Factfullness – Hans Rosling

1. Gap instinct 

Mega misconception – the world is divided in 2


  • child mortality rates take temperature of whole society – food, sewage systems, health care literacy all matter 
  • since 1960 there are no countries where child mortality has increased
  • using gaps completely distorts all global proportions e.g talking about developing world and developed world there isn’t really such a clear distinction any more
  • looking at data from 1965 we could see two blocks based on babies per woman and children surviving to 5 but now almost all countries are in the ‘developed box (85% mankind in box that used to be named developing world)
  • claim: we still see enormous difference between the small rich world, mostly the old west, and the larger others
  • answer: wrong, no real gap, 75% of people now live in middle income countries
  • life in low income countries is much worse but while the average guess of how many people live in conditions like this was 59% the answer is 9%
  • better model is the 4 income level model 
Level population wage per day
1 1bn <$2
2 3bn $2-$8
3 2bn $8-$32
4 1bn >$32

Factfulness … 

  • … is recognising when a story talks about a gap
  • to control look for the majority 
  • Comparison of averages 
  • averages hide spread – in most cases no clear separation of groups 
  • if you check spreads you would likely see overlap and most likely no real gap
  • Comparison of extremes 
  • will often not highlight favourable trend such as falling income inequality and most people in middle and things are getting better for them
  • majority usually in between right where the ‘gap’ is
  • view from up here
  • poverty in our country is different from extreme poverty it is relative poverty 
  • most of your firsthand experiences are of level 4 and most of second hand experiences are non representative media. at level 1 the difference between $1 and $4 a day is huge
  • Look for the majority 

2. Negativity instinct 

Mega misconception – things are getting worse


  • with statistics be careful to jump to conclusions if difference below 10%
  • life expectancy graph can be misleading in 1800 with life expectancy of 30 years most of that was from the fact that 1/2 babies died but most people lived to 50-70
  • 1950s Sweden was similar to Egypt today


  • misremembering the past 
  • selective reporting – gradual improvements rarely make front news 
  • feeling that as long as things are bad it’s heartless to say they are getting better – you don’t need to be an optimist only a possiblest 

Factfulness … 

  • …is recognising when we get negative news 
  • to control this expect bad news (media filter), hear something terrible, ask if there is equally large positive improvement would you have heard about it
  • better and bad – think of things as baby in incubator, still bad but getting better
  • good news not news
  • gradual improvements not news
  • more news doesn’t mean more suffering
  • beware rosy pasts – a terrible past can help us appreciate today

3. Straight line instinct 

Mega misconception: false idea that the world population is Just increasing (the just is the misconception)


  • seeing the trend in ebola was doubling it had to be stopped in weeks, before seeing the data had assumed it was straight line
  • we are arriving at peak child and population is likely to top off between 11-12bn
  • childbirth
  • have you ever heard that humans used to live in harmony with nature, women used to give birth to 6 children on average but most of them died, we didn’t live in harmony we were decimated by nature 
  • one of the only factors that does have strong link to large families is extreme poverty
  • people on levels 2,3,4 have 2 children on average those on level 1 have 5
  • idea that saving poor children increases the population sounds correct but opposite is true 

Factfulness …

  • …is recognising assumption that a line will just continue straight and realising this may be wrong (no child grows to 11 feet)
  • to control remember curves come in different shapes 
  • don’t assume straight lines. As we move up income levels….
  • s bends – literacy, vaccinations 
  • humps – cavities and traffic deaths 
  • doubling line – travel distance and spending 

4. Fear instinct 


  • fear instinct strongly influences what information gets selected by news producers 
  • deaths from autos fo nature just 25% of what it was 100 years ago and given population increased by 5bn deaths per capita fallen to 6%
  • Chicago convention for air safety one of most impressive collaborations ever 
  • fear instinct has driven things like chemophobia and so things like DDT that have pros and cons are blasted as somethings that should never be used despite it being one of the quickest and cheapest ways to save lives in some cases
  • terrorism accounted for 0.05% of 2016 deaths so not that dangerous

Factfulness …

  • … is recognising when frightening things get attention 
  • to control this calculate the risk
  • the scary world: fear vs reality – attention filter bias
  • risk = danger x exposure 
  • get calm before you carry on – make as few decisions as possible when panicked 

