FACTFULNESS [CHAPTER 1]

 


To the brave barefoot woman,

whose name I don’t know but whose rational arguments

saved me from being sliced

by a mob of angry men with machetes


Contents


Dedication

CHAPTER ONE: The Gap Instinct

CHAPTER TWO: The Negativity Instinct

CHAPTER THREE: The Straight Line Instinct

CHAPTER FOUR: The Fear Instinct

CHAPTER FIVE: The Size Instinct

CHAPTER SIX: The Generalization Instinct

CHAPTER SEVEN: The Destiny Instinct

CHAPTER EIGHT: The Single Perspective Instinct

CHAPTER NINE: The Blame Instinct

CHAPTER TEN: The Urgency Instinct

CHAPTER ELEVEN: Factfulness in Practice

Factfulness Rules of Thumb

ABOUT AUTHOR



CHAPTER ONE

THE GAP INSTINCT

Capturing a monster in a classroom using only a piece of paper 


Where It All Started

It was October 1995 and little did I know that after my class that evening, I was going to start my lifelong fight against global misconceptions.

“What is the child mortality rate in Saudi Arabia? Don’t raise your hands. Just shout it out.” I had handed out copies of tables 1 and 5 from UNICEF’s yearbook. The handouts looked dull, but I was excited.

A choir of students shouted in unison: “THIRTY-FIVE.”

“Yes. Thirty-five. Correct. This means that 35 children die before their fifth birthday out of every thousand live births. Give me the number now for Malaysia?”

“FOURTEEN,” came the chorus.

As the numbers were thrown back at me, I scribbled them with a green pen onto a plastic film on the overhead projector.

“Fourteen,” I repeated. “Fewer than Saudi Arabia!”

My dyslexia played a little trick on me and I wrote “Malaisya.” The students laughed.

“Brazil?”

“FIFTY-FIVE.”

“Tanzania?”

“ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-ONE.”

I put the pen down and said, “Do you know why I’m obsessed with the numbers for the child mortality rate? It’s not only that I care about children. This measure takes the temperature of a whole society. Like a huge thermometer. Because children are very fragile. There are so many things that can kill them. When only 14 children die out of 1,000 in Malaysia, this means that the other 986 survive. Their parents and their society manage to protect them from all the dangers that could have killed them: germs, starvation, violence, and so on. So this number 14 tells us that most families in Malaysia have enough food, their sewage systems don’t leak into their drinking water, they have good access to primary health care, and mothers can read and write. It doesn’t just tell us about the health of children. It measures the quality of the whole society.

“It’s not the numbers that are interesting. It’s what they tell us about the lives behind the numbers,” I continued. “Look how different these numbers are: 14, 35, 55, and 171. Life in these countries must be extremely different.”

I picked up the pen. “Tell me now how life was in Saudi Arabia 35 years ago? How many children died in 1960? Look in the second column.”

“TWO HUNDRED … and forty two.”

The volume dropped as my students articulated the big number: 242. “Yes. That’s correct. Saudi Arabian society has made amazing progress, hasn’t it? Child deaths per thousand dropped from 242 to 35 in just 33 years. That’s way faster than Sweden. We took 77 years to achieve the same improvement.

“What about Malaysia? Fourteen today. What was it in 1960?”

“Ninety-three,” came the mumbled response. The students had all started searching through their tables, puzzled and confused. A year earlier, I had given my students the same examples, but with no data tables to back them up, and they had simply refused to believe what I told them about the improvements across the world. Now, with all the evidence right in front of them, this year’s students were instead rolling their eyes up and down the columns, to see if I had picked exceptional countries and tried to cheat them. They couldn’t believe the picture they saw in the data. It didn’t look anything like the picture of the world they had in their heads.

“Just so you know,” I said, “you won’t find any countries where child mortality has increased. Because the world in general is getting better. Let’s have a short coffee break.”

The Mega Misconception That “The World Is Divided in Two”

This chapter is about the first of our ten dramatic instincts, the gap instinct. I’m talking about that irresistible temptation we have to divide all kinds of things into two distinct and often conflicting groups, with an imagined gap—a huge chasm of injustice—in between. It is about how the gap instinct creates a picture in people’s heads of a world split into two kinds of countries or two kinds of people: rich versus poor.

It’s not easy to track down a misconception. That October evening in 1995 was the first time I got a proper look at the beast. It happened right after coffee, and the experience was so exciting that I haven’t stopped hunting mega misconceptions ever since.

