war. We need Olympic Games, international trade, educational exchange programs, free internet—anything that lets us meet across ethnic groups and country borders.
These five big risks are where we must direct our energy. These risks need to be approached with cool heads and robust, independent data. These risks require global collaboration and global resourcing. These risks should be approached through baby steps and constant evaluation, not through drastic actions. These risks should be respected by all activists, in all causes. These risks are too big for us to cry wolf.
Chapter Eleven: Factfulness in Practice
In Sweden we don’t have volcanoes, but we have geologists who are paid out of public funds to study volcanoes. Even regular schoolkids learn about volcanoes. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, astronomers learn about stars that can be seen only in the Southern Hemisphere. And at school, children learn about these stars. Why? Because they are part of the world.
- We should be teaching our children that there are countries on all different levels of health and income and that most are in the middle.
- .. them about their own country’s socioeconomic position in relation to the rest of the world, and how that is changing.
- .. how their own country progressed through the income levels to get to where it is now, and how to use that knowledge to understand what life is like in other countries today.
- that people are moving up the income levels and most things are improving for them.
- what life was really like in the past so that they do not mistakenly think that no progress has been made.
- how to hold the two ideas at the same time: that bad things are going on in the world, but that many things are getting better.
- that cultural and religious stereotypes are useless for understanding the world.
- how to consume the news and spot the drama without becoming stressed or hopeless.
- the common ways that people will try to trick them with numbers.
- that the world will keep changing and they will have to update their knowledge and worldview throughout their lives.
I think it will not be long before businesses care more about fact mistakes than they do about speling miskates, and will want to ensure their employees and clients are updating their worldview on a regular basis.
Could everyone have a fact-based worldview one day? Big change is always difficult to imagine. But it is definitely possible, and I think it will happen, for two simple reasons.
- First: a fact-based worldview is more useful for navigating life, just like an accurate GPS is more useful for finding your way in the city.
- Second, and probably more important: a fact-based worldview is more comfortable. It creates less stress and hopelessness than the dramatic worldview, simply because the dramatic one is so negative and terrifying.
- Gap Instinct – Tendency to divide things into two groups with an imagined gap.
- Negativity Instinct – Tendency to notice the bad more than the good.
- Straight Line Instinct – Tendency to assume that a line will continue straight, albet rare.
- Fear Instinct – Tendency to pay more attention to frightening things.
- Size Instinct – Tendency to misjudge the size of things
- Generalization Instinct – Tendency to group things together that are very different.
- Destiny Instinct – The idea that innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, (religions, cultures) that things are as they are because of inescapable reasons.
- Single Perspective – Tendency to focus on a single cause to understand the world
- Blame Instinct – Tendency to find a simple reason/blame for why bad has happened.
- Urgency Instinct – Tendency to take immediate action in the face of perceived imminent danger.