top of page
  • Writer's pictureMark Walmsley

Factfulness by Hans Rosling Summary

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

Fact Fulness Book

Factfulness explains our ten ‘error instincts’ that cause us to think the world is worse than it really is; how media experts, academics, and scientists are frequently wrong; and how you can avoid emotional traps to focus on the facts and make good decisions.

Key insights:

  1. Think in fours not twos, in levels not opposites – the Gap Instinct

  2. Objects in your memories were worse than you recall – the Negativity Instinct

  3. Single, simple, and wrong – the Single Perspective Instinct

  4. Trends can go up, down, straight, reverse, or nearly anything – The Straight Line Instinct

  5. We over-estimate risks associated with fear – The Fear Instinct

  6. Beware numbers presented in isolation, look for comparisons – The Size Instinct

  7. Avoid generalizing and categorizing, assume people are sane – The Generalization Instinct

  8. Don’t confuse slow change with no change – The Destiny Instinct

  9. Bad and good events don’t require villains or heroes, look at system impact – The Blame Instinct

  10. Rushed decisions are usually bad, slow down and use data – The Urgency Instinct

Book details

Full title: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World. By Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund.

Length: 320 pages, or 7 hours and 59 mins on Audible

Buy the book (USA): Amazon (book, Kindle, Audible)

Buy the book (AUS): Amazon (book, Kindle, Audible), Booktopia (book, eBook, audio-book)

Key insight 1: Think in fours not twos, in levels not opposites – the Gap Instinct

We humans love to simplify a problem into twos or opposites. East versus West, rich nations versus poor, and so on. However, this approach deprives us of useful information between these extremes. Consider viewing issues in terms of four levels to allow you to see the middle. The graphic below shows the distribution of daily income for the world’s 7 billion people (each figure represents 1 billion people).


Here we can see that five of the seven billion people have incomes between the rich (on level 4) and the poor (on level 1). More from Hans:

“Human history started with everyone on level 1 income. For more than 100,000 years nobody made it up the levels and most children didn’t survive to become parents. Just 200 years ago, 85 percent of the world’s population was still on level 1, in extreme poverty. Today the vast majority of people are spread out in the middle, across level 2 and 3, with the same range of living standards as people in Western Europe and North America had in the 1950s.”

So how do we avoid ‘The Gap Instinct’ as Hans calls it? First, beware the comparison of averages. Consider the math scores for men and women in the graphs below.


Looking at the left chart you might think that men substantially outperform women – a conclusion which could be used to support Government policy intervention. If you move to the middle chart where a different scale is used you can see that men and women perform at similar levels. However, if you look at the distribution of results – the chart on the right – you see that there isn’t great difference in result attainment between men and women. All of the difference is made up of perhaps 5% of men that do very well, and 10% of women who do slightly worse.

So, beware any data presenting data showing extremes or opposites of performance. If presented with data showing only two levels with a large ‘gap’ in between, then be sure to ask to see the information on the gap (or spread) between the extremes.

Finally, if you’re lucky enough to be in level 4 on any metric, beware of viewing all levels below as one homogenous group. They aren’t. And the problems, priorities and solutions are different for people at level 1, 2, and 3.

Key insight 2: Objects in your memories were worse than you recall – the Negativity Instinct

Why are we so negative on the world? Below are some charts that show historical progress in terms of bad things decreasing, or good things increasing. Factfulness provides 32 examples like the small selection below.


Again, why so negative on humanities progress when it isn’t supported by the evidence? In Han’s words:

“In large part, it is because of our negativity instinct: our instinct to notice the bad more than the good. There are three things going on here: the mis-remembering of the past; selective reporting by journalists and activists; and the feeling that as long as things are bad it’s heartless to say they are getting better.”

So how do we avoid being fooled by the negativity instinct? Han’s again:

“Better and bad. Practice distinguishing between a level (e.g. bad) and a direction of change (e.g. better).Convince yourself that things can be both better and bad.
Good news is not news. Good news is almost never reported. So news is almost always bad. When you see bad news, ask whether equally positive news would have reached you.
Gradual improvement is not news. When a trend is gradually improving, with periodic dips, you are more likely to notice the dips than the overall improvement.”

Key insight 3: – Single, simple, and wrong – the Single Perspective Instinct

We find simple ideas and the clarity they bring very attractive. Understanding the world becomes easy. But is it? Consider Cuba’s position on the income versus life expectancy chart below. Are they the healthiest of the poor (left chart), or the poorest of the healthy (right chart). The former suggests the Cuban government is doing well, the latter suggests it is doing very badly.


From Hans again:

“There’s just one small issue [with simple ideas]. We completely misunderstand the world. I call this preference for single causes and single solutions the single perspective instinct. For example, the simple and beautiful idea of the free market can lead to the simplistic idea that all problems have a single cause—government interference—which we must always oppose; and that the solution to all problems is to liberate market forces by reducing taxes and removing regulations, which we must always support.
Alternatively, the simple and beautiful idea of equality [socialism] can lead to the simplistic idea that all problems are caused by inequality, which we should always oppose; and that the solution to all problems is redistribution of resources, which we should always support.”