I call them mega misconceptions because they have such an enormous impact on how people misperceive the world. This first one is the worst. By dividing the world into two misleading boxes—poor and rich—it completely distorts all the global proportions in people’s minds.

Hunting Down the First Mega Misconception

Starting up the lecture again, I explained that child mortality was highest in tribal societies in the rain forest, and among traditional farmers in the remote rural areas across the world. “The people you see in exotic documentaries on TV. Those parents struggle harder than anyone to make their families survive, and still they lose almost half of their children. Fortunately, fewer and fewer people have to live under such dreadful conditions.”

A young student in the first row raised his hand. He tilted his head and said, “They can never live like us.” All over the room other students nodded in support.

He probably thought I would be surprised. I was not at all. This was the same kind of “gap” statement I had heard many times before. I wasn’t surprised, I was thrilled. This was what I had hoped for. Our dialogue went something like this:

ME: Sorry, who do you mean when you say “they”?

HIM: I mean people in other countries.

ME: All countries other than Sweden?

HIM: No. I mean … the non-Western countries. They can’t live like us. It won’t work.

ME: Aha! (As if now I understood.) You mean like Japan?

HIM: No, not Japan. They have a Western lifestyle.

ME: So what about Malaysia? They don’t have a “Western lifestyle,” right?

HIM: No. Malaysia is not Western. All countries that haven’t adopted the Western lifestyle yet. They shouldn’t. You know what I mean.

ME: No, I don’t know what you mean. Please explain. You are talking about “the West” and “the rest.” Right?

HIM: Yes. Exactly.

ME: Is Mexico … “West”?

He just looked at me.

I didn’t mean to pick on him, but I kept going, excited to see where this would take us. Was Mexico “the West” and could Mexicans live like us? Or “the rest,” and they couldn’t? “I’m confused.” I said. “You started with ‘them and us’ and then changed it to ‘the West and the rest.’ I’m very interested to understand what you mean. I have heard these labels used many times, but honestly I have never understood them.”

Now a young woman in the third row came to his rescue. She took on my challenge, but in a way that completely surprised me. She pointed at the big paper in front of her and said, “Maybe we can define it like this: ‘we in the West’ have few children and few of the children die. While ‘they in the rest’ have many children and many of the children die.” She was trying to resolve the conflict between his mind-set and my data set—in a pretty creative way, actually—by suggesting a definition for how to split the world. That made me so happy. Because she was absolutely wrong—as she would soon realize—and more to the point, she was wrong in a concrete way that I could test.

“Great. Fantastic. Fantastic.” I grabbed my pen and leaped into action. “Let’s see if we can put the countries in two groups based on how many children they have and how many children die.”

The skeptical faces now became curious, trying to figure out what the heck had made me so happy. I liked her definition because it was so clear. We could check it against the data. If you want to convince someone they are suffering from a misconception, it’s very useful to be able to test their opinion against the data. So I did just that.

And I have been doing just that for the rest of my working life. The big gray photocopying machine that I had used to copy those original data tables was my first partner in my fight against misconceptions. By 1998, I had a new partner—a color printer that allowed me to share a colorful bubble graph of country data with my students. Then I acquired my first human partners, and things really picked up. Anna and Ola got so excited by these charts and my idea of capturing misconceptions that they joined my cause, and accidently created a revolutionary way to show hundreds of data trends as animated bubble charts. The bubble chart became our weapon of choice in our battle to dismantle the misconception that “the world is divided into two.”

What’s Wrong with This Picture?

My students talked about “them” and “us.” Others talk about “the developing world” and “the developed world.” You probably use these labels yourself. What’s wrong with that? Journalists, politicians, activists, teachers, and researchers use them all the time.

When people say “developing” and “developed,” what they are probably thinking is “poor countries” and “rich countries.” I also often hear “West/rest,” “north/south,” and “low-income/high-income.” Whatever. It doesn’t really matter which terms people use to describe the world, as long as the words create relevant pictures in their heads and mean something with a basis in reality. But what pictures are in their heads when they use these two simple terms? And how do those pictures compare to reality?

Let’s check against the data. The chart on the next page shows babies per woman and child survival rates for all countries.