5. Size instinct


  • paying too much attention to individual visible victim rather than the numbers can lead us to spend resources inefficiently 
  • half the increase in child survival in the world happens because mothers can read and write
  • proportion of children vaccinated is 88%
  • pin of the world is 1114
  • people living around north Atlantic represent 11% world pop but 60% of level 4 consumers but by 2050 60% of level 4 consumers will live outside west

Factfulness …

  • is recognising when a lonely number seems impressive 
  • to control this get things in proportion. what should lonely number be compared to and what should it be divided by. what is the total of which this is a part? what would this be per person
  • compare 
  • avoid lonely numbers and never believe one number is meaningful 
  • 4.5 million dead babies sounds bad and it is but then number was 14.4 million in 1950
  • people who care about saving lives should be much more concerned with domestic violence than bears
  • 80/20 
  • long list, deal with largest items first 
  • 80/20 rule and aid: found that half the aid budget of small Vietnam clinic was spend on 2000 of wrong surgical knives. Found this by looking for the biggest single items taking up 80% of budget and dug down to see any that seemed unusual 
  • divide 
  • rates are often more meaningful 
  • looking at carbon emissions useful but so is looking at carbon emissions per person

6. Generalisation instinct 


  • market in western world with menstrual pads getting more and more niche but on levels 2 and 3 roughly 2 bn woman have few alternatives to chose from 
  • if you still have misconception that most of the world still too poor to buy anythings at all you risk missing out on the biggest economic opportunity
  • the challenge is to realise which of our simple categories are misleading like developed and developing 
  • how bizarre that a patient can be diagnosed but not treated in level 2. actually quite common, the system can pay for diagnosis, emergency care and inexpensive drugs and this leads to great improvements in survival rates but can’t afford expensive treatments 
  • girl in lift: your country has become so safe that when you go abroad the world is dangerous for you. girl had simply generalised her own level 4 experience of elevators to all elevators in all countries 

Factfulness …

  • … is recognising when a category is being used in an explanation
  • to control this instinct question your categories and always assume they are misleading
  • Look for differences within group
  • country stereotypes fall apart when you see huge differences within countries
  • Similarities across groups
  • level 2 people are similar all over the world. there is also no sense to talk about African countries anymore
  • Differences across groups/generalising 
  • the recovery position was great for emergency victims but it was generalised too far and we were told babies should sleep on their tummies which turned out to be dangerous
  • Beware the majority
  • majority just means more than half ask for percentage 
  • Beware vivid examples
  • fear of chemicals is driven by generalisations from a few vivid examples
  • Assume you are not normal and people are not idiots 
  • many customs that to us seem strange are clever adaptions to the challenges of life in another place, assume they are smart and ask yourself how can this be such a smart solution

7. Destiny instinct 

  • the idea that innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, idea that things are as they are for ineluctable and inescapable reasons 


  • traditions/religion 
  • societies move; things like the islamic world or Africa change, saying things don’t change due to their traditions or values is wrong 
  • link between religion and babies per woman overstated the main link is with income 
  • not true that values don’t change
  • Africa/Asia/Iran
  • the best places to invest right now are probably African countries that have just seen decades of rapid improvements in education and child survival
  • Africa is lagging but the differences within Africa are immense, five large Africa countries have life expectancies above world average
  • it is only since these 5, Tunisia, Algeria, morocco, Libya and Egypt, have made progress that they have been held as exceptional 
  • and each of the 50 countries south of the Sahara are reducing child mortality rates faster than seeded every did 
  • many macho values in Africa and Asia are not African or Asian values but patriarchal values 
  • Asias destiny was supposed to be that of Africas and now look at it
  • Iran had the fastest drop in babies per woman in world history and this went completely unreported in western media 
  • West
  • each year of last 5 years countries on level 4 failed to meet IMF forecast. why does this matter. this forecast has strong influence over where you retirement funds are invested 
  • take Sweden, this generation liberal with sex but in 1960 abortion was illegal 

Factfulness …

  • … is recognising that many things appear to be constant just because the change is happening slowly
  • to control this remember slow change is still change
  • keep track of gradual improvements
  • update knowledge
  • talk to grandpa to see how values change
  • collect examples of cultural change

8. Single perspective instinct 

it is a slippery slope to think that a simple idea can be a solution for lots of other things e.g the free market 