So how do we avoid flawed thinking associated with the Single Perspective Instinct? First, be open to ideas that disprove your thesis or preferred outcome. Second, don’t claim knowledge you don’t have, and be acknowledge what you don’t know while being aware of the limits of others. Third, beware of folks figuratively carrying hammers viewing all the problems of the world as nails. Lastly, beware of simple ideas and simple solutions, back to Hans:

“History is full of visionaries who used simple utopian visions to justify terrible actions. Welcome complexity. Combine ideas. Compromise. Solve problems on a case-by-case basis.”

Other insights from Factfulness

4. The Straight Line Instinct. Why couldn’t this line bend or straighten or reverse? Curves come as S-bends, slides, humps, exponential growth, exponential decay, straight lines or reversing lines. Don’t expect anything.

5. The Fear Instinct. We systematically over-estimate risks associated with fear – violence, captivity, and contamination. Calculate the actual risks.

6. The Size Instinct. In 2016 4.2 million babies died!!! That’s terrible – something must be done urgently. But wait, the number in 1950 was that 14.4 million babies died when the global population was less than half its current amount. The reduction in baby deaths per million population was ~85% - a great result. Beware alarmist numbers presented in isolation (i.e. without context or comparison).

7. The Generalization Instinct. Beware generalizing and categorizing. Assume people aren’t idiots. If someone’s behavior doesn’t sense to you, try to understand it from their perspective. They likely have a very good reason for doing what they are doing – you just haven’t taken the time to understand why.

8. The Destiny Instinct. It’s easy to confuse slow change with no change; in which case maybe a country is destined to remain in poverty? Track long-term data and talk to older people to understand how change is happening.

9. The Blame Instinct. We’ve all done it, and got it wrong. Understand that bad things can happen without ‘villains’, and that systems can produce good outcomes without the actions of ‘heroes’.

10. The Urgency Instinct. Rushed decisions are usually bad ones. Slow down, use data, beware fortune-tellers and doomsayers, and consider incremental rather than drastic action.

Why you should read this book if you’re under 30

Factfulness provides you with a robust framework to view world progress; and evaluate the claims of activists, politicians, or issue-alarmists urging you to support their policy proposal. Maybe they’re right, or as you’ll learn, maybe they don’t understand the data they claim to be presenting. Either way you’ll be able to make your own evaluation of the data and choose the right way forward.

As you progress into more senior positions in your workplace organization you’ll be able to use the clear thinking frameworks in Factfulness to correctly diagnose problems with data, and propose viable solutions. This ability to evaluate and propose will serve you well in your personal and professional life.

Relationship to other Eruditeable books

#8 – A Little History of Philosophy. This book covers some of the political philosophers discussed in Factfulness in The Single Issue Perspective where so-called visionaries pursue utopian ideas with terrible consequences.

#10 – 50 Ideas you Really Need to Know - Economics. This book covers numerous economics ideas that intersect with Factfulness and they influence world progress.

#11 – Don’t Burn This Book. This book discusses different political perspectives which overlaps with some of the ideas presented in Factfulness. In reading this book you’ll understand how different political systems influence wealth and prosperity.

#12 – Loserthink. This book discusses logical thinking, and in particular who to think like an economist, scientist, artist, and so on when considering different problems. This dovetails nicely with the need to think laterally as discussed in Factfulness.

#18 – Sapiens. This book covers the whole of human history as told through the Homo Sapiens species. It provides the complete landscape which sets the scene for the focus on the last two centuries in Factfulness.

Book resources

About the authors

Hans Rosling (1948-2017) was a Swedish physician, academic, and public speaker. He was the Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institute and was the co-founder and chairman of the Gapminder Foundation, which developed the Trendalyzer software system. He held presentations around the world, including several TED Talks in which he promoted the use of data to explore development issues. His posthumously published book Factfulness, coauthored with Anna Rosling Rönnlund and Ola Rosling, became an international bestseller.

Ola Rosling is a Swedish statistician known for his work for Gapminder on changing global quality of life. He is the chairman, director and co-founder of the Gapminder Foundation. Rosling co-founded the Gapminder Foundation together with his wife Anna Rosling Rönnlund and his father Hans Rosling. Ola Rosling lead the development of the Trendalyzer software that converts international statistics into moving, interactive graphics. The software was bought by Google in 2007 and Ola Rosling and his team worked for Google from then on. Ola Rosling was Google's Public Data product manager. For this work he and his wife were awarded with the World Technology Award in Design in 2010. In 2014, Ola Rosling presented at the TEDSalon Berlin 2014 explaining "How not to be Ignorant About the World".

Anna Rosling Rönnlund is a Swedish designer who, with her husband Ola Rosling, developed Trendalyzer, (see above). She serves as vice president of Gapminder for design and usability. In 2016, she announced Dollar Street, a website that imagines a street of homes to help visualize how people of varying cultures & incomes live around the world. In 2017, she spoke at the TED conference where she explained the power of Data visualization.

External links

Youtube video

147 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page