Each bubble on the chart represents a country, with the size of the bubble showing the size of the country’s population. The biggest bubbles are India and China. On the left of the chart are countries where women have many babies, and on the right are countries where women have few babies. The higher up a country is on the chart, the better the child survival rate in that country. This chart is exactly what my student in the third row suggested as a way of defining the two groups: “us and them,” or “the West and the rest.” Here I have labeled the two groups “developing and developed” countries.



Look how nicely the world’s countries fall into the two boxes: developing and developed. And between the two boxes there is a clear gap, containing just 15 small countries (including Cuba, Ireland, and Singapore) where just 2 percent of the world’s population lives. In the box labeled “developing,”there are 125 bubbles, including China and India. In all those countries, women have more than five children on average, and child deaths are common: fewer than 95 percent of children survive, meaning that more than 5 percent of children die before their fifth birthday. In the other box labeled “developed,” there are 44 bubbles, including the United States and most of Europe. In all those countries the women have fewer than 3.5 children per woman and child survival is above 90 percent.

The world fits into two boxes. And these are exactly the two boxes that the student in the third row had imagined. This picture clearly shows a world divided into two groups, with a gap in the middle. How nice. What a simple world to understand! So what’s the big deal? Why is it so wrong to label countries as “developed” and “developing”? Why did I give my student who referred to “us and them” such a hard time?

Because this picture shows the world in 1965! When I was a young man. That’s the problem. Would you use a map from 1965 to navigate around your country? Would you be happy if your doctor was using cutting-edge research from 1965 to suggest your diagnosis and treatment? The picture below shows what the world looks like today.


The world has completely changed. Today, families are small and child deaths are rare in the vast majority of countries, including the largest: China and India. Look at the bottom left-hand corner. The box is almost empty. The small box, with few children and high survival, that’s where all countries are heading. And most countries are already there. Eighty-five percent of mankind are already inside the box that used to be named “developed world.” The remaining 15 percent are mostly in between the two boxes. Only 13 countries, representing 6 percent of the world population, are still inside the “developing” box. But while the world has changed, the worldview has not, at least in the heads of the “Westerners.” Most of us are stuck with a completely outdated idea about the rest of the world.

The complete world makeover I’ve just shown is not unique to family size and child survival rates. The change looks very similar for pretty much any aspect of human lives. Graphs showing levels of income, or tourism, or democracy, or access to education, health care, or electricity would all tell the same story: that the world used to be divided into two but isn’t any longer. Today, most people are in the middle. There is no gap between the West and the rest, between developed and developing, between rich and poor. And we should all stop using the simple pairs of categories that suggest there is. 

My students were dedicated, globally aware young people who wanted to make the world a better place. I was shocked by their blunt ignorance of the most basic facts about the world. I was shocked that they actually thought there were two groups, “us” and “them,” shocked to hear them saying that “they” could not live like “us.” How was it even possible that they were walking around with a 30-year-old worldview in their heads?

Pedaling home through the rain that evening in October 1995, my fingers numb, I felt fired up. My plan had worked. By bringing the data into the classroom I had been able to prove to my students that the world was not divided into two. I had finally managed to capture their misconception. Now I felt the urge to take the fight further. I realized I needed to make the data even clearer. That would help me to show more people, more convincingly, that their opinions were nothing more than unsubstantiated feelings. That would help me to shatter their illusions that they knew things that really they only felt.

Twenty years later I’m sitting in a fancy TV studio in Copenhagen in Denmark. The “divided” worldview is 20 years older, 20 years more outdated. We’re live on air, and the journalist tilts his head and says to me, “We still see an enormous difference between the small, rich world, the old Western world mostly, and then the large part.”

“But you’re totally wrong,” I reply.

Once more I explain that “poor developing countries” no longer exist as a distinct group. That there is no gap. Today, most people, 75 percent, live in middle-income countries. Not poor, not rich, but somewhere in the middle and starting to live a reasonable life. At one end of the scale there are still countries with a majority living in extreme and unacceptable poverty; at the other is the wealthy world (of North America and Europe and a few others like Japan, South Korea, and Singapore). But the vast majority are already in the middle.

“And what do you base that knowledge on?” continued the journalist in an obvious attempt to be provocative. And he succeeded. I couldn’t help getting irritated and my agitation showed in my voice, and my words: “I use normal statistics that are compiled by the World Bank and the United Nations. This is not controversial. These facts are not up for discussion. I am right and you are wrong.”

