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Factfulness: Believe It Or Not But the World is Drastically Improving

Updated: Jul 24, 2018

Source: YouGov/Max Roser/Our World in Data

Hans Rosling’s main premise of his book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think is that the world is getting better despite the majority of people thinking that it has gotten worse. Hans has went around the world giving speeches on global health, he has taught in many classrooms on global health, and he has lots of experience as a practicing doctor in many countries around the world. No matter which country he goes, he always finds the same result when he tests his audiences knowledge on whether or not they think the world has gotten better or worse. Undoubtedly the world has improved a lot over the last 100 years.

Hans gives a quiz that measures the progress that humanity has made over the last 100 years and every country that I remember him testing scored below 33%. And he is testing a lot of people including business professionals, graduate students, and politicians across the world. There are 3 choices for each question so that means that if everyone taking the quiz didn’t give any thought to each question and just randomly guessed an answer, they would perform better just based on probability alone since by randomly guessing a choice there is a 33% chance of getting each question correct. The majority score below 33% on the test.

You can take the Gapminder test yourself and test your own knowledge on how much you think you know about the progress in the world by following this link:

Hans divides his book up into eleven chapters with ten of those chapters having an instinct or bias on why we are getting the facts wrong and having a misconception about world progress. Each chapter can be helpful since it serves as a type of mental model to think better and ignore certain biases that stray our thinking in the wrong direction. For example, by looking at the enormous growth in population over the last 200 years one might think that the world is doomed to run out of essential resources such as water, food, energy, etc. over the next 100 years.

This is because in the year 1800 there were about 1 billion people on this planet. In 1900, there were 1.6 billion people on this planet and today there are 7 billion people. The population increased by more than 5 billion people over the last 100 years. If you continue to use this same growth rate over the next 100 years then you will have an enormous amount of people, but the idea that Hans is trying to teach in his chapter “The Straight Line Instinct” is that straight lines tend to not go on forever. They eventually taper off and the growth rate decreases.

This tapering off is known as diminishing returns. It’s the same idea as if a baby grew 7 inches in a year and you used that same growth rate to project the baby’s height into the future. We know that when a baby grows really fast over a short period that the growth rate eventually diminishes or decreases but when applied to other areas where we don’t have so much experience, we tend to drastically overestimate growth rates.

4 Different Income Levels:

Most people divide the world into two categories: developing and developed. In Han’s view the world has progressed a lot from when these two categories were first drawn up. Hans separates the world into 4 categories based on 4 different levels of income.

They are as follows:

Level 1: $0–2 a day

Level 2: $3–8 a day

Level 3: $9 to $32 a day

Level 4: More than $32 a day

As you can see from the image above, there are drastic differences in standard of living between each level.

Level 1: People on this level have no shoes to walk with so they travel everywhere by foot. People on this income level have to walk about an hour just to get water because the well is far away. They are mostly farmers and only have a small amount of food each day to eat.

Level 2: People on this level have a bike so it takes them only 30 minutes to get water from the water well. They have shoes and a small amount of electricity.

Level 3: People on this level have a motorcycle and enough income to have savings which can provide healthcare if they get into a motorcycle accident. The problem is that this money is mostly saved up for their kids’ education and if they get into a motorcycle accident then they will have no money left for the kid’s education. The water is much more accessible on this level as well so a far commute isn’t nearly as common as it is on levels 1 and 2.

Level 4: People on level 4 have access to a car and have clean water in their homes. They also have reliable electricity which allows the kids to do their homework at night with a light bulb. They also have a stove to cook food and a refrigerator to store food.

Follow the link below to get a much better idea of how people are living on each different level of income:

Child Mortality Rate:

The child mortality rate is the number one indicator that Hans looks at to measure the progress a country has made. This rate measures the number of deaths of children under the age of 1 per 1,000 live births. This rate is the number one indicator of progress because children are so fragile and need a lot of care. There are a lot of ways that they can die. So many people care about children also since they are the future of a country. If the child mortality rate is low for a country then that is a really good sign, but if it is high then that it is bad sign for the country. Here is Han’s on the child mortality rate from his book:

“When I was born in 1948, women on average gave birth to 5 children each. After 1965, the number had started dropping like it never has before. Over the last 50 years it dropped all the way to the amazingly low world average of just below 2.5.”

It is counter intuitive at first glance but the more income a country earns, the less children that country has. One reason why poor countries have so many kids is because they need a lot of kids to help with chores and other forms of manual labor around the house. More specifically, they need the extra help on the farm. Also, when a country is poor the probability of their children dying before the age of 5 is higher so they need to have more children to compensate for the risk of some of them dying early. As a country progresses their standard of living and they move up the income level the child mortality rate starts to drop and the amount of kids each family has falls to an average of around 2 children since they can reasonably estimate that both children will make it past the age of 5 and more towards the average lifespan.

