Hans Rosling was a medical doctor and Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institute and the co-founder and chairman of the Gapminder Foundation. He was a perennial TED talk speaker and his book, Factfulness, was widely lauded, most famously by Bill Gates. He died a few years ago of pancreatic cancer and this book was published posthumously. He has written a compact, compelling, interesting book that will enlighten many people. We need books like this to remind us that even though we grandiloquently call our species homo sapiens, the wise ape, our thinking processes are still rooted in the African savannah where we evolved many of these “instincts” or cognitive shortcuts.
Rosling uses a combination of story telling, provocative claims, and the foil of embarrassing clever people to illustrate the top ten cognitive failures. In this respect, his intention is similar (and his conclusions) to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, which I summarized and reviewed not too long ago: https://medium.com/@marklooi/summary-of-kahnemans-thinking-fast-and-slow-3d1c2ea0e6a
Like Kahneman, he uses the narrative device of getting the reader to fall for an intuitively “obvious” fact or conclusion, then shows it is actually incorrect, thereby illustrating a bias or cognitive flaw on the part of the reader and, indeed, of most people. He also makes his points with anecdotes about experts who draw flawed assumptions, indeed who do poorer than pure chance would dictate. Therefore, he shows even experts must be biased by prejudices or biases planted by culture, the media or cognitive errors, rooted even in our DNA.
Rosling structures his book to explore in sequence the top 10 instincts, debunking them along the way, and showing how to guard against them. He also explores and explains his view of human development, which has resulted in greater health and wealth for most of humanity, despite the constant drumbeat of tragedy and bad news. A recurring theme is “things are better than you think”.
The Top Ten Instincts
Rosling organizes our cognitive failings into “instincts”, the human mind’s propensity to simplify more complex or nuanced concepts. This propensity is likely an evolutionary adaptation that was effective at keeping our ancestors alive. But, now they are a hindrance for living in a complex, technological, interdependent world. The ten instincts are:
- The Gap Instinct
- The Negativity Instinct
- The Straight Line Instinct
- The Fear Instinct
- The Size Instinct
- The Generalization Instinct
- The Destiny Instinct
- The Single Perspective Instinct
- The Blame Instinct
- The Urgency Instinct
The Gap Instinct
Rosling describes the gap instinct as the propensity for binary thinking — black or white; yes or no; right or wrong. He illustrates this with a key point that animates the book: the world is divided into developed and developing countries; rich or poor; advanced or not. He shows that really it is more accurate to think of economic development as a spectrum, with a broad middle, especially in the so-called middle income countries. He sees countries organized into finer gradations, levels one through four. Levels 2 and 3 are middle income, where the abject poverty and misery that animated most human lives until the 20th century is largely eliminated — it only persists on Level 1. In fact, he claims most Level 2 or 3 countries have similar a income and standard of living as much of Western Europe or North America as late as the 1950’s. Most of the world’s people live in Levels 2 and 3.
To counter the Gap Instinct, he says we should look at distributions of data, be wary of comparisons of averages or extremes, and mindful of one’s perspective from a position of privilege.
The Negativity Instinct
Humans have an inclination to presume that things are getting worse generally. Rosling cites numerous trends ranging from life expectancy to pollution, crime, electricity coverage, and so on, to show that objectively for the majority of humanity, life is getting better. And, he points out that even a Level 4 country like Sweden circa 1948 was pretty much the same as Egypt in 2017, as measured by overall health and wealth. To turn back the negativity instinct, look at trends rather than absolute values of measures; beware that good news is rarely newsworthy; more bad news may reflect increase coverage of a topic; and beware that a rosy past is often not supported by the facts.
The Straight Line Instinct
We have an innate ability to extrapolate along linear trend lines; in fact, this has been very useful to us. For example, most people can easily anticipate where a speeding car will be in a second or two, allowing them to take anticipatory action as a pedestrian or driver. We are also good at seeing trends and extending the line linearly, for example assuming population growth will continue along the same trajectory as shown by recent history. But, true linear behavior outside of things in the physical world are not too common. Often they reach a limit and taper off; or rise, then decline. So, a factful approach means to not assume trends are linear.
The Fear Instinct
We tend to have fears, particularly of gruesome fates, no matter how unlikely. “Our natural fear of violence, captivity and contamination make us systematically overestimate these risks.” To address the fear instinct, calculate the risks and stay calm before taking action.
The Size Instinct
We are often impressed with numbers of things that are large (or small), such as the number of dead babies in a year (4.2 million in 2016). But of course, in 1950, the comparable figure of dead babies was 14.4 million (when global population was far smaller). So, what matters most is not the absolute number (though those deaths are tragic) but also the proportion and the trends over time. To guard against the size instinct, compare numbers, and look at proportions (i.e., divide by the relevant normalizer, such as per capita measure); also look at the trends over time.
The Generalization Instinct
“Everyone automatically categorizes and generalizes.” It’s one aspect of the reasoning power of the human brain. But too much of it can lead to misapprehensions, including the inappropriate use of stereotypes. To defeat the generalization instinct,
- Look for differences within groups
- Look for similarities across groups
- Look for differences across groups
- Beware of “the majority”
- Beware of vivid examples
- Assume people aren’t idiots
The Destiny Instinct
“The destiny instinct is the idea that innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, countries, religions, or cultures.” This instinct was probably served a purpose in our evolution into a species with complex social organizations. To combat this common bias, track gradual improvements, refresh your knowledge often, and look for examples of cultural change. It turns out, these are all around us.
The Single Perspective Instinct
This instinct is the inclination to mainly use one’s own perspective, experience, knowledge or expertise to analyze and understand problems. For example, a single perspective is the curious idea that a free market solves all problems. He cites the example of healthcare in Cuba and the US: both achieve roughly the same results as measured by life expectancy, despite spending vastly different amounts per capita. To analyze that one is better than the other is to use the single perspective of a central government solving all problems (Cuba) or that a market system can also solve all problems. To guard against a single perspective instinct, test your ideas, don’t assume expertise in one area qualifies you in another, and beware of simple ideas with simple solutions.
The Blame Instinct
The blame instinct (and its close cousin, the claim instinct) is our propensity “to find a clear, simple explanation for why something bad happened”. Similarly, we like to claim or attribute credit to powerful leaders. To defend against these instincts, look for causes, not villains; look for systems, not heroes.
The Urgency Instinct
The urgency we often feel “makes us want to take immediate action in the face of a perceived imminent danger”. Rarely is there true urgency. Instead, take your time, insist on data to support the urgency, beware of people predicting the future, and take care when considering drastic action.
Though he discusses the danger of these instincts in the broad context of human thinking, he returns to examples drawn from the economic development themes he explores:
- Human progress has been uneven, but steady.
- As measured by lifespan, poverty rate, and many other indices of development, the world’s population is better off than at any other time in our history.
- What people at Level 4 think of as poor or underdeveloped really isn’t so when compared to the developed world of 50 or 70 years ago.
Generally, Rosling makes a strong case for the 10 instincts and their cognitive failures. He also shows that we have been lulled into a pessimistic view of the world owing to the repetition of bad news and persistence of negative and positive stereotypes. But he conveniently ignores trends where things are measurably becoming worse: global warming, the extinction of the planet’s species at an unprecedented rate, and our collective inability to work together to solve global problems, such as a pandemic. Of course, he falls afoul of one of his own instincts: the single perspective instinct. In his desire to refute our biases and stereotypes, he too fails to look at all the data and show the skepticism he champions to overcome many of the instincts. Still the book is a breath of fresh air and adds another nail in the coffin of human exceptionalism.