Capturing the Beast

Now that I have been fighting the misconception of a divided world for 20 years, I am no longer surprised when I encounter it. My students were not special. The Danish journalist was not special. The vast majority of the people I meet think like this. If you are skeptical about my claim that so many people get it wrong, that’s good. You should always require evidence for claims like these. And here it is, in the form of a two-part misconception trap.

First, we had people disclose how they imagined life in so-called low-income countries, by asking questions like this one from the test you did in the introduction.

FACT QUESTION 1

In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?

A: 20 percent

B: 40 percent

C: 60 percent

On average just 7 percent picked the correct answer, C: 60 percent of girls finish primary school in low-income countries. (Remember, 33 percent of the chimps at the zoo would have gotten this question right.) A majority of people “guessed” that it was just 20 percent. There are only a very few countries in the world—exceptional places like Afghanistan or South Sudan—where fewer than 20 percent of girls finish primary school, and at most 2 percent of the world’s girls live in such countries.

When we asked similar questions about life expectancy, undernourishment, water quality, and vaccination rates—essentially asking what proportion of people in low-income countries had access to the basic first steps toward a modern life—we got the same kinds of results. Life expectancy in low-income countries is 62 years. Most people have enough to eat, most people have access to improved water, most children are vaccinated, and most girls finish primary school. Only tiny percentages—way less than the chimps’ 33 percent—got these answers right, and large majorities picked the worst alternative we offered, even when those numbers represented levels of misery now being suffered only during terrible catastrophes in the very worst places on Earth.

Now let’s close the trap, and capture the misconception. We now know that people believe that life in low-income countries is much worse than it actually is. But how many people do they imagine live such terrible lives? We asked people in Sweden and the United States:

Of the world population, what percentage lives in low-income countries?

The majority suggested the answer was 50 percent or more. The average guess was 59 percent.

The real figure is 9 percent. Only 9 percent of the world lives in low-income countries. And remember, we just worked out that those countries are not nearly as terrible as people think. They are really bad in many ways, but they are not at or below the level of Afghanistan, Somalia, or Central African Republic, the worst places to live on the planet.

To summarize: low-income countries are much more developed than most people think. And vastly fewer people live in them. The idea of a divided world with a majority stuck in misery and deprivation is an illusion. A complete misconception. Simply wrong.


Help! The Majority Is Missing

If the majority doesn’t live in low-income countries, then where does it live? Surely not in high-income countries?

How do you like your bath water? Ice cold or steam hot? Of course, those are not the only alternatives. You can also have your water freezing, tepid, scalding, or anything in between. Many options, along a range.


FACT QUESTION 2

Where does the majority of the world population live?

A: Low-income countries

B: Middle-income countries

C: High-income countries

The majority of people live neither in low-income countries nor in high-income countries, but in middle-income countries. This category doesn’t exist in the divided mind-set, but in reality it definitely exists. It’s where 75 percent of humanity lives, right there where the gap is supposed to be. Or, to put it another way, there is no gap.

Combining middle- and high-income countries, that makes 91 percent of humanity, most of whom have integrated into the global market and made great progress toward decent lives. This is a happy realization for humanitarians and a crucial realization for global businesses. There are 5 billion potential consumers out there, improving their lives in the middle, and wanting to consume shampoo, motorcycles, menstrual pads, and smartphones. You can easily miss them if you go around thinking they are “poor.”


So What Should “We” Call “Them” Instead?

The Four Levels

I am often quite rude about the term “developing countries” in my presentations.

Afterward, people ask me, “So what should we call them instead?” But listen carefully. It’s the same misconception: we and them. What should “we” call “them” instead?

What we should do is stop dividing countries into two groups. It doesn’t make sense anymore. It doesn’t help us to understand the world in a practical way. It doesn’t help businesses find opportunities, and it doesn’t help aid money to find the poorest people.

But we need to do some kind of sorting to make sense of the world. We can’t give up our old labels and replace them with … nothing. What should we do?

One reason the old labels are so popular is that they are so simple. But they are wrong! So, to replace them, I will now suggest an equally simple but more relevant and useful way of dividing up the world. Instead of dividing the world into two groups I will divide it into four income levels, as set out in the image below.


Each figure in the chart represents 1 billion people, and the seven figures show how the current world population is spread out across four income levels, expressed in terms of dollar income per day. You can see that most people are living on the two middle levels, where people have most of their basic human needs met.

