10 instincts that distort our worldview

I recently finished Factfulness, a great book by Hans Rosling, his son and his daughter-in-law. You may know the late Hans Rosling for his famous Ted Talk, with over 15million views, where he showcases amazing stats about the world. His key premise: The World is actually getting better – not worse.

When I first watched his Ted Talk, I was amazed by facts about the World because it certainly didn’t feel that way. After all, we turn on the news and all we see are depressing stories. This book is an expansion of that premise; it’s about why we feel like the world is getting worse, even though it’s not. It’s a book exposing our dramatic biases that distort our fact-based worldview. I had many glass shattering moments when reading this book, and has made me more self aware.

So here is the summary of the 10 instincts that distorts our worldview, from the book Factfulness:

PS: This is just a brief summary on the concept. The Roslings do a way better job explaining so I definitely recommend reading the book for the full understanding and for ways to keep the instincts in check!

1. The Gap Instinct

This is the misconception that the world is just divided into two separate, distinct and conflicting groups. Us vs Them, Rich vs Poor, Good vs Evil etc. Our mind takes a mental shortcut to arrive to this conclusion because it simplifies everything. But it’s no surprise that the situation is always more nuanced that that.

This instinct is usually kicked in when we:

  • Compare averages – but averages are misleading because they don’t shed light on the spread (ie. the range of numbers). Eg: For one week, you ran 7km only once, and barely exercised for the remaining 6 days. A simple average would mean you ran an average (7km/7 days), 1km per day. However, that is far from the truth!

  • Compare the extremes – Extremes work for dramatic effect but are usually the exception; most of the time the majority is somewhere in the middle

2. The Negativity Instinct

This misconception is about our tendency to notice the bad more than the good (guilty as charged).

This usually happens because:

  • We misremember the past – Most people romanticise their youths. This kind of feels like a case of graduation glasses. Think of a time where you were struggling in life, I bet the intensity was a lot more when you were going through it, and suddenly when you look back, things just didn’t seem as bad. It’s easy for human to forget how things really did ‘used to be’.

  • Selective reporting by the media & greater access to technology – stories about gradual improvements rarely make headlines as compared to bad things which are usually more dramatic and easily sensationalised. Plus, with improvement in technology, more news gets reported. Contrast this to the days when there was no Internet, most news are localised, so they probably didn’t know what was happening on the other side of the world!

  • The feeling that as long as things are bad, it’s heartless to say it’s getting better – this happens when we are feeling, not thinking. Yes, many things are still not fine but acknowledging the progress we’ve made is not saying that the issue is no longer important, but it’s recognising that the solutions are working so far. When we see all this progress, it should inspire us because if we can come this far; it means change IS possible. The danger of believing nothing is improving is that we may lose hope, or take radical measures. [This is really one of my favourite points from the book.]

3. The Straight Line Instinct

This is our tendency to assume that trends will grow in a straight line (ie. to infinity), when this is rare in reality. Eg. No child ever continued to grow taller at the rate (ie. straight line growth) that he/she did as a kid. We all know eventually that growth slows down.

The importance of knowing this is realising we tend to overreact when we see a sharp growth. I don’t know why this concept reminded me of the stock market. Just like how many investors get very excited when a share price continues to rise; its our tendency to assume that because it’s on an upward trend, it will continue to be that way. But what goes up, must come down.

4. The Fear Instinct

This is our tendency to overestimate the dangers of frightening news.

When we are afraid, we do not see clearly. We end up seeing what we are afraid to see. This is why most people are more afraid of going bungee jumping than driving. Even though the chances of dying in a car accident is way higher than that of a bungee jump.

Remember, ‘Frightening’ and ‘Dangerous’ are two different things.
Frightening poses a perceived risk.
Dangerous poses a real risk.

5. The Size Instinct

This is our tendency to view things out of proportion when presented with a lonely number. Imagine you scored 70 marks for a test. Because 70 marks is a pretty big number, chances you might think this is good. But is it really? What if I told you everyone else scored 100? or that only 1% of test takers score less than 100?

Numbers provide little meaning unless we compare it. Maybe to the past, or to others. This allows us to put things into perspective. Even better, perhaps divide it. Amounts and rates/percentages can tell very different stories.

6. The Generalisation Instinct

This is our tendency to categorise and generalise, assuming all items/people within the category are the same.

Our tendency to categorise and generalise is our structured way to process the world around us. However, when there is a problematic generalisation, this is called a stereotype. The gap instinct divides the world into ‘Us’ and ‘Them’. The generalisation instinct makes us think ‘them’ as all the same.

7. The Destiny Instinct

This is the belief that some things never change; that the innate characteristics determine the destinies of the people/countries/religions/cultures. This belief is usually reinforced when things appear to be constant for a long period of time.

Rosling shares a story of how one of the audience members came up to him after a presentation to comment that despite the impressing statistics, he doesn’t think African continents will remain poor and never catch up ever, because of their culture.

However, recognise that just because change is happening slowly, does not mean it’s not happening at all. After all, compare how us as a society has changed through the years. Many things that we find socially acceptable today, was even punishable by death years ago.

8. The Single Perspective Instinct

This our preference to view things from a single perspective because it’s simple, which leads to an oversimplified worldview. The reason we tend to focus on single perspectives is because of Ideologies and over reliance on Experts; without recognising they too have limitations.

Experts will look around for ways to utilise their skills and knowledge. Eg. Maths pros will fixate on numbers; climate activists will advocate for solar everywhere. But these solutions can solve some problems; but not all problems. Think: Get a toolbox; not just a hammer.

9. The Blame Instinct

This is the instinct to find a clear, simple person who is responsible for why something bad/good has happened.

When something bad happens, we look for someone to blame.
When something good happens, we look for someone to claim (credit).

Instead, look for causes not villains. Look for systems; not heroes.

Because once we decide one individual is to be blamed, we stop learning about the other causes, which are often times systemic.

10. The Urgency Instinct

This instinct makes us want to take immediate action in the face of perceived danger. The call to action which stresses us out, blocks us from thinking analytically and rushes us to make up our minds too quickly.

This instinct of ours is often used by parties who want to spur us into action, be it a Flash Sale or some kind of activism. However, when everything is urgent, nothing is urgent.

Ultimately, to have a fact-based worldview is to be humble and curious. Being humble is to be aware that instinctively, it’s tough to get the facts right. It means being okay to say ‘I don’t know’ and that you may not always be right. Being curious means being open to new information and actively seek it; learning to explore new facts that do not fit into your worldview and its implications.

I highly recommend this book. Hope you learned a thing or two from this simple summary. 🙂

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