Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.

By: Hans Rosling (with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund)

Published: 2018

Read: 2020


The world is much better. The world is awful. The world can be much better (borrowed headline from a recent Max Roser’s article).

Most people, especially Westerners, get basic facts about the world (income, education, population, health) wrong.

Ten powerful instincts systematically distort our worldview:

  1. Gap instinct (binary thinking).
  2. Negativity instinct (noticing the bad more than the good).
  3. Straight line instinct (thinking that simple trends continue).
  4. Fear instinct (paying more attention to dramatic information).
  5. Size instinct (viewing things out of proportion).
  6. Generalization instinct (categorizing and generalizing).
  7. Destiny instinct (thinking that some things will never change).
  8. Single perspective instinct (seeing only single causes or single solutions).
  9. Blame instinct (looking for scapegoats when things go wrong).
  10. Urgency instinct (taking immediate action in the face of imminent danger).

As is so often the case, these instincts can make our daily lives more efficient, but they can also act as attention filters that create misleading and negative worldviews, causing unnecessary stress and bad decisions.

This book is a plea to see the world as it is, a worldview based on facts. To recognize overdramatic stories and control dramatic instincts. To recognize that though the world continues to face huge challenges, we have already made material progress and it is possible that progress will continue: things are both bad and improving.

Worth Reading:

A simple and convincing appeal to stick with the facts, firmly rooted in many years and tales of on the ground experience in the global public health arena. A sobering investigation into the limits of human behavior, acknowledging that some intuitions are efficient and at the same time have profound and broad unintended consequences.

The personal stories and experiences provide insights into places and cultures most of us are unlikely to ever visit or encounter and are proof of a lifetime spent fighting the good cause under some of the most challenging conditions (Ebola, war, etc.).

Much is gained in this book by making things vastly more simple.

Not all of the facts and arguments presented are equally convincing.  For example, half-built houses in Tunisia are probably not evidence of step-by-step smart investments by the homeowners in inflation-proof bricks, but more likely, evidence of locals exploiting tax loopholes – if a building isn’t fixed, you don’t pay taxes. The point of the story is still the same: don’t assume other people are lazy idiots.

Perhaps inevitably, some arguments are not that easy to simplify. The world is complex. Progress is neither automatic nor mechanistic; it is rare (“Peter Thiel’s Religion”). The future will be different, not necessarily better. There could be more acknowledgement that sometimes “things move the other way”. Yes, the limits of human rationality sometimes make it hard to recognize that slow progress has been made, but those same limits can also cause an interruption or even reversal of progress (“EconTalk — John Gray”). More recent statistics on global hunger and US life expectancy illustrate that automatic continued progress is not a given.

A final nitpick. It is perhaps misleading to say that only 9% of the world lives in low-income countries and 75% of the world is “middle-income”. The book’s own data, in its useful discussion of the four levels of income, show that 1 billion people live on $1/day (Level 1) and another 3 billion on $4/day (Level 2). Most people would consider Level 1 and Level 2, together more than half of the global population, as low income. Yes, generally many people are in the middle of distributions of outcomes, but framing this particular middle as “middle-income”, given what people associate middle-income with in terms of access to health, education, etc., is perhaps a stretch.

Key Takeaways:

  • Understanding complicated phenomenon.
    • Understand the shape of the growth curve.
  • When things go wrong, look at systems (less at people).
    • Understand underlying, interactive causes.
  • When we only identify the bad guy, we stop thinking.
    • Don’t assume everyone else is an idiot.
    • Don’t assume simple bad intentions.
  • Figure out what the important facts are.
    • With humility: instincts make it difficult to get the facts right.
    • With curiosity: seek out new facts.

Key Concepts:

  1. Gap instinct: tendency towards binary thinking.
    • Efficient: divide the world into distinct groups (with a large gap in between).
    • Often ignores mobility, progress in time.
      • Focuses on averages or extremes.
    • Ignores the overlap (spread).
      • Polarity, injustice, inequality.
    • Takes the view from above.
      • Represents misconceptions by people at income Level 4 – see below.
    • Majority is often in the middle (where the gap is supposed to be).
      • Helpful breakdown of the world into four income levels.
        1. Level 1: $1/day – 1 billion people.
        2. Level 2: $4/day – 3 billion people.
        3. Level 3: $16/day – 2 billion people.
        4. Level 4: $32/day – 1 billion people.
  1. Negativity instinct: tendency to notice the bad more than the good.
    • Efficient: low cost of false positives.
    • The majority of people think the world is getting worse, due to:
      • More and selective reporting:
        • Information about bad events is more likely to reach us.
        • Good news or gradual improvement is no news.
        • Stuff is noticed now that was previously unreported.
      • Illusion of deterioration by mis-remembering the past.
        • Unfair comparisons with a glorified past.
      • Feeling, not thinking.
        • Feeling that everything is not fine.
        • When things are bad, it’s heartless to say they are getting better.
      • Ignores material progress made.
        • Many “bad things” have decreased (slavery, child labor, hunger).
        • Many “good things” have increased (minority rights, literacy, health).
      • Expect bad news.
      • Understand things can both be bad (level) and getting better (a direction).
  1. Straight line instinct: tendency to believe that growth trends are constant.
    • Efficient: perhaps used to be mostly true…
    • Trend dynamics are more complex in the real world.
      • Population growth example:
        • 1900 – 1.5 billion; 2000 – 6 billion, now – 7 billion; 2075 – 11 billion.
        • Expected increase up to 11 billion: not due to more children (0-15) being born or people living longer (>75).
        • Mostly due to 0-15 already existing (2 billion) growing up and “filling out” the 30-45, 45-60, 60-75 categories (each from 1 to 2 billion, for a total additional 3 billion) plus 1 billion in >75 category.
        • Underlying driver of transition is stabilizing of birth rates due to eradication of extreme poverty.
      • To understand a phenomenon, we need to understand the shape of its curve.
        • Trends come in many different shapes.
  1. Fear instinct: tendency to pay more attention to dramatic information.
    • Efficient: we have limited capacity for information processing.
      • To avoid information overload, we focus our attention and filter out the noise.
    • Certain attention filters, fears, have been hardwired by evolution.
      • Evolved to pay attention (and fear) violence, captivity, contamination.
    • Fears that evolved to protect us, may now do us harm by distorting our worldview.
      • Physical fears are still practical on income Level 1.
      • Much less relevant on other income levels.
      • Fear blocks out the fact and shrinks our field of attention.
    • Calculate the risks and slow down your decision making.
      • Danger x exposure.
  1. Size instinct: tendency to view things out of proportion.
    • Misjudging the size of things by paying attention to what is concrete, in front of us:
      • Overestimate importance of an isolated (large) statistic.
      • Overestimate importance of an isolated single case.
    • Leads to mis-allocation of scarce resources.
      • Directs our attention and resources only to the problem that visible to us.
    • Get things in proportion.
      • PIN code for global population (Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia) in billions:
        • Now: 1-1-1-4.
        • 2100: 1-1-4-5.
      • In 20 years, most people on income Level 4 will no longer live in the West.
    • Compare, calculate base rates.
  2. Generalization instinct: tendency to categorize and generalize.
    • Efficient: categories give structure to thought, generalizations useful for everyday life.
    • But becomes a problem when they lead to certain types of automatic behavior:
      • Mistakenly group things together.
      • Assume everyone in one category is the same (stereotypes).
      • Jump to conclusions about categories based on single observations.
    • Avoid generalizing incorrectly:
      • Acknowledge differences within groups and similarities across.
      • Don’t assume everyone else is an idiot.
  1. Destiny instinct: tendency to think that some things will never change.
    • Efficient when environment doesn’t change much.
    • Belief that certain things are “fated”: unchanging and unchangeable.
      • Cultures, nations, religions, people, natural conditions.
    • Makes it difficult to accept when change does happen.
      • Especially when things change at a very slow rate.
    • Slow change is still change.
      • Update your knowledge.
  1. Single perspective instinct: tendency to see single causes and single solutions.
    • Efficient: saves time.
    • Blinds you to information that doesn’t fit the single perspective.
      • When you have a hammer, everything is a nail.
      • Experts and politicians can be particularly guilty.
    • Widen the toolbox.
      • Test your ideas.
      • Be humble.
  1. Blame instinct: when things go wrong, look for scapegoats.
    • Efficient: makes the world more controllable and predictable.
    • Things happen because someone wanted them to.
      • Power, agency, intentions.
    • But when we only identify the bad guy, we stop thinking.
      • It’s almost always more complicated.
      • Multiple interactive causes.
      • Don’t assume simple bad intentions.
    • Look at systems rather than people.
      • Institutions, technology.
  1. Urgency instinct: take immediate action in the face of imminent danger.
    • Efficient: again, low cost of false positives.
      • Those who (always) took action when faced with (insufficient) negative information are probably our ancestors.
    • Difficult to apply when problems are more complex and abstract.
      • Blocks analytical thinking.
    • Difficulty in dealing with risks far off in the future.
      • People exaggerate and “create” more certain immediate risks.
      • Drains credibility, risk of crying wolf.
    • Constant alarms going off.
      • Unnecessary stress.
    • Five global risks:
      • Global pandemic.
      • Financial collapse.
      • Large scale war.
      • Climate change.
      • Extreme poverty.
    • Slow down, improve the data, acknowledge uncertainty.
      • Scenarios, ranges, conservative data.

 Critical thinking skills

  • Humility.
    • Your instincts can make it difficult to get the facts right.
    • “I don’t know”.
  • Curiosity.
    • Being open to and seeking out new information.
    • Test your ideas.
  • Figure out what are the most important facts and questions.

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