Are you excited? You should be. Because the four income levels are the first, most important part of your new fact-based framework. They are one of the simple thinking tools I promised would help you to guess better about the world. Throughout the book you will see how the levels provide a simple way to understand all kinds of things, from terrorism to sex education. So I want to try to explain what life is like on each of these four levels.

Think of the four income levels as the levels of a computer game. Everyone wants to move from Level 1 to Level 2 and upward through the levels from there. Only, it’s a very strange computer game, because Level 1 is the hardest.

Let’s play.

LEVEL 1. You start on Level 1 with $1 per day. Your five children have to spend hours walking barefoot with your single plastic bucket, back and forth, to fetch water from a dirty mud hole an hour’s walk away. On their way home they gather firewood, and you prepare the same gray porridge that you’ve been eating at every meal, every day, for your whole life—except during the months when the meager soil yielded no crops and you went to bed hungry. One day your youngest daughter develops a nasty cough. Smoke from the indoor fire is weakening her lungs. You can’t afford antibiotics, and one month later she is dead. This is extreme poverty. Yet you keep struggling on. If you are lucky and the yields are good, you can maybe sell some surplus crops and manage to earn more than $2 a day, which would move you to the next level. Good luck! (Roughly 1 billion people live like this today.)

LEVEL 2. You’ve made it. In fact, you’ve quadrupled your income and now you earn $4 a day. Three extra dollars every day. What are you going to do with all this money? Now you can buy food that you didn’t grow yourself, and you can afford chickens, which means eggs. You save some money and buy sandals for your children, and a bike, and more plastic buckets. Now it takes you only half an hour to fetch water for the day. You buy a gas stove so your children can attend school instead of gathering wood. When there’s power they do their homework under a bulb. But the electricity is too unstable for a freezer. You save up for mattresses so you don’t have to sleep on the mud floor. Life is much better now, but still very uncertain. A single illness and you would have to sell most of your possessions to buy medicine. That would throw you back to Level 1 again. Another three dollars a day would be good, but to experience really drastic improvement you need to quadruple again. If you can land a job in the local garment industry you will be the first member of your family to bring home a salary. (Roughly 3 billion people live like this today.)

LEVEL 3. Wow! You did it! You work multiple jobs, 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and manage to quadruple your income again, to $16 a day. Your savings are impressive and you install a cold-water tap. No more fetching water. With a stable electric line the kids’ homework improves and you can buy a fridge that lets you store food and serve different dishes each day. You save to buy a motorcycle, which means you can travel to a better-paying job at a factory in town. Unfortunately you crash on your way there one day and you have to use money you had saved for your children’s education to pay the medical bills. You recover, and thanks to your savings you are not thrown back a level. Two of your children start high school. If they manage to finish, they will be able to get better-paying jobs than you have ever had. To celebrate, you take the whole family on its first-ever vacation, one afternoon to the beach, just for fun. (Roughly 2 billion people live like this today.)

LEVEL 4. You have more than $64 a day. You are a rich consumer and three more dollars a day makes very little difference to your everyday life. That’s why you think three dollars, which can change the life of someone living in extreme poverty, is not a lot of money. You have more than twelve years of education and you have been on an airplane on vacation. You can eat out once a month and you can buy a car. Of course you have hot and cold water indoors.

But you know about this level already. Since you are reading this book, I’m pretty sure you live on Level 4. I don’t have to describe it for you to understand. The difficulty, when you have always known this high level of income, is to understand the huge differences between the other three levels. People on Level 4 must struggle hard not to misunderstand the reality of the other 6 billion people in the world. (Roughly 1 billion people live like this today.)

I’ve described the progress up the levels as if one person managed to move through several levels. That is very unusual. Often it takes several generations for a family to move from Level 1 to Level 4. I hope though that you now have a clear picture of the kinds of lives people live on different levels; a sense that it is possible to move through the levels, both for individuals and for countries; and above all the understanding that there are not just two kinds of lives.

Human history started with everyone on Level 1. 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 population was still on Level 1, in extreme poverty.

Today the vast majority of people are spread out in the middle, across Levels 2 and 3, with the same range of standards of living as people had in Western Europe and North America in the 1950s. And this has been the case for many years.

The Gap Instinct

The gap instinct is very strong. The first time I lectured to the staff of the World Bank was in 1999. I told them the labels “developing” and “developed” were no longer valid and I swallowed my sword. It took the World Bank 17 years and 14 more of my lectures before it finally announced publicly that it was dropping the terms “developing” and “developed” and would from now on divide the world into four income groups. The UN and most other global organizations have still not made this change.