I mentioned before one instinct or bias that Hans discuses in his book that leads us to have misconceptions about reality. That instinct was the “Straight Line Instinct” and it is when we assume that a straight line is going to continue forever even though straight lines very rarely do in real life. The straight line instinct and the 9 other instincts mentioned below are what Hans believes are the main reasons that so many people in the world today aren’t aware of the enormous economic progress that has been achieved.

The Gap Instinct — This misconception is based on the idea that the majority of the world thinks that the world is divided into just 2 groups, the developed and the developing. As I wrote before from Hans’s book, there are 4 different levels of income and dividing the world into just two groups — developed and developing — isn’t accurate anymore because the majority of the world isn’t poor anymore or “developing”. They are much closer to developed than developing. Their infrastructure is strong, their child mortality rate is low, and they have access to basic life necessities like food, water, clothes, and electricity.

The Negativity Instinct — This stems from our instinct to notice the bad more than the good.

The Fear Instinct — Hans uses the urge of the media to grab our attention by using our fear instinct to describe this misconception. Think about when you pick up a newspaper or watch the news on TV? Do you see more good news or bad news? You see more bad news and that is because bad news sells much more since our fear instinct drives our attention there because we react to negative news a lot more than good news. This likely springs from our ancestors when we weren’t safe in our homes but were in the middle of the jungle surrounded by creatures who were much stronger, faster, and aggressive than us. If we didn’t react to bad news quick enough then we were killed. Despite our evolution, we still have these instincts and the media love to take advantage of the fear instinct.

The Size Instinct — This has to do with misjudging the size of things or getting something out of proportion. When we see a large number we tend to overreact. A way to get around this one is compare or divide. Compare numbers that are on their own to previous numbers in the past or divide that number and look at it as a ratio or percentage. For example the media may report that 4.2 million babies died last year. This sounds horrible. 4.2 million is a very large number. But what if 4.2 million babies died out of 200 million newborn babies in the world? That is a very low mortality rate and all of a sudden it doesn’t seem so bad. Taking this 4.2 million and comparing it to history will show that the number of babies dying per year has decreased by more than half. So see what Hans did in this chapter? He a took a large number standing on its own (4.2 million newborn babies who died) and compared it with the number of new born babies who died in the previous decades and he looked to see if there was improvement, and then he also divided that number to turn it into a ratio to get a better understanding of what it was saying.

The Generalization Instinct — This has to do with our desire to categorize and generalize everything. This happens unconsciously and has been adapted from our ancestors very much so just like the fear instinct. If you needed to survive 100,000 years ago you needed to make a very quick generalization on whether or not you can trust somebody. Categorizing based on small actions and looks helped fill this need. You couldn’t ask them to give them their resume or Google them back then.

The Destiny Instinct — This has to do with the false idea that countries or people can’t change. Since a certain party or group of people were this way in the past, they must be “destined” to be like this in the future.

The Single Perspective Instinct — This is very similar to an important mental model known as “man with a hammer” syndrome. When the only tool that someone has is a hammer, they will try and solve everything with just that one tool. It is best to look at a problem from many different perspectives. An example that Hans uses in his book is when the prime minister of Mozambique told Hans that his country was making economic progress but the data wasn’t necessarily showing this. But what the prime minister was doing was he was looking at people’s feet during the customary marches on May first every year. He noticed that the shoes people were wearing were improving and this showed progress. He also noticed the construction going on. If this prime minister only used a data focused perspective he wouldn’t have gotten a full picture of the economic progress that was occurring. Instead he had to use multiple perspectives.

The Blame Instinct — This is our quick habit to find a scapegoat and blame someone as opposed to figuring out what can be done to solve the problem instead.

The Urgency Instinct — Have you ever went to buy something online and you noticed that there was a timer at the top of the page? I have for sure and if you have then guess what? You are familiar with the urgency instinct. The urgency instinct has to do with making us feel rushed. When we are rushed we feel the need to act quickly and this mostly leads to poor decisions.

So what can we do to get around each of these instincts? Well Hans gives us a brief summary of ways to handle each instinct in order for us to develop a better understanding of the world.

Gap Instinct — Look for the majority

Negativity Instinct — Expect bad news

Straight Line Instinct — Lines usually taper off and growth rates decrease

Fear Instinct — Calculate the risks

Size Instinct —Get things in proportion

Generalization Instinct — Question the categories

Destiny Instinct — Even if there is a small amount of change, it is still change

Single Instinct — Get a toolbox or in other words, develop other mental models to help you view the situation through multiple perspectives

Blame Instinct — Resist pointing your finger

Urgency Instinct — Take small steps

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