  • constantly test your favourite ideas for weakness
  • Main reasons people often focus on single perspective
  • Professionals
  • when the experts agree that population will stop growing somewhere between 10-12bn people I trust that 
  • keep in mind highly numerate people score just as badly in the books quiz
  • some people with math skills fixate on the numbers, climate activists argue for solar everywhere, people may have good intentions but are likely to campaign for what they know best
  • number not the only solution – prime minister of Mozambique used to look at what kind of shoes people had on parade day and home much grass was growing on construction sites
  • medicine not only solution – instead of fighting one disease in some places much better outcomes come from gradually improving primary health care for all
  • the most valuable intervention for saving lives of poorest mothers is not midwife or c section training but transportation to the hospital 
  • Ideologues 
  • look at Cuba and inefficiencies, poverty, and lack of freedom and you would decide that governments should never be allowed to plan societies
  • USA struggling under same single perspective mind set thinking free market can solve every problem 
  • even democracy while many think it is the best system has not been shown necessarily  to need to or be a requirement for peace, health improvements and economic growth
  • 10 fastest growing countries in 2012-16 9 scored low on democracy 

Factfulness …

  • … is recognising that a single perspective can limit your imagination
  • to control get a toolbox not a hammer
  • test your ideas
  • limit what you claim you are a expert on and be humble about much
  • hammers and nails – know that your preferred way is likely not always the best
  • numbers – but not only numbers 
  • beware of simple ideas and simple solutions

9. Blame instinct

instinct to find clear simple reasons for why something bad has happened 


  • very natural to think when something goes wrong it is the fault of a person, that individuals have power and agency
  • press may be free and professional but they are not representative
  • Refugees: who was to blame?
  • we soon worked out it was the smugglers 
  • but the europeans council directive said every airline or ferry company would have to pay all the costs of turning illegal person around but this doesn’t apply to refugees, this claim is meaningless. companies won’t take the risk and embassies will not verify the people
  • EU policy is that when boats arrive they will be destroyed so they can only be used for one trip so they only use rickety ones
  • idea that china, India and other countries moving up levels should be blamed for climate change and their populations should be forced to live in poorer lives is shockingly well established in the west
  • Business example:
  • small company based in swiss alps put an unbelievably low bid for medicine contract for unicef (bid was so low the price per pill they wanted was below cost)
  • they had built a factory that was the worlds fastest pill making one using robotics. get ingredients on monday and by wednesday have a year supply of the pills. by thursday they have been signed for and we have the money
  • Hungarians give them 30 days credit and UNICEF pays us after 4 of those days and so we have 26 days to earn interest on money 
  • it will take at least 2 decades for the poorest billion to move from level 1 to level 2 increasing CO2 emissions by 2%
  • More likely suspects
  • institutions
  • ebola was not won by individual but by undramatic government staff who created public health campaign and others
  • technology 
  • industrial revolution saved huge numbers of people largely due to advances in things like chemical detergent 
  • we must put effort into technologies that will enable 11bn people to live the life they strive fore 

Factfulness …

  • …is recognising when a scapegoat is being used
  • to control resist finding the scapegoat
  • look for causes not villains
  • look for systems not heroes 

10. Urgency instinct

  • scenario
  • outbreak of disease – urgency – road block – price of food increases – processed cassava at highest price ever, farmers are able to make extra money and are selling all they have, they got so hungry they ate unprocessed cassava straight from fields
  • never show the worst case line without showing the probable and the best case line as well
  • Sweden now tracks quarterly greenhouse gas emissions and is still the ONLY country to do so
  • concept of climate refugees is mostly a deliberate exaggeration
  • exaggerating the role of climate in wars and conflicts or poverty means many other major causes of global problems are ignored 
  • data must be used to tell the truth not to call to action
  • 5 global risks to worry about
  • global pandemic – basic health care must reach everyone everywhere
  • financial collapse
  • world war III
    climate change
  • extreme poverty

Factfulness …

  • …is recognising when a decision feels urgent and remembering it rarely is
  • to control take small steps
  • take a breath
  • insist on the data
  • beware of fortune tellers – future is uncertain, you want full range of scenarios
  • be wary of drastic action 

do people in your city know the basic proportion and trends that are shaping the future of the place they live in. most likely no

hunting for ignorance in your organisation. start simply by asking what are the most important facts and how many people know them

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s