So why is the misconception of a gap between the rich and the poor so hard to change?

I think this is because human beings have a strong dramatic instinct toward binary thinking, a basic urge to divide things into two distinct groups, with nothing but an empty gap in between. We love to dichotomize. Good versus bad. Heroes versus villains. My country versus the rest. Dividing the world into two distinct sides is simple and intuitive, and also dramatic because it implies conflict, and we do it without thinking, all the time.

Journalists know this. They set up their narratives as conflicts between two opposing people, views, or groups. They prefer stories of extreme poverty and billionaires to stories about the vast majority of people slowly dragging themselves toward better lives. Journalists are storytellers. So are people who produce documentaries and movies. Documentaries pit the fragile individual against the big, evil corporation. Blockbuster movies usually feature good fighting evil.

The gap instinct makes us imagine division where there is just a smooth range, difference where there is convergence, and conflict where there is agreement. It is the first instinct on our list because it’s so common and distorts the data so fundamentally. If you look at the news or click on a lobby group’s website this evening, you will probably notice stories about conflict between two groups, or phrases like “the increasing gap.”

How to Control the Gap Instinct

There are three common warning signs that someone might be telling you (or you might be telling yourself) an overdramatic gap story and triggering your gap instinct. Let’s call them comparisons of averages, comparisons of extremes, and the view from up here.

Comparisons of Averages

All you averages out there, please do not take offense at what I am about to say. I love averages. They are a quick way to convey information, they often tell us something useful, and modern societies couldn’t function without them. Nor could this book. There will be many averages in this book. But any simplification of information may also be misleading, and averages are no exception. Averages mislead by hiding a spread (a range of different numbers) in a single number.

When we compare two averages, we risk misleading ourselves even more by focusing on the gap between those two single numbers, and missing the overlapping spreads, the overlapping ranges of numbers, that make up each average. That is, we see gaps that are not really there.

Look at the two (unrelated) graphs here, for example:

The graph on the left shows the gap between the average math scores of men and women taking SAT tests in the United States, for every year since 1965. The graph on the right shows the gap between the average income of people living in Mexico and the United States. Look at the huge differences between the two lines in each graph. Men versus women. United States versus Mexico. These graphs seem to show that men are better at math than women, and that people living in the United States have a higher income than Mexicans. And in a sense this is true. It is what the numbers say. But in what sense? To what extent? Are all men better than all women? Are all US citizens richer than all Mexicans?

Let’s get a better sense of the reality behind the numbers. First, let’s change the scale on the vertical axis. Using the same numbers, we now get a very different impression. Now the “gap” seems almost gone.


Now let’s look at the same data in a third way. Instead of looking at the averages each year, let’s look at the range of math scores, or incomes, in one particular year.

Now we get a sense of all the individuals who were bundled into the average number. Look! There is an almost complete overlap between men and women’s math scores. The majority of women have a male math twin: a man with the same math score as they do. When it comes to incomes in Mexico and the United States, the overlap is there but it is only partial. What is clear, though, looking at the data this way, is that the two groups of people—men and women, Mexicans and people living in the United States—are not separate at all. They overlap. There is no gap.

Of course, gap stories can reflect reality. In apartheid South Africa, black people and white people lived on different income levels and there was a true gap between them, with almost no overlap. The gap story of separate groups was absolutely relevant.

But apartheid was very unusual. Much more often, gap stories are a misleading overdramatization. In most cases there is no clear separation of two groups, even if it seems like that from the averages. We almost always get a more accurate picture by digging a little deeper and looking not just at the averages but at the spread: not just the group all bundled together, but the individuals. Then we often see that apparently distinct groups are in fact very much overlapping.

Comparisons of Extremes

We are naturally drawn to extreme examples, and they are easy to recall. For example, if we are thinking about global inequality we might think about the stories we have seen on the news about famine in South Sudan, on the one hand, and our own comfortable reality on the other. If we are asked to think about different kinds of government systems, we might quickly recall on the one hand corrupt, oppressive dictatorships and on the other hand countries like Sweden, with great welfare systems and benevolent bureaucrats dedicating their lives to safeguarding the rights of all citizens.

