If you’ve turned on a TV or read a newspaper in the last two decades or so, you’d have a pretty grim picture of the world. Terrorism. Extreme poverty. Deadly epidemics. And it’s getting worse all the time. But this view is completely wrong. Not only are things much better than we think—they’re better than they’ve ever been.
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—And Why Things Are Better Than You Think explores our misconceptions about the world by identifying ten instincts that mistakenly lead us to embrace an over-dramatic, stereotyped, inflexible, and unduly pessimistic view of the world.
For each instinct, the book explores real-world examples of how they manifest, why we believe in them, their harmful impact, and how we can apply factfulness to overcome them. At the end of this summary, we hope you’ll have swapped out your dramatic worldview for a factful one: informed by data, relentlessly eager to absorb new information, and always questioning conventional wisdom.
The Gap Instinct
This is our tendency to divide the world into binary groups (like rich vs. poor countries, developed world vs. undeveloped world). In reality, there is a vast and highly differentiated middle-class of countries, which is where most of the world’s population lives. The Gap Instinct makes us see the world as being more fractured than it really is and inhibits international collaboration. To overcome the Gap Instinct, avoid comparing simple averages, don’t draw too much from extreme examples of wealth or poverty, and check how your own biases might be leading you to false conclusions.
The Negativity Instinct
This is the belief that the world is bad and getting worse. The instinct is false—the world is safer and richer than it’s ever been and it’s improving all the time. When we buy into the Negativity Instinct, we come to either embrace radical and drastic solutions or give in to hopelessness and despair (the latter of which encourages inaction). To avoid this, learn to expect disproportionately bad news, accept that things can be both objectively bad and still improving, and sharpen your knowledge of the past to gain a better perspective on the present.
The Straight Line Instinct
This is when we wrongly believe that trends will continue at the same rate and in the same direction forever. It results in both unnecessary panic (for example, about the sustainability of the world’s population) and the ignoring of problems that do require attention (like not helping impoverished people out of fear of contributing to population growth). To beat the instinct, increase your basic quantitative knowledge: not all statistical curves are straight lines, and you might only be seeing one small part of a larger trend.
The Fear Instinct
This is our instinct to greatly overstate the likelihood of harm coming to us, often from terrorism, war, or disease. It leads to irrationality, paranoia, and dangerous overreaction. To steer clear of this fearful mindset, remember that fear should be a function of both risk...
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The gap instinct is the tendency to divide the world into binary groups, with vast chasms between the two. Think of the simple categories we hear all the time when we discuss global economic development or worldwide standards of living. Rich vs. poor. The developed world and the undeveloped world. The West and “the rest.”
We are deeply conditioned to see the world this way. Yet the data shows that these gaps don’t really exist. There is instead a vast middle income level separating extremes of wealth and poverty. As we’ll see, extreme poverty is rapidly declining in all corners of the globe. In fact, 5 billion of the world’s roughly 7 billion people now live in middle-income countries.
What do we mean by “middle-income countries?” Well, first we should revise our whole framework of “developing countries,” and “developed countries.” It’s more useful and accurate to think of countries as being along a range of income levels.
The negativity instinct is the tendency to believe that the world is bad and getting worse. You might fret about the looming threat of global warning, the frequency of terrorist and shooting attacks, and the ever-uncertain condition of the economy.
A factful worldview, however, demonstrates that this is not the case. Across a variety of standard of living measurements, the state of the world is better than it’s ever been.
Extreme poverty (Level 1) has halved over the past 20 years. This rate of progress is remarkable when you consider that nearly all of humanity lived this way for most of recorded history until very recently: a full 85 percent of the world’s population was at Level 1 in 1800, 50 percent did as recently as 1966 (well within the living memory of billions of people alive today).
Global average life expectancy has risen to 72: it was 30 at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in 1800. This positive trend has been driven by another positive trend, namely the drastic decline in infant mortality.
Even today’s poorest Level 1 countries like Lesotho or Zambia enjoy a better standard of living than today’s Level 4 countries like Sweden or the United States...
