In my previous article, I had looked inside Ravan’s five heads (covered five instincts dissected in the book Factfulness by Hans Rosling. In this article, I cover the next five heads, i.e., the next five reasons why we are wrong about the world – and why things are better than we think.
The Generalisation instinct: Unconsciously everyone automatically categorises and generalises all the time. The necessary and useful instinct to generalise can also distort our worldview. It can make us mistakenly group together things, or people, or countries that are actually very different. And it can make us jump to conclusions about a whole category based on a few, or even just one, unusual example.
Factfulness is recognising when a category is being used in an explanation, and remembering that categories can be misleading. We can’t stop generalisation but we should try to avoid generalising incorrectly. To control the generalisation instinct, question your categories.
- Look for differences within groups. Especially when the groups are large, look for ways to split them into smaller, more precise categories.
- Look for similarities across groups. If you find striking similarities between different groups, consider whether your categories are relevant.
- Look for differences across groups. Do not assume that what applies for one group applies for another.
- Beware of “the majority.” The majority just means more than half. Ask whether it means 51 percent, 99 percent, or something in between.
- Beware of vivid examples. Vivid images are easier to recall but they might be the exception rather than the rule.
The Destiny Instinct: The destiny instinct is the idea that innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, countries, religions, or culture. It’s the idea that things are as they are for inescapable reasons: they have always been this way and will never change. This instinct makes us believe that some false generalisations are not only true but are unchanging and unchangeable. Historically, humans lived in surroundings that didn’t change very much. Learning how things worked and then assuming they will continue to work that way rather than constantly reevaluating was probably an excellent survival strategy.
Factfulness is recognising that many things (including people, countries, religions, and cultures) appear to be constant just because the change is happening slowly, and remembering that even small, slow changes gradually add up to big changes. To control the destiny instinct, remember slow change is still change.
- Keep track of gradual improvements. A small change every year can translate to a huge change over time.
- Update your knowledge. Some knowledge goes out of date quickly. Technology, countries, societies, cultures, and religions are constantly changing.
- Talk to Grandpa. If you want to be reminded of how values have changed, think about your grandparents’ values and how they differ from yours.
- Collect examples of cultural change. Challenge the idea that today’s culture must also have been yesterday’s, and will also be tomorrow’s.
The Single Perspective Instinct: People find simple ideas very attractive. We enjoy that moment of insight when we feel that really understand or know something. To make things simple, we tend to believe that all problems have a single cause or all problems have a single solution. This preference for single causes and single solutions is called the single perspective instinct. E.g., free markets idea can lead to the simplistic idea that all problems have a single cause – government interference – which we must always oppose.
Factfulness is recognising that a single perspective can limit your imagination, and remembering that it is better to look at problems from many angles to get a more accurate understanding and find practical solutions. To control the single perspective instinct, get a toolbox, not a hammer.
- Test your ideas. Don’t only collect examples that show how excellent your favorite ideas are. Have people who disagree with you test your ideas and find their weaknesses.
- Limited expertise. Don’t claim expertise beyond your field: be humble about what you don’t know. Be aware too of the limits of the expertise of others.
- Be open to ideas from other fields. If you are good with a tool, you may want to use it too often. If you have analysed a problem in depth, you can end up exaggerating the importance of that problem or of your solution.
- Numbers, but not only numbers. The world cannot be understood without numbers, and it cannot be understood with numbers alone.
- Beware of simple ideas and simple solutions. 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.
The Blame Instinct: It is the instinct to find a clear simple reason for why something bad has happened. We like to believe that things happen because someone wanted them to, that individuals have power: otherwise, the world feels unpredictable, confusing, and frightening. The instinct to find a guilty party makes us exaggerate the importance of individuals or of particular groups and derails our ability to develop a true, fact-based understanding of the world.
Factfulness is recognising when a scapegoat is being used and remembering that blaming an individual often steals the focus from other possible explanations and blocks our ability to prevent similar problems in the future. To control the blame instinct, resist finding a scapegoat.
- Look for causes, not villains. When something goes wrong don’t look for an individual or a group to blame. Accept that bad things can happen without anyone intending them to. Instead spend your energy on understanding the multiple interacting causes, or system, that created the situation.
- Look for systems, not heroes. When someone claims to have caused something good, ask whether the outcome might have happened anyway, even if that individual had done nothing. Give the system some credit.
The Urgency Instinct: Hans argues that urgency is one of the worst distorters of our worldview. The urgency instinct makes us want to take immediate action in the face of a perceived imminent danger. It may have served us well in the distant past by saving us from predators. It makes us stressed, blocks us from thinking analytically, tempts us to make up our mind too fast, and encourages us to take drastic actions that we haven’t thought through.
Factfulness is recognising when a decision feels urgent and remembering that it rarely is. To control the urgency instinct, take small steps.
- Take a breath. When your urgency instinct is triggered, your other instincts kick in and your analysis shuts down. Ask for more time and more information. It’s rarely now or never and it’s rarely either/or.
- Insist on the data. If something is urgent and important, it should be measured. Beware of data that is relevant but inaccurate, or accurate but irrelevant. Only relevant and accurate data is useful.
- Beware of fortune-tellers. Any prediction about the future is uncertain. Be wary of predictions that fail to acknowledge that. Insist on a full range of scenarios, never just the best or worst case. Ask how often such predictions have been right before.
- Be wary of drastic action. Ask what the side effects will be. Ask how the idea has been tested. Step-by-step practical improvements and evaluation of their impact are less dramatic but usually more effective.
Hans warns us against the urgency instinct and also gives the example of this book, telling the reader that it is okay to put the book down midway and then pick it up after a month or a year to finish it as it is never an either/or scenario. However, I would like to contradict him and my suggestion to you will be to buy this book NOW, even if you don’t have any plan to read it in the near future. This book ranks very high in my list of books to read for self-development. If you have it with you, chances are that sooner or later, you may pick it up and read it!