These stories of opposites are engaging and provocative and tempting—and very effective for triggering our gap instinct—but they rarely help understanding. There will always be the richest and the poorest, there will always be the worst regimes and the best. But the fact that extremes exist doesn’t tell us much. The majority is usually to be found in the middle, and it tells a very different story.

Take Brazil, one of the world’s most unequal countries. The richest 10 percent in Brazil earns 41 percent of the total income. Disturbing, right? It sounds too high. We quickly imagine an elite stealing resources from all the rest. The media support that impression with images of the very richest—often not the richest 10 percent but probably the richest 0.1 percent, the ultra-rich—and their boats, horses, and huge mansions.

Yes, the number is disturbingly high. At the same time, it hasn’t been this low for many years.


Statistics are often used in dramatic ways for political purposes, but it’s important that they also help us navigate reality. Let’s now look at the incomes of the Brazilian population across the four levels.

Most people in Brazil have left extreme poverty. The big hump is on Level 3. That’s where you get a motorbike and reading glasses, and save money in a bank to pay for high school and someday buy a washing machine. In reality, even in one of the world’s most unequal countries, there is no gap. Most people are in the middle.

The View from Up Here

As I mentioned, if you are reading this book you probably live on Level 4. Even if you live in a middle-income country, meaning the average income is on Level 2 or 3—like Mexico, for example—you yourself probably live on Level 4 and your life is probably similar in important ways to the lives of the people living on Level 4 in San Francisco, Stockholm, Rio, Cape Town, and Beijing. The thing known as poverty in your country is different from “extreme poverty.” It’s “relative poverty.” In the United States, for example, people are classified as below the poverty line even if they live on Level 3.

So the struggles people go through on Levels 1, 2, and 3 will most likely be completely unfamiliar to you. And they are not described in any helpful way in the mass media you consume. 

Your most important challenge in developing a fact-based worldview is to realize that most of your firsthand experiences are from Level 4; and that your secondhand experiences are filtered through the mass media, which loves nonrepresentative extraordinary events and shuns normality.

When you live on Level 4, everyone on Levels 3, 2, and 1 can look equally poor, and the word poor can lose any specific meaning. Even a person on Level 4 can appear poor: maybe the paint on their walls is peeling, or maybe they are driving a used car. Anyone who has looked down from the top of a tall building knows that it is difficult to assess from there the differences in height of the buildings nearer the ground. They all look kind of small. In the same way, it is natural for people living on Level 4 to see the world as divided into just two categories: rich (at the top of the building, like you) and poor (down there, not like you). It is natural to look down and say “oh, they are all poor.” It is natural to miss the distinctions between the people with cars, the people with motorbikes and bicycles, the people with sandals, and the people with no shoes at all.

I assure you, because I have met and talked with people who live on every level, that for the people living on the ground on Levels 1, 2, and 3, the distinctions are crucial. People living in extreme poverty on Level 1 know very well how much better life would be if they could move from $1 a day to $4 a day, not to mention $16 a day. People who have to walk everywhere on bare feet know how a bicycle would save them tons of time and effort and speed them to the market in town, and to better health and wealth.

The four-level framework, the replacement for the overdramatic “divided” worldview, is the first and most important part of the fact-based framework you will learn in this book. Now you have learned it. It isn’t too difficult, is it? I will use the four levels throughout the rest of the book to explain all kinds of things, including elevators, drownings, sex, cookery, and rhinos. They will help you to see the world more clearly and get it right more often.

What do you need to hunt, capture, and replace misconceptions? Data. You have to show the data and describe the reality behind it. So thank you, UNICEF data tables, thank you, bubble graphs, and thank you, internet. But you also need something more. Misconceptions disappear only if there is some equally simple but more relevant way of thinking to replace them. That’s what the four levels do.

Factfulness

Factfulness is … recognizing when a story talks about a gap, and remembering that this paints a picture of two separate groups, with a gap in between. The reality is often not polarized at all. Usually the majority is right there in the middle, where the gap is supposed to be.

To control the gap instinct, look for the majority.

• Beware comparisons of averages. If you could check the spreads you would probably find they overlap. There is probably no gap at all.

• Beware comparisons of extremes. In all groups, of countries or people, there are some at the top and some at the bottom. The difference is sometimes extremely unfair. But even then the majority is usually somewhere in between, right where the gap is supposed to be.

• The view from up here. Remember, looking down from above distorts the view. Everything else looks equally short, but it’s not.





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