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

Posted by Kristin Arnold on September 25, 2023

factfulness book review

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think starts with a 13-question survey about the world today.  And most people get it stupidly wrong.  The premise of the book is that people are “wrong” about the world because they have been conditioned to it, and our educational systems, media, and society in general keep perpetuating an inaccurate worldview.

Yet the world IS getting better and the authors, Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, and Anna Rosling Ronnlund confirm these positive changes using metrics around child mortality, per capita income, healthcare, deaths due to diseases, children being vaccinated, literacy levels, gender equality, etc.  The Roslings created a compelling visual comparison about “Life on Four Income Levels” that is a pretty persuasive argument that the world is getting progressively better than we think!

The danger here is that we (you, me, politicians, CEOs, and industry leaders) are making important decisions about our future using an outdated view of the world.  Now that’s scary!  In fact, after I started reading this book, I became a little skeptical of broad statements about the world made without data.  Even when a data source was mentioned, I wanted to dive in to discover the origins because we have ten “Dramatic Instincts” or biases that reinforce our tendency to be wrong about the world:

  • The Gap Instinct.  Whenever a story talks about a gap, it paints the picture of two separate groups, with a gap in between. The reality is often not polarized at all.  Usually, the majority is right there in the middle, where the gap is supposed to be.  So beware of comparisons of averages, extremes, and points of view.
  • The Negativity Instinct.  Information about bad events is much more likely to reach us.  When things are getting better, we often don’t hear about this.  This gives us a systematically too-negative impression of the world.  Good news and gradual improvements are almost never reported.  Practice distinguishing a report that is “bad” and ask yourself about the direction of change (better, same, or worse).  Just because you are hearing about it more doesn’t mean things are worse. Things can both be better and bad.
  • The Straight Line Instinct. Recognize the assumption that a line will continue to continue to go straight up.  Such lines are rare in reality.
  • The Fear Instinct.  Our natural fears of violence, captivity, and contamination make us systematically overestimate these risks.  The world seems scarier because what you hear has been carefully selected to be told. Remember, Risk = Danger x Exposure, and act accordingly. Make decisions only when you’re calm after the panic has subsided.
  • The Size Instinct.  Big numbers always look big.  Single numbers on their own are misleading and should make you suspicious.  Always look for comparisons.  Ideally, divide by something. When comparing between different-size groups, look for rates per person (or “basket.”  Chip Heath does a great job describing this in his book, Making Numbers Count). Use the 80/20 rule.
  • The Generalization Instinct.  When a category is being used in an explanation, question the categories as they can be misleading. Look for differences within a category and look for similarities and differences across groups. Beware of the term ‘Majority’ – it can mean 51% or 99% or anything in between. Beware of vivid images, which are easier to recall but can be exceptions to the rule.
  • The Destiny Instinct.  Many things, (including people, countries, religions, and cultures) appear to be constant just because the change is happening slowly.  Slow change is still change so keep track of gradual improvements.
  • The Single Perspective Instinct. It is simply easier to focus on a single problem, cause, or solution. It is better to look at problems from many angles and test your ideas to get a more accurate understanding and find practical solutions.
  • The Blame Instinct.  When something goes wrong, we instinctively blame it on someone or something. To control this, resist finding a scapegoat. Look for causes, not villains. Finally, look for systems and processes, not heroes.
  • The Urgency Instinct. When a decision feels urgent, it rarely is.  To control this instinct, take a breath and insist on relevant and accurate data.  Beware of predictions that fail to acknowledge uncertainty and drastic actions without considering the side effects.

Even though the world is getting better, at the same time, there is still huge room for improvement.  After reading this book, I feel much more equipped to question any assertion that tells me otherwise!


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KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF|Master has been facilitating meaningful conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve extraordinary results for 25+ years. She's a leading authority on moderating panel discussions and passionate about finding the perfect olive to complement a vodka martini.

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