The Straight Line Instinct is the tendency to believe that trends will continue at their current rate forever. Data and some common sense demonstrate that this is not the case:
For example, a child might grow over 35 percent in their first six months after birth, but they obviously don’t continue at this rate for the rest of their lives (otherwise, we would see a lot more seven-foot tall five-year-olds)!
The Straight Line Instinct is the cause of a lot of misplaced pessimism, particularly with regards to world population growth. Magazines, newspapers, and pundits warn of an unsustainable growth in population that will diminish the planet’s food supplies, push climate change past the point of no return, and spark human conflicts as different groups compete for ever-shrinking resources.
(Shortform note: This isn’t a new source of fear. In his 1798 book An Essay on the Principle of Population, the English scholar Thomas Malthus warned that a similar population explosion threatened to doom his generation to poverty and immiseration. Based on what you’ve already learned in this summary, you know that this didn’t happen.)
The idea is widely accepted: 85 percent of surveyed...
Work through these questions to see how the instincts might be misleading you.
Have you ever been surprised by learning how much you have in common with someone from another culture? Describe the experience.
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The Fear Instinct is the tendency toward overblown and misplaced fear. It manifests most commonly with fears of physical harm (like murder, natural disasters, plane crashes) or contamination (from either poisoning or disease).
Living in our world, you’d certainly be forgiven if you lived in a state of perpetual fear. Stories about plane crashes, terrorist attacks, mass shootings, and deadly outbreaks of disease dominate news coverage.
(Shortform note: The drumbeat of fear isn’t just in your head. Data scientist Kalev Leetaru used sentiment mining of every New York Times article published between 1945 and 2005 to determine that news coverage really has gotten more gloomy and negative since the 1970s.)
People consistently overestimate the incidence and likelihood of danger. But the data shows that such fears have little rational basis (and are less likely to happen to you now than they’ve ever been in history).
For example, even at Level 1, disasters kill less than half the number of people than they did in 1990. In fact, deaths-per million from disasters were over 450 during the 1930s: that number was 4 in 2016).
The Size Instinct is the mistaken impulse to overestimate the importance of any single data point or incident, without putting it in the proper context (like how the data has changed over time). Combined with the Negativity Instinct, it severely distorts our worldview.
For example, 940,000 people died of HIV/AIDS-related illnesses in 2017, according to the World Health Organization. That statistic, when viewed in isolation, is certainly horrifying: 940,000 is a lot of people!
But your perception of the situation would probably change a lot if we told you that this figure was 1.9 million back in 2004 (the peak year for AIDS deaths). This means there has been a 51 percent decrease in AIDS deaths in less than two decades: something you would have completely missed if you had only looked at that one 2017 statistic. This is the Size Instinct in action.
The Size Instinct causes us to misjudge reality and devote disproportionate attention (and resources) to small details and to the symptoms of problems, rather than to large problems and their deeper root causes.
In 2016, 4.2 million babies died before the age of 1, according to...
The Generalization Instinct is the tendency to sort our information about the world into categories.
Wrong generalizations can lead us to form an inaccurate worldview. This can either be grouping things together that don’t belong or ignoring differences within groups by assuming that every item within a category is identical.
(Shortform example: We all have our preconceived notions about groups of people that we perceive as being different from ourselves. When most Westerners think of Iran, for example, we think of a backwards, traditionalistic society dominated by patriarchal fundamentalist Islamic values. We also believe that they reflexively hate the West and the United States in particular.
But this is simply a sweeping generalization. According to Business Insider:
All of this is totally at...
Work through these exercises to help you see what’s really going on.
Can you think of a recent phenomenon or trend in the news that generated a lot of unnecessary fear? Describe the situation and how you can avoid succumbing to panic in future situations.
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The Destiny Instinct is the belief that innate and immutable characteristics determine the destinies of whole nations and cultures.
A common example of this is the idea that African culture is “backward,” and will never change or progress. It reinforces the Generalization Instinct, the Gap Instinct, and the Negativity Instinct to make people in Level 4 countries believe that human existence is the same for all people in all countries at Levels 1, 2, and 3; that these cultures sit on the other side of an unbridgeable gap from us; and that life in these places is bad, getting worse, and will never improve.
Yet, once again, the data shows that this belief in inevitability is not just pessimistic: it is totally at odds with history and reality. No society has ever stood still. 100 years ago, the US had a manufacturing economy and featured widespread legal racial discrimination; today, it is overwhelmingly a service-based economy that can elect (and reelect) an African-American man to the Presidency.
Everywhere we look across the planet, traditional, patriarchal societies are undergoing massive social and economic change. These changes are reorienting their relationships...
The Single Perspective Instinct is the attraction that people have for simple, reductive ideas and one-size-fits-all solutions, as in, “All problems have one cause which we must always oppose,” or “All problems have a single solution which we must always support.”
The instinct leads people to embrace all-encompassing ideologies and worldviews that distort and whitewash the complexity and nuance of the real world.
For example, extreme free-market libertarians believe that all problems are caused by government interference, so they push for unfettered free markets everywhere. Of course, they ignore problems caused by free markets (like pollution).
On the other side of the political spectrum, communists believe that everything bad in the world stems from capitalism, so they fight for nationalization of the means of production. Similarly, they ignore problems caused by government interference (like the failure of collective farming in the former Soviet Union).
Clearly then, both ideologies can’t be the solution for all things all the time. Once we understand this, we come closer to understanding the Single Perspective Instinct.
The Blame Instinct is a close cousin of the Single Perspective Instinct. It is the desire to find a single person or entity to blame for something bad. Too often, however, we end up scapegoating rather than analyzing the deeper structural roots of the world’s problems.
Pharmaceutical companies are often blamed for underinvesting in diseases like malaria and diarrhea that pose a high risk to people at Level 1. In fact, these investment decisions are guided by shareholders (who are made up of the general public and large institutional investors like retirement and pension funds).
The Blame Instinct is also at work in the popularity of conspiracy theories. All conspiracy theories overstate the importance or influence of nefarious people and organizations. This provides an easy source of blame for complex events and trends that are really the result of larger social, economic, and political forces.
It is tempting to look to high-profile targets to blame for the world’s problems. Businesses, journalists, refugees, and political leaders are some of the most popular punching bags. But they don’t actually contribute to problems as much as you might think....
The Urgency Instinct is the impulse to make snap decisions immediately, before fully considering the facts and weighing the alternatives. This sense of urgency is often false and alarmist, and can lead to destructive unintended consequences:
A hasty overreaction to a mysterious outbreak in Mozambique led the government to shut down the roads. This led to the unintended consequence of women and children drowning in the river when they were forced to take to leaky boats to bring their goods to the market: they could not afford to lose a day of sales in this impoverished country. Later, it was revealed that the outbreak was caused by people eating unprocessed plants, not by a communicable disease. The roadblocks were completely unnecessary.
This catastrophe would have been averted had the government taken the time to pause, think it through, and assess the full ramifications of its decision before acting. Their reactiveness was a classic example of the Urgency Instinct at its worst.
Salespeople and activists are skilled at exploiting the Urgency Instinct. It plays on basic fears. For salespeople, urgency makes us fear that we will miss a special,...
We’ve now examined all ten instincts, looking at:
How can we apply what we’ve learned going forward, so that we can lead more factful, reason-based lives?
We should teach children about how countries around the world fall into four different income levels, and how these income levels determine much of the differences that we see in standards of living and even cultural values.
We should teach them about how societies change over time and how the world has made great strides in improving quality of life.
Above all, we should teach them to be curious and humble and to embrace the complexity of the world. There are no easy problems, and there are even fewer easy solutions. Know what you don’t know and be open to new information that challenges your worldview.
For businesses, be aware of the opportunities (and the risks) of globalization.
Accurate information about the world has never been more critical: to make smart long-term investment decisions, you need to know that much of Asia and Africa has advanced to Level 2, and that...
Answer these questions to apply factfulness in your personal and professional life.
What biases or misconceptions do you have that might be inhibiting you from fully understanding the world?