8 Lessons from Factfulness | Hans, Anna & Ola Rosling

And why the world is not as bad as you think

Jack Yang
6 min readJul 18, 2020
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — And Why Things Are Better Than You Think

Overall Impression

A fantastic book by the late Swedish physician Hans Rosling. I first came across Rosling's work on TED, where he enthusiastically presented a series of data about the world. The presentation was a paradigm shift for me, so I didn’t even hesitate when Amazon suggests the book to me. This book, compared to the TED presentation, not only provides me with data that changes my perspective of the developing countries but also a set of mental tools that helps me think more critically. Factfulness is especially meaningful to me since I come from a developing country myself and I witness the astonishingly rapid developments every year when I went home. I am a stock investor and this book also makes me rethink some of my long term investment strategies.

Score: 4.75/5

Recommendation: to people who want to have a better understanding of the world as well as our perception of it


1. The world is NOT as bad as you thought

The book starts off with a set of multiple-choice questions about the state of the world and here is a link if you want to give it a shot. Because I watched Rosling’s TED lecture, I was able to get 6 out of 13 questions right, which was a pretty good score (Yes, you heard it right, 6/13 is considered a great score). Most people average around 2–3 questions right, even world leaders who make critical decisions. Why is that? One of the key reasons is that the worldview we hold today is from what we learned in school, and the material is usually very outdated and still reinforces the stereotype of “developing” nations. In addition to the dated information, we are often blinded by our minds’ tendency to oversimplify the world because it is easier and more understandable.

2. Look Out! There is a gap!
One of the first mistakes that people instinctively make is to divide the world into two extreme categories: the “developed” nations and the “developing” nations. However, like most other distributions, the wealth distribution is like a bell curve and the majority of the nations fell somewhere in the middle between poverty and wealth. The reason behind the assumed division is that humans have a tendency to dissect a complicated subject matter into binary terms because it is easier on the mind to accept and react to. In addition, the two ends of the world get much more media attention than the ones in the middle, which create this false image in people’s perception. In order to avoid falling into the gap instinct, we should consider every distribution as a continuum instead of two separated levels.

3. Oh no, this is so scary! Why is the world getting worse!

Since our primitive ancestors, humans have the tendency to react to bad or dangerous news for survival. Good news such as “an airplane has successfully landed” does not nearly grab enough attention as the headline “an airplane has crashed when landing.” One of the key reasons why negative news grab attention is because it evokes fear. News that provoke more than one fear tends to be more notable. For example, news on terrorists hijacking a plane sparks fear of plane crash and fear of captivity. Moreover, when fear and negativity are combined with the size instinct, people tend to disproportionally exaggerate the occurrence of the bad event. The media well understands this and plays this instinct to this advantage. this is why every time we check out the news we see a disaster somewhere in the world and make us think the world is getting worse. However, we should always keep in mind that good news is not reported nearly as often as bad ones and that the world might be bad but its getting better. Our mindset toward addressing this instinct should be to expect bad news but at the same time treat it with a critical perspective by removing fear from the news and see the information as it is. In addition, to fight the size instinct, we should use compare the occurrence of the event with others so that the number is more meaningful.

4. The Straight Line Instinct

We tend to think the trend will continue in a straight line forever. However, this is usually not the case since action or inactions will affect the rate of which the trend is growing. This is especially true during the time of the pandemic: infectious disease, if not properly contained, usually grows at an exponential rate but if people perform the right hygiene practices the curve will go down. When we look at the chart of COVID-19 cases, it is self-evident that it is not a straight line but rather more dependent on people’s actions. Therefore, we should not expect every trend do grow linearly but rather act on it so it grows in a way that we want.

5. Us vs. Them

Similar to the gap instinct, people tend to generalize the world. This often combined with the single perspective instinct, where we tend to be attracted to simple ideas because it is easier to understand and makes us feel good about ourselves. Media again plays a role in shaping our worldview. One of the best ways to evoke our generalization instinct is to use vivid imagery because visuals are easier to remember than complicated texts and numbers. In order to fight this instinct, we should be beware of where the majority lies as well as testing ideas that are contradictory to others so that we have a more well-rounded understanding of the subject.

6. It’s their fault

This is the blame instinct. People like to find scapegoats to blame because it takes the pressure off their shoulders and does not make them look bad. Combined with the single perspective instinct of simplifying the world, people tend to contribute the fault into a single factor, whether that is the government, the cooperation, the environment etc. However, in most situation, it is not the individuals that failed but the system. Instead of trying so hard to find who the point the finger to, we should look for flaws and errors in the system and improve on that instead.

7. Read this paragraph NOW!

Coming from a copywriting background, I understand how magical the word “now” is. It is arguably one of the most useful words you can put in your headlines, especially ones that conveys a sense of “now or you will lose it forever.” This is extremely powerful when combined with the fear instinct. Since people are loss aversed, giving them a trigger to take immediate actions or they will suffer the pain of losing is incredibly useful. However, when overly used, the word “now” loses its magic. We often see climate change campaign urging for action now, but too much repetition of the word makes people become insensitive to it and it is not desirable.

8. No way this is going to change. It is their destiny.

A common mistake to believe that a country is destined to be rich or poor because of its value or culture. However, this can’t be further from the truth. Cooperations have missed great opportunity investing in developing countries that later turn out to contain enormous business opportunities. Combined with outdated information of the world and our instincts to generalize, it is easy to assume something or someone is destined. In order to have a clear and unbias perspective of the world, we should always keep an open mind and view the news with